Research News

Preparing for radical teaching by encouraging student talk

July 06, 2015
by Cliff White

Before Leema Berland, Melissa Braaten and Rosemary Russ arrived at UW-Madison, they each were convinced that the best way for students to learn science was for teachers to listen to them and encourage them to develop and support their own ideas.

It wasn’t until the three researchers landed in the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction, however, that they decided to team up to see how they could support those best practices among teachers-in-training.

“The research is pretty convincing, and pretty widely accepted -– kids have to talk about their own ideas about science in order to learn,” Russ said. “The challenge came when we looked into how we could we make teachers aware of that and know it’s actually happening in their classrooms.”

WCER Radical Teaching
(Left-to-right) Rosemary Russ, Melissa Braaten and
Leema Berland were awarded a $500,000 grant 
from the National Science Foundation for
'Fostering Pedagogical Argumentation.'
Braaten joined the faculty in Curriculum and Instruction in 2011, and served on the search committees that hired Russ and Berland in 2012. Before she had even finished interviewing them, Braaten started thinking about a possible collaboration focused on learning more about how teachers respond to student thinking, a process they dubbed “pedagogical argumentation.”

“We each bring a lot of experience teaching science and studying how it’s taught, but we each had slightly different specialties,” Braaten said. “I could see immediately that a grant based around pedagogical argumentation might be the perfect project for us to tackle jointly.”

Together, they applied for and were awarded a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant for “Fostering Pedagogical Argumentation: Pedagogical Reasoning With and About Student Science Ideas.” Since starting the project in 2013, Berland, Braaten and Russ have worked with pre-service teachers in UW-Madison’s School of Education to analyze their student teaching experiences, identifying and discussing instances of pedagogical argumentation.

“Essentially, the grant is about getting teachers to actively think about and discuss the communication going on in their classrooms,” Russ said. “We don’t want to say ‘argue’ because that has negative connotations, but we want to get the pre-service teachers we’re working with to put forward claims, evidence and counter-claims about appropriate pedagogical tools for the situations they encounter in their classrooms.”

Through the length of the three-year project, Russ and Berland are working with about 50 elementary pre-service teachers per semester, while Braaten has 15 secondary pre-service teachers she works with through each academic year. In their classes, they show videos of teachers facing a moment of pedagogical decision-making, then ask their students what they would do in the same situation.

“We ask about the trade-offs of various options,” Braaten said. “The point isn’t arriving at one right way of teaching – if that even exists. It’s about getting them to think more about why they’re doing what they’re doing while they’re in class. It’s about having conversations around practice so that these teachers-in-training become more reflective practitioners.”

The project cuts against the grain of traditional teacher practice, where teachers doing most of the talking and lesson plans are considered set-in-stone formulas, Braaten said. The idea for the project was innovative enough to be funded through the NSF’s Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program, which supports projects that involve radically different approaches to education, the application of new expertise, or the incorporation of novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

The very fact that the project’s main goal is considered radical gave Berland, Braaten and Russ the idea of working with pre-service teachers, rather than teachers already working full-time in their profession, Berland said.

“There is still very much a culture of teachers as islands unto themselves, with very few opportunities for them to discuss what’s going on in their classrooms with anyone else,” she said. “Our hope is that by catching these pre-service teachers before they’ve entered that environment or formed those habits, we can shift the dynamic so that they become more comfortable questioning their own teaching decisions and those of their colleagues in a cooperative and constructive manner.”

To reflect and model the behavior they desire out of their students, Berland, Braaten and Russ designed the study with an iterative approach, using student feedback and their own critical conversations to amend their teaching and curriculum through each successive semester.

So far, the biggest hurdle they’ve encountered isn’t the willingness of teachers to engage in conversations around their teaching, but rather the harsh reality that, nowadays, teachers have too many responsibilities and not enough time to handle them all adequately, Berland said.

“We know that teachers can’t always be reflective – they just don’t have the time. We know that sometimes they’ll have to make a decision completely based on the fact that a certain part of the curriculum has to be done by Friday,” she said. “All we’re asking is that teachers have that awareness – that they know that’s why they can’t engage every student idea that comes up on in Wednesday’s class.”

Berland, Braaten and Russ also have struggled to guide their teachers-in-training through the tension of the choice they face between making pedagogical decisions based on their students’ learning goals and following up with their students ideas.

“Hopefully they come together harmoniously, but curriculum is written from a learning-goals perspective,” Berland said. “Again, we understand the realities teachers face in the modern school. We know that teachers have to juggle so much stuff and can’t let any of it drop. We know that 20 minutes of theoretical conversation with another teacher can be an unaffordable luxury most days. We’re just hoping to foster a reflective consciousness about the decisions they’re making, in any way possible. If we get that in some form every day, it’s a win.”

In their interactions with the pre-service teachers enrolled in their classes, Berland, Braaten and Russ encourage experimentation and risk-taking.

“A lot of lesson plans are recipes,” Berland said. “But we’ll say things like, ‘What if you just don’t tell your students what’s supposed to happen at the end of the activity?’ Why not ask them what they think will happen? Doing something like that isn’t too hard, it just moves the lesson’s conclusion from the beginning to the end. And yet it can change kids’ experience in pretty substantial ways.”

Russ said the study is primarily geared towards science educators, but as it has progressed, she’s seen that many of the skills teachers are acquiring can be useful for other subjects, ranging from mathematics to social sciences to art.

“It’s about shifting teachers’ view of what it means to teach,” she said. “Many teachers think teaching is about delivering information to students. But it should be shifted to getting students ideas on tables and getting them to engage with those ideas. That’s something that goes beyond just teaching science. Hopefully, as we foster this new perspective in the pre-service setting, we can spur it to spread across fields and throughout schools.”

Once the team has wrapped up its work with pre-service teachers, Braaten said she’d like to team up and write a book on their findings geared towards helping pre-service teachers seeking to learn more about pedagogical argumentation.

“The idea of taking teachers seriously as learners is new to teacher education, and there aren’t really any books geared toward the community of those engaged in teacher preparation that are centered on the belief that students’ ideas are valuable and deserve to be given attention,” she said. “If we can bring that idea into education, and increase the practice of teachers sharing with each other and using one another as sounding boards for discussion and analysis of their teaching decisions, then we would consider this project a great success.”