Making sense through dissonance during preservice teacher preparation

January 2022

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 109

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This case study examines how to organize teacher education activities for synthesis during a Capstone course immediately following a year of coursework and student-teaching.
In this case study, the authors pursue two research questions:
1) How did dialogue about practitioner inquiry among a community of preservice teachers deepen sense-making about teaching and learning science?
2) How did tensions and dissonance experienced by preservice teachers shape their opportunities to learn?
They argue that using dialogic pedagogy in teacher preparation may be a key for re-orienting preservice teachers toward pedagogies that they want to embrace hopefully buffering against “wash out” of teacher preparation.

This qualitative case study focuses on a Capstone course during a summer session at the end of a 14-month Master's degree program for preservice science teachers attending a large university in the midwestern United States.
Prior to this Capstone course, preservice teachers spent a full academic year engaged in student teaching in local secondary schools and concurrent Master's degree coursework focused on principles and methods of science teaching, theories of learning, and the sociocultural and political foundations of education.
In the final months of student-teaching, preservice science teachers began a practitioner inquiry project gathering samples of student work and collecting audio and video recordings in their science classrooms as they pursued a research question about something puzzling about their students' learning.
These initial practitioner inquiry projects carried forward into the summer Capstone course where preservice teachers analyzed artifacts and prepared both a Master's thesis and a research presentation given at a teacher research colloquium at the end of the summer session.
The Capstone course was strategically designed to engage preservice teachers in deliberative dialogues with peers and a facilitator using a Critical Friends Group (CFG) format. CFGs are one example of decentralized, teacher-facilitated professional learning communities that encourage practitioner inquiry and problem posing dialogues among educators often using structured conversation protocols (Curry, 2008; National School Reform Faculty, n.d.).
CFGs during the Capstone course engaged preservice teachers in discussions of dilemmas about teaching and learning anchored by artifacts such as student work samples.
Tools including conversation protocols and agreed-upon community norms provided a structure for CFG discussions (National School Reform Faculty, n.d.).
In the case of the CFGs in the Capstone course, dialogues focused on each preservice teacher's practitioner inquiry project with the goal of helping prospective teachers make sense of dilemmas.
Over the 30 Capstone sessions, each preservice teacher presented their work-in-progress at least twice.
Some sessions did not include a CFG dialogue and instead focused on reading scholarly literature, learning qualitative data analysis methods, writing the formal Master's thesis, and preparing research presentations.
The Capstone culminated in a research colloquium where preservice teachers presented insights gained from practitioner inquiry.
University faculty, family members, and mentor teachers from local schools attended the research colloquium at the end of the summer session.

This qualitative case study focused on practitioner inquiry experiences of one Critical Friends Group (CFG) as an instrumental case (Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995).
Instrumental case studies aim to understand the particularities of a case in order to build and refine theories that can help illuminate how situations, conditions, and variations shape experiences (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2017; Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995).
This means that findings from this case can help to generate understandings about teacher learning and help to refine or extend existing theorizing about pedagogies used during preservice teacher preparation.

Data sources
The authors generated data from three sources:
1) field notes taken during sessions,
2) semi-structured interviews at the mid-point of the Capstone, and
3) review of artifacts at the end of the Capstone. Persistent data generation through triangulated data sources across multiple participants can help to build credibility and trustworthiness during case study research (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, 2013).

Data analysis
The first and second author began data analysis by reading through all data sources looking for initial ideas from preservice teachers that might help inform their two research questions:
1) How did dialogue about practitioner inquiry among a community of preservice teachers deepen sense-making about teaching and learning science?
2) How did tensions and dissonance experienced by preservice teachers shape opportunities to learn?

