Middle school teachers cite biggest obstacle to increasing the challenge of instruction

Schoolchildren and teacher in science class“Some kids come in with a little sign that says I’m only going to do this, okay, so don’t expect too much of me.”  –Middle school teacher

Pressures on teachers to make instruction more challenging come from above (administrators and policymakers), within (one’s own sense of self-efficacy) and below (student pushback).

In a study published in The Elementary School Journal, teachers report feeling the greatest pressure from the students themselves, who put up resistance to working harder at learning.

To obtain a more uncensored view of the pressures teachers feel, researchers recorded the comments of 34 teachers at a midwestern middle school during professional development meetings and workshops and then coded the comments. Teachers cited pressure  from students more often than pressures from standardized-testing, curriculum and time constraints.

“This was surprising given that pressures from above related to high-stakes testing, new standards, and teacher performance evaluations are intensifying in the United States,” the researchers write. “The present study takes a new look at teachers’ views of challenge and pressures by grounding our understanding in teachers’ perceptions and experiences, which they disclosed during professional development meetings,” the researchers write.

The professional development sessions were focused on discussing strategies teachers could use to increase the challenge of instruction in their classrooms. Previous research has relied on self-report surveys to examine the pressures on teachers and how they might affect their instructional choices.

Researchers made audio-recordings of the 16 sessions and then divided teacher comments into the following 3 broad categories: (1) perceived pressures related to challenging instruction, (2) positive affect about challenge, and (3) reported use of challenging instruction.

The perceived pressures related to challenging instruction were coded as pressures from above, within or below. When teachers discussed the value or importance of challenging students, enthusiasm about trying  a strategy to challenge students or awareness of the positive outcomes of challenge, these comments were coded as positive affect about challenge.  Negative affect was not coded because it was difficult to differentiate whether teachers were expressing negative feelings at the idea of challenging students, the pressures or general professional development. The researchers note that negative comments were common with only 3 teachers.

Teachers referred to pressures 273 times across the 16 meetings. The most commonly reported pressures were a lack of student effort, student resistance to challenge, and time constraints.

Different pressures by subject area

Math teachers reported more pressures from above than teachers in other subject areas, especially time constraints and standardized testing.  Math teachers also tended to be more skeptical about the value and practicality of offering challenging instruction because they felt this could backfire by hindering students’ learning or achievement.  Language arts teachers rarely cited standardized testing or the curriculum as obstacles or as pressures and social studies teachers were most likely to report feeling pressures over curriculum.

The specific types of pressures most commonly mentioned by teachers were:

Pressures from above:  Time constraints, curriculum and standardized testing.

Pressures from within: Low efficacy with pedagogy, teachers’ need for control and the worry that more challenging instruction would undermine students’ learning or achievement.

Pressures from below: Students’ lack of effort, resistance to challenge and achievement level.

According to the researchers, teachers who had the most positive attitude toward challenging their students reported success using the following strategies and practices as motivation:

Initiate whole-class conversations. When students resist an assignment or task, initiate a class discussion about the purpose of the activity and/or the feelings students are experiencing.

Provide emotional or motivational support. Help students feel comfortable or confident during challenging tasks with encouraging remarks and by reminding them that mistakes are part of learning.

Scaffold students’ thinking. Encourage low-achieving students to participate early in a discussion so that you can “bump them” to higher-level-questions as the discussion progresses.

Increase student autonomy. If you notice that some students don’t do much thinking during group work, require that each individual group member be able to answer the question under consideration.

“The perception and implementation of challenging instruction by middle school teachers,” by Sara Fulmer and Julianne Turner, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 114, Number 3, pp. 303-326.

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