Teaching as Assemblage: Negotiating Learning and Practice in the First Year of Teaching

From Section:
Beginning Teachers
Jul. 01, 2015

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, 66(4), 321–333, (2015).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This case study aimed to examine the construction of teaching practices of a first-year science teacher in an urban school setting to illustrate the non-linear nature of teaching activity.

This study uses concepts from rhizomatics, a non-linear theory of thought and social activity, and elements of postmodern grounded theory.
The participant was a 25-year-old second-generation Cuban–Colombian who identified as gay.
Through his middle and high school years, the participant developed an interest in the sciences, and he later attended Harvard to study environmental science.
He took a position with the NUTR, because it provided an opportunity to pursue his goals of teaching about environmental social justice issues.
After graduating from the NUTR, he accepted a position at Lincoln High School teaching freshman (9th grade) environmental science and 11th/12th grade earth science, both of which were “low-track” classes.

Data were collected data over a 5-month period encompassing one high school semester (September-January).
The sources of data for the study included observations, observation debriefs, and formal interviews.


The author contends that by examining the confluence of elements present in the settings where new teachers teach and the ways those elements work together to shape practice, teacher education researchers will help advance the field’s understanding of teacher learning as continually transforming in relation to the teacher’s own experiences, her students, the classroom and school context, and the broader state and federal policies that bear down on her teaching.
This, in turn, will help the teacher education community better grasp the complex relationship between pre-professional learning and how that learning is enacted in classrooms.
Assemblages are multiplicities, collectives of elements that work together for a particular purpose.
Extending this concept to the participant’s case, the confluence of elements in his earth science and environmental science classes can be considered teaching-assemblages, each of which operated to construct particular teaching practices.
The elements present in the assemblages included aspects of the teacher himself, students, and context.
Considering the participant’s two sets of classes as their own teaching-assemblages—in other words, as amalgams of teacher–students–classroom–school and broader policy context elements—allows for a more complex discussion of teaching, one that recognizes practice as constructed by a multitude of influences, rather than a set of actions fully controlled by the teacher.

Using “assemblage” as an analytic construct—that is, examining the constituent parts of Mauro’s classes and the way they work together—generates a nuanced view of the production of the participant’s divergent teaching practices and a more complex understanding of the ways his preservice learning influenced them.
Although the earth science and environmental science assemblages had some elements in common, these “came into composition” with each assemblage differently.
In the earth science classes, freedom from district-wide testing, familiarity with the subject matter and curriculum, and relatively small classes worked well with the maturity of the upperclassmen to provide conditions that enabled him to enact pedagogy informed by his preservice learning.
The participant was also able to build relationships with his upperclassmen that facilitated their cooperation with the student-centered instructional practices he brought to teaching from his preservice program.
In contrast, lacking the same level of student cooperation afforded by his upperclassmen, he made his teaching more rigid and teacher-led, echoing the patterns of traditional, transmission-based instruction his preservice program sought to disrupt.
His different teaching-assemblages, and the ways the various sets of elements worked together to produce different results, provide insight into the complex, non-linear process of enacting practices learned in teacher preparation programs.
The data analyzed here suggest that enacting teaching strategies learned in preservice preparation in the first year of teaching is a complex undertaking shaped by the ways in which elements in a “teaching-assemblage” come together.
While the participant’s preservice learning was certainly an influence on his teaching practices, that knowledge was only one of many factors shaping his first-year teaching. If no linear relationship exists between preservice learning and inservice practice, it follows, then, that linking a pre-professional program and the “outcomes” of its graduates is a vague connection at best.


In the current climate of reforms driven by market logic and a privileging of transactional, linear views of teaching, undertaking research that allows for the investigation of teacher learning and practice as complex phenomena is crucial. Non-linear conceptual and methodological frameworks move the focus from “outcomes” to the actual ontology of practice.
That is, these new lenses and tools turn the attention to the processes through which outcomes are produced.
For example, in this study, the author used the concept of assemblage to highlight the multiple, collectively produced nature of teaching.

By turning a spotlight to the ontology of teaching—that is, by attending to the “how” of teaching activity—we can investigate and document the fundamentally relational, non-linear nature of teaching and refute the reductionist conceptions that undergird current educational policy and reforms.
To do so, however, researchers must advocate for an ontological turn in teacher education research that focuses on the process(es) of teaching, rather than the outcomes alone.

Updated: Nov. 22, 2019
Beginning teachers | Case studies | Instructional practices | Science teachers | Urban education