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JTE Authors: New Taxonomy Facilitates Studying, Improving Teachers’ Collaborative Learning

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the latest author interview below.

In this interview, Ilana Seidel Horn, Brette Garner, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jason Brasel of Vanderbilt University discuss the research behind their recent article, “A Taxonomy of Instructional Learning Opportunities in Teachers’ Workgroup Conversations.” The article is available in the January/February 2017 issue of the journal.

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

A: Teacher community is presumed to contribute in positive ways to teacher learning. For this reason, it is often a part of instructional change efforts. This was the case in a two-district research partnership that we were involved in, yet we saw a real range of teacher communities and their possibilities for contributing meaningfully to instructional change. We wanted to capture this variation in a way that would contribute to the field. We had some existing work to stand on, but it wasn’t at the right grain size. On the one hand, large scale studies in the sociology of education link it to “beating the odds” kinds of outcomes. On the other hand, we have these fine-grained case studies of teacher communities. We were guided by an image Kris Gutierrez gave us: we wanted a “reliable gloss” of these different interactions. In other words, we saw a need to leverage the fine-grained studies to maintain some sense of the interactions that support teacher learning while providing enough simplicity to code a hundred teacher meetings.

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

A: The prevalence of using teacher community as a strategy for teachers’ professional learning compelled us to add nuance to the literature. By purposefully selecting our partner districts’ “best” teacher communities and identifying a small portion that supported transformational teacher learning, we make an argument that what Judith Warren Little described as “the optimistic premise of teacher community” may be just that. Like so many things in education, the structure alone does not support the learning. The quality of interactions that take place matter, and this requires a particular stance and investment in the teacher communities. We hope districts and policymakers take note.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

A: We were surprised by just how different the conversations were in teacher meetings that centered on large-scale assessment data. We have written about these elsewhere, but it was clear that, in most groups, the rituals around data use differed substantively from the other kinds of conversations. We ended up leaving these meetings out of the taxonomy, which was a hard decision, because we had hoped to be exhaustive in our classification.

Q: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

A: We have the great privilege of working on a large project with a rich data set. With our collaborators Ken Frank and I-Chien Chen, we were able to link the classifications of teacher meetings described in this paper to teachers’ social networks. In particular, participating in the dialogic meetings changed teachers’ help seeking behavior outside of the meetings. This is a really exciting finding because it not only supports that our description of professional learning opportunities captures something distinct happening in those groups, but it also confirms the longstanding hunch that when teachers’ collaborative conversations have greater depth, they change their collegial relations.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

A: Our research evidence keeps pointing at the need for richer, well-designed professional learning opportunities for both preservice and in-service teachers to transform their teaching. At the same time, the marketplace of teacher education is converging around a vision of teacher-as-technician. In a context of diminishing resources for teacher education, these lesser forms of preparation and professional development gain more traction. We need to keep linking the richer forms of professional learning to important outcomes for both teachers (e.g., longevity in the profession, a sense of efficacy) and students (e.g., improved learning, positive school engagement).

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