Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teacher leaders take many different paths to leadership positions. Professional development can both influence these paths and encourage some teachers to become leaders who would not otherwise have taken that route. Three speakers at the convocation looked at the intersection of professional development and STEM teacher leadership and described ways to strengthen the connection.
Suzanne Wilson, Neag Endowed Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Connecticut, organized her analysis of professional development under what she called three puzzles.
Three Puzzles of Professional Development
The first puzzle Wilson identified involves the design features of professional development. Researchers have sought to identify the attributes that make professional development effective. Among such attributes, said Wilson, are teachers collaborating and actively engaged in professional development, professional development that is focused on content and student learning, professional development that occurs over time,
and professional development that is coherent and aligned with relevant policies and practices.
However, when tested on a large scale, professional development with these attributes is not always effective. “We are close to understanding things about high-quality professional development, but when we try it on a large scale in experimental settings, we don’t necessarily get the kind of data that would make us confident that these principles would hold,” she stated.
One possibility, Wilson said, is that these are surface features of professional development but not actually the things that matter. For example, devoting lots of time or money to professional development does not mean that it will be meaningful. Perhaps time is instead a proxy for the development of trust, which enables people to form the kinds of relationships that they need to learn. “This is one of the big differences between how schools are organized for beginning teachers and how hospitals are organized for beginning doctors,” Wilson noted. “Beginning doctors are not responsible for their mistakes. There is a supervising physician who is responsible for that person’s mistakes, because they presume that you’re going to make mistakes in learning how to practice…. There is a transition that needs to be supported by expertise, and we don’t have that kind of organization in the structures of schools.”
A second puzzle is that most teacher learning does not happen in formal professional development. Instead, teachers learn in many different contexts, many of which are not designated as professional development. These contexts include research involving networks of teachers, preparation for board certification, curriculum or assessment development, engagement in comprehensive school reform, interaction with the leadership in a school, and everyday experiences in the classroom. To understand these much more widespread forms of professional development, researchers need to synthesize across a much wider field of contexts, said Wilson.
The ubiquity of professional development among teachers contrasts with that of nurses, Wilson noted. Beginning nurses know that they are just beginning and that a vision of expert practice exists. They also know that they are on a learning curve and that what they can do now is different from what they will be able to do 10 years from now. “There is a clear vision of a learning progression, and there are planned opportunities for people to intentionally move along that progression, instead of what we do in teaching, which is pretty much leave it to the individual and throw some things that are available at them in the school district when somebody has the resources,” she noted.
Wilson also made the point that it may make more sense to talk about the development of workforce capacity in teaching and not the develop-
ment of individual people, because teachers are always entering and leaving the profession. “But the institutions they work in have memories, and if we work on the collective, there are things that stay in organizations when an individual leaves,” she suggested. In addition, as she pointed out, not everyone who teaches is extraordinary, and not everybody who teaches is a learner. Millions of people are teachers, and some of them will not voluntarily step up and engage in the kind of professional development that makes a difference for students.
The third puzzle involves research and experience. Today, she asserted, “research” is seen as objective and free from bias, whereas “experience” is seen as subjective and biased. But researchers use many different sources of information to draw conclusions, not just data, and they often do things that are not based on data but nevertheless work. “Yes, we need research,” said Wilson, “but we also need to figure out how to tap into experience in meaningful and productive ways, because there isn’t a field in the world that doesn’t use experience as a very important source for making decisions.” Also, research itself is values laden, Wilson noted, from the questions asked to the methods and instruments used. Teaching can be informed by science, but it is human improvement work, which is not necessarily a science. An excessive focus on science means losing out on an opportunity to tap into teachers’ wisdom.
Conclusions for Research and Practice
From her analysis of the three puzzles, Wilson drew several conclusions regarding professional development. First, researchers need to learn how to do research that can get a handle on the mechanisms at play, she said. For example, the field of evaluation has known for a long time that there are different ways of approaching teacher evaluations that would produce more learning from the evaluation. But most educator evaluation systems have not tapped into that knowledge. “We have to make sure that we know exactly whether assumptions and values are driving the research that we are depending on,” she said.
