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Eliciting Student Thinking in Elementary Math: What Skills Do Preservice Teachers Bring?

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online—just log in with your AACTE profile here.

In the January/February 2018 issue of JTE, Meghan Shaughnessy and Timothy A. Boerst of the University of Michigan authored an article titled “Uncovering the Skills That Preservice Teachers Bring to Teacher Education: The Practice of Eliciting a Student’s Thinking.” The article is summarized in the following abstract:

Although teacher education is the formal means by which novices are prepared for teaching, they come having already had significant experience in schools. Preservice teachers have formed habits of “teaching” which influence their learning to teach. This article reports a study of the specific knowledge of and skills with teaching practice that novices bring to teacher education with respect to one teaching practice, eliciting student thinking in elementary mathematics, and describes the use of a standardized teaching simulation to learn about novices’ skills. The findings reveal details about preservice teachers’ skills and habits of practice at the point that they enter formal teacher preparation. Preservice teachers’ ways of carrying out this particular practice are categorized into three distinct categories: (a) skills that need to be learned, (b) skills that can be built on, and (c) approaches that need to be unlearned.

The authors reflect on their article and research in this recent interview for the JTE Insider blog:

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: Our research has been influenced by shifts at multiple levels toward practice-based teacher education. On the national scene, our research is spurred by the confluence of three factors. First, there has been a movement in the field towards practice-focused and content-serious approaches to teacher education. Second, investigations of the preparation of professionals in other fields focused on human improvement and well-being have suggested new possibilities for work in teacher education (Grossman et al., 2009). Third, there is growing evidence that past approaches to teacher education have not successfully prepared classroom-ready, resilient professionals to address the pervasive and persistent inequitable outcomes evident in K-12 education.

At the institutional level, we were a part of a programmatic reconceptualization of the University of Michigan elementary teacher education program. Along with our colleagues, we sought to develop a teacher education program that prepared well-started beginners. By that, we mean novice teachers who are positioned to do the complex work of teaching from the moment that they have classrooms of their own. This resulted in focusing our program on high-leverage teaching practices, content knowledge for teaching, and professional ethical obligations. As instructors, we were and still are heavily involved in designing, implementing, and improving our mathematics methods courses. When we considered the national and institutional context along with our own work as teacher educators, it was apparent that innovations in assessment were necessary. The field needs to explore and study approaches that will enhance our ability to assess the growing skills and capabilities of preservice teachers.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: Eliciting student thinking is core to K-12 instruction because it enables teachers to build on the resources that children bring to instruction. This is a crucial focus in a time when it is well-documented that many teachers focus on “deficits” rather than the extensive resources that children bring to school. Likewise, this same orientation should influence our own conduct as teacher educators. To support meaningful learning, teacher educators need to know about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of those they teach. For us, this was particularly important because the redesign of our teacher education program required us to work in novel ways. Information about the initial skills and capabilities of our preservice teachers could play a pivotal role in shaping our nascent designs. In addition, prior studies of teacher education and preservice teachers do not provide much information about the skills with specific practices of teaching that novices bring to teacher education. Since our teacher education program was focused on influencing what beginning teachers do, not just what they think, it was necessary to collect this information.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

A: We are engaged in studies with the potential to expand the use of simulations by addressing key challenges and exploring additional purposes. One study focuses on the assessment design challenge of developing relatively authentic contexts in which preservice teachers can use teaching practices and mathematical knowledge as they elicit the thinking of a “student.” For us, simulation design requires the articulation of protocols that approximate a student’s reasoning and talking about a particular mathematical situation. This includes specific language, representations, and inclinations to share specific ideas. In our early work, we developed simulation protocols based largely on the “wisdom of practice” honed through years of work with students on particular mathematics content. It is easy to imagine the limits of such an approach, especially being mindful of the eventual need to develop simulations relevant to a broad array of mathematical topics, developmental levels of students, ways of talking and interacting, and ways of thinking about and approach particular tasks. With these needs and challenges in mind, we are studying the affordances of resources such as learning trajectories research and interviews with students for designing simulation protocols. Our hope is to generate tools and guidance that would make design work more systematic and accessible.

In a second area of work, we are branching out from our design and use of simulations as assessments to explore the use of simulations to support preservice teachers in learning mathematics. This is both a re-envisioning of the simulations we have designed and a conscious uptake of the uses of simulations in many other professional fields. Our work was spurred by anecdotal evidence that preservice teachers appeared to be deepening their understanding of mathematics through participating in simulation assessments. For example, we have heard preservice teachers describe changing their minds about mathematical ideas on the basis of participation in a simulation. We have also had preservice teachers comment to us, several months after a simulation experience, about mathematical understandings that they believed that they developed in the simulation. While we know that assessment situations can also serve as opportunities to learn, in this study we are working to design simulations whose primary purpose is to catalyze learning. Through this study we seek to understand the design features of simulations that can support an array of mathematical learning outcomes for preservice teachers.

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