Findings and discussion

Preservice teachers need scaffolding to synthesize sense-making
One of the central findings from this study could be taken for granted as too obvious to merit discussion.
The authors found that preservice teachers benefitted from extra support in order to synthesize their multiple working theories about teaching and learning and their various commitments and stances.
Participants repeatedly noted how they “felt like fish out of water” as they worked through their analyses and interpretations of classroom artifacts and dilemmas about teaching and learning.
They cited how the tools and routines used to scaffold the work of the Critical Friends Groups offered support encouraging them to listen to, rather than defend against, the insights of their peers.
This study suggests that closer attention to scaffolding in the design of teacher learning experiences is warranted.
In particular, the study found that scaffolding created opportunities to sustain deliberative dialogue routines in ways that made peers' perspectives available as resources for other preservice teachers to use when making sense of their problems of practice.
Participants noted that peers' perspectives helped unearth tacit assumptions and problematize default epistemic stances.
As experienced research scientists, these prospective science teachers drew upon a wealth of prior experiences conducting research in laboratories, industries, public health, and ecological settings.
None of the participants had engaged in practitioner inquiry or in studies of teaching and learning.
As they grappled with their own epistemic stances, including questions about the certainty of evidence and desires to control variables, participants helped each other to unsettle their default epistemologies.
Lefstein (2010) argues that problematizing stances is one of the necessary tensions of dialogic exchanges where peers' questions and friendly, but critical, checks on assumptions can help to fuel shifts in ideas among participants.
With support from scaffolding tools such as the conversation protocol and group norms used in the Capstone course, peers’ perspectives could be offered and taken up in a way that empowered participants to view science teaching and learning from a new standpoint emerging not from an authoritative decree of “best practices” but from sense-making shared among critical friends group peers.
One of the most visible and perhaps most vital shifts in stances provoked by participation in deliberative dialogues is a shift toward re-interpreting science learning experiences and tasks from the students' standpoint.
This finding may illuminate how teacher preparation can support responsiveness to students' thinking.
The authors suspect that contributions and questions from colleagues during deliberative dialogues served as an invitation, or perhaps a push, to look beyond the expected canonical science response and consider how students' contributions were sensible and worthy of attention.
The scaffolding provided by tools and routines and the push provided by peers' perspectives may be critical, then, for supporting preservice teachers to synthesize disparate ideas about student learning, develop stronger interpretive power, and commit to science teaching that is responsive to students’ emerging ideas.

Importance of persisting through dissonance when learning to teach
Preservice teachers in this study experienced dissonance arising from the ideas and questions generated during deliberative dialogues.
Dissonance was expressed as feeling tension or conflict between ideas.
In this particular case study, epistemic dissonance was prominent as participants faced some of their own assumptions about uncertainty, objectivity, and the quest for evidence to inform teaching.
For some preservice teachers whose prior research experiences suggested that data and evidence are “certain,” the inherent uncertainty of data and evidence in classroom settings was initially unsettling.
Luckily, dialogue with peers in CFGs brought epistemic stances into the forefront of discussion as peers with different science research experiences were able to counter these assumptions and support peers as they worked through areas of epistemic dissonance.
While these specific areas of dissonance may be unique to this particular case study, the focus of deliberative dialogues on dilemmas is likely to bring other areas of dissonance to the surface for other groups of preservice teachers.
Persisting with dialogue through these moments of dissonance is important if contradictions are to be generative rather than prohibitive for teachers’ learning.
Preservice teachers described their moments of dissonance, at least initially, as roadblocks prohibiting sense-making.
It is tempting to operate from what Lefstein (2010) considers to be an idealistic image of dialogic pedagogy that smoothly works towards consensus, but the findings are better aligned with a view of dialogic pedagogy as “riddled with tensions” that can, ultimately, be important catalysts for sense-making.
The findings show that preservice teachers described moments of dissonance as key turning points where a peer's idea or question helped to shift, focus, or clarify a facet of their sense-making about teaching and learning science.
Dialogue with peers and facilitators provided an essential support for ensuring that deliberation could be sustained through moments of dissonance even when preservice teachers' initial response to tension was to halt progress.
This suggests that designers of teacher learning experiences should create opportunities that re-mediate preservice teachers’ sense-making with respect to the current state of activity in schools and open up new possibilities to re-imagine how teaching, learning, science, and schooling could work differently (e.g., Gutierrez, 2011).
Grappling with double binds of contradictions by deliberating with colleagues can fuel opportunities to learn by expanding what is possible for people and activities that they pursue together (Engestrom, 1987).
Using deliberative dialogues with critical colleagues as a source of double stimulation invites preservice teachers to engage with contradictions and seek resolutions often in the form of pedagogical imaginaries (e.g., Gutierrez & Calabrese Barton, 2015; Richert, 1997) that can serve as an impetus for agency as future teachers re-committed to justice oriented goals and practices (Athanases & Martin, 2006).

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Updated: Mar. 28, 2022