Second, the work of teaching needs to be systematically enhanced so that people can learn from that work, she said, noting that teacher learning also can be more planned and deliberate rather than accidental and serendipitous, and that teacher leadership can have different goals. As she related, leaders can formulate policy, which requires particular skills and knowledge; they can develop expertise, which then can be disseminated; or they can help disseminate expertise developed by others. “That’s a different end, and it requires a different skill set,” she said. “Learning how to help other people learn is not the same thing as knowing how to teach 10th graders biology. You’re dealing with adults who are very different
than the children whom you work with, so you need more and different skills.”
Third, experience needs to re-enter the dialogue, Wilson stated, even though teachers also need to learn to be critical of experience. In China, for example, teachers have time to study lessons and teaching, but they also have to write about their teaching and present their teaching publicly in front of other teachers for critique.1 “Yes, teachers are given time, but structures are in place that make people more confident that the time they are using to learn from their experiences is well spent, and we don’t have that faith right now in American schools,” Wilson said.
The identification of instructional strategies to build leadership remains “one of the big gaps in our knowledge as a field,” Wilson concluded. Today, teachers mostly have to figure out how to lead on their own. But people have worked hard on trying to identify some of the pedagogies that can help create leaders, such as coaching, team teaching, induction programs, or what is called motivational interviewing, where the questions asked are designed to encourage particular behaviors. She suggested that a particularly intriguing option would be to map out progressions of teacher learning, including lessons that beginning and more experienced teachers need, so they do not become discouraged and leave the profession.
In agriculture, medicine, and transportation, new research results can have an immediate effect on practice, noted Arthur Eisenkraft, distinguished professor of science education, professor of physics, and director of the Center of Science and Math in Context at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. However, he said, that is not necessarily the case in education. For one thing, many teachers do not respect research reports, said Eisenkraft, “because they think the reports are written by people who have no idea what goes on in the classroom—and they are often right.”
Institutions of higher education have a tendency to lack respect for the wisdom of experience. As an example of the ways in which this wisdom can be incorporated into research, Eisenkraft briefly described a research project that takes advantage of recent changes to Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams.2 Teachers have strong incentives to change their
1For additional background about teachers’ work in China, see National Research Council (2010).
2For additional information about these changes, see College Board (2011a, 2011b, 2012). This restructuring of AP science courses is based on recommendations in National Research Council (2002).
teaching to accommodate changes in the courses, since their students go on to take AP exams that provide a measure of teaching effectiveness. The research is looking at the choices that teachers made for professional development to accommodate the changes. “Did they go to workshops, did they read things on the Internet, did they come to small groups? … Maybe we can find an optimized path: If you’ve taught for 12 years and you’re starting AP bio, take A, B, C, and E, but don’t take D, because it won’t impact your student scores,” he said.
He also mentioned the Wipro Science Education Fellowship, a project to foster teacher leaders in small districts in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.3 Teachers are interested in leadership, he acknowledged, but not necessarily on the terms imposed by outside initiatives. One reason may be because teachers tend to work as equals, not as hierarchies. He noted, “Maybe teacher leadership is not, ‘I know what to do, let me help you.’ Maybe it’s teachers learning with other teachers.”
Janet English, a teacher in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in California, recounted an experience she had while visiting schools in Finland, from which she had just returned after a six-month Fulbright fellowship. When asked by a university colleague in Finland how a school visit had gone, she replied that it had gone well. Her colleague said, “Stop being so American. Not everything is good. In Finland, we talk about what is working and what is not working—that way we can have a discussion.” These are the kinds of discussions that can optimize learning for every child, English said.
Both policy leaders and teachers have complex problems that they need to solve, but they are different kinds of problems. Policy makers have to think about who wins and who loses from a given policy, she noted, while teachers need to think about whether they are engaging the learning of a child. For the education system, therefore, the question is how to solve problems within that system, and “whoever is closest to the problems will have the expertise that’s needed to solve the problems best,” English said. Teachers are the professionals who make decisions in the classroom. But many other stakeholders influence those decisions, including policy makers, parents, and business people.
In response to a question about how teachers can lead without alienating their colleagues, who may or may not respect the views of a teacher leader, English observed that teacher leaders need to be extremely careful
3Additional information is available at http://www.umb.edu/cosmic/projects/wipro_science_education_fellowship [September 2014].
when they participate in an activity outside the classroom and come back to their schools to tell other teachers how to do things differently. “Everyone is a teacher leader in their own classroom,” English said. “Everyone has value, and everyone comes to the classroom with different styles. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t change a teacher’s style. They have ways of doing things.” But by concentrating on what is working and what is not working, teachers are less likely to resent outside advice and guidance, she said.