Teacher development: Attention to students’ experience of learning

Diverse Elementary Class“Good teaching responds to students’ learning,” contends Carol R. Rodgers, State University of New York/Albany. Rodgers has experimented with helping groups of teachers attend to students’ learning in greater depth. Rodgers says the power of this reflective process rests in its ability to slow down teachers’ thinking so they can attend to what is happening with students and shift their focus from their teaching to their students’ learning.

A deep knowledge of subject matter is required for this kind of responsive teaching. Without such knowledge, teachers can not take their attention away from their teaching to observe how students are learning.

Rodgers has two goals when she works with teachers. The first is to develop their capacity to observe skillfully and think critically about students and their learning. The second is for them to take intelligent action based on the understanding they develop.

Developing capacity to observe

She begins with putting teachers in the role of learners so they once again become aware of the complex nature of learning. Teachers focus on their own classrooms, bringing videotapes, descriptive summaries and student work to the group, they begin a process of close observation and critical reflection. Teachers’ appreciation of the richness and complexity of their class environments increase, and they become more interested and curious about the work they do.

Rodgers prohibits teachers from giving each other advice right after a problem is presented. The reflective process challenges teachers to describe and analyze an experience before jumping to conclusions. Solutions tend to present themselves after careful description and analysis.

Rodgers encourages teachers to value student feedback as critical to understanding their learning. While much can be learned through careful observation, a great deal is hidden in students’ minds and hearts. Asking students for feedback can be threatening for teachers at first. However, developing a habit of asking for student feedback is a powerful way to shift teachers’ attention to students’ learning. Structured feedback lets teachers ask specific questions of students. It is important that teachers not respond to students’ answers, but instead paraphrase them or ask further probing questions for clarification, writing down students’ responses. This helps teachers listen to the students’ experiences rather than defend or explain their teaching.

Information gathered through structured feedback gives teachers a more detailed picture of their classrooms. They learn to see through their students’ eyes and they become partners with students to increase learning. When teachers show they value students’ perceptions, the learning environment improves.

Getting feedback

Learning to describe what they observe in their classrooms takes practice. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the reflective process because it asks teachers to withhold interpretation of events and postpone the urge to fix the problem. Through collaboration, teachers dig up as many details as possible, and see the problem from different perspectives.

Interpreting events in a group leads teachers to confront their unexamined assumptions about teaching, learning, their students, subject matter, school and ultimately their own values. Rodgers helps teachers distinguish between description and interpretation. They spend several sessions describing moments from their classrooms with the primary objective of slowing down and seeing the details instead of jumping to conclusions. They become aware that their prior knowledge, experience, values, assumptions, needs, desires and fears drive their interpretations of events and their actions.

Rodgers asserts that it is very important, when analyzing classroom events, to focus on individual students rather than a group. Students learn as individuals, and teachers need to connect with each learner. Finally, teachers must learn to think critically and create theories about what they have learned from observation. Then they must test these hypotheses.

Working in a group often reveals that words have different meanings for different people, so words and concepts must be discussed to create shared meanings. Teachers offer a variety of strategies for dealing with a particular problem.

Once teachers have developed an understanding of a problem and have a theory about how to fix it, it can still be difficult to act on this knowledge. It often requires experimenting with various strategies. The support of other teachers is critical.

Delaying interpretation

Rodgers believes that working with teachers in this collaborative, reflective process enables them to become more aware and knowledgeable about what students are learning rather than what they are teaching. However, she is aware of the pressures existing in schools for quick results on high-stakes tests that can undermine reflective teaching. Additional research is need to determine whether this kind of reflective professional development maintains its effects over time and how it is connected to students’ achievement.

“Seeing Student Learning: Teacher Change and the Role of Reflection” Harvard Educational Review Volume 72, Number 2, Summer 2002 Pp. 230-253.

Published in ERN November 2002 Volume 15 Number 8

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