“…new designs for teacher professional learning cannot simply be innovative; they must be disruptive” – Ann Rosebery, Co-Director, Chèche Konnen Center, 2016
Students in underserved schools, particularly minoritized students, are often denied opportunities to participate and excel in STEM fields. Sadly, such students’ academic abilities and life experiences tend to be seen as seen as detriments to their success (Boser, Wilhelm, & Hanna, 2014). More broadly, schools and STEM fields purposefully create a hierarchy of participation using race, culture, language, and economic class to limit minoritized students’ possibilities (Parker, 2018). However, minoritized students in underserved schools bring important experiences, ideas, ways of knowing, and practices that expand the scope, purpose, questions, and values of STEM fields (see Medin & Bang, 2014; Bell, Morrison, & Debarger, 2015).
As a former middle school teacher and current STEM educator, I know that a classroom teacher can make a crucial impact on students’ lives by disrupting society’s narratives about who is allowed to become successful in STEM fields. By enacting purposeful instructional practices and by using powerful learning tools, a great teacher can catalyze students’ interest in STEM fields and provide opportunities for students to develop identities as STEM leaders who will shape the next generation of research and problem solving. Too often, however, minoritized students in underserved schools are routinely taught by underprepared teachers, many of whom leave such schools quickly after their career begins (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003).
Since students deserve well-prepared instructors to help them thrive, the onus is on us, as teacher educators, to better prepare and support new teachers to enter and succeed in underserved schools. I argue that we need to disrupt how new teachers think about STEM fields, teaching, and entrenched inequities that privilege certain knowledge and forms of participation. I also propose that as teacher educators, we need to provide learning opportunities and supports for teachers to build a new vision of their professional responsibilities.
Disruption 1: STEM fields
Many preservice teachers feel that they are successful participants in STEM fields (preservice teachers are those who are participating in a preparation program but who are not yet certified to teach). For example, some of my preservice teachers have touted their grade point average and ability to recite information memorized from STEM courses as evidence that they understand what STEM fields are and how they operate. However, most preservice teachers have never truly experienced the daily practices of STEM fields, nor have they examined why STEM fields conduct and report research in the ways that seem “correct” to them.
Thus, one important disruption preservice teachers need to experience is that the practices and research of STEM fields are not naturally occurring modes of inquiry that humans innately possess. Instead, three myths about STEM fields need debunking:
Myth 1: STEM fields are separate from cultures of power. STEM fields exist in social/historical/political contexts and are not separate from human’s sense-making of the world. There is no one “nature” of STEM fields; rather, the core of STEM work has changed over time, and continues to change, as those with the power shape disciplinary practices to their views of the world (Shapin, 2010).
Myth 2: STEM fields have always been open to everyone. Not everyone gets to participate in STEM fields, and such exclusion is often by design. Feminist epistemologists point out that certain people with power get to shape the conceptual, epistemic, material, and social practices of STEM fields. Therefore, the practices and research of STEM fields reflect the values of some people with power, but not others (Harding, 2008).
Myth 3: STEM fields all have the same goals and processes to understand the world. Every STEM field, and its sub-disciplines, have different knowledge goals, epistemic aims, practices, and possibilities to communicate the ideas (Cetina, 1999).
Each of these myths are deeply embedded in schools, universities, policies, and popular media. Therefore, the work of disrupting what preservice teachers think about STEM fields is difficult. In my research, the preservice teachers who understand the complexities of STEM fields have, at some point, participated in research with STEM professionals. These preservice teachers may have worked in a chemistry laboratory or with a field ecologist; each has similar experiences of being allowed to ask questions, collect and analyze data, and engage in epistemological conversations with STEM professionals (Stroupe, 2017).
Disruption 2: Teaching
In addition to disrupting preservice teachers’ image of STEM fields, teacher educators need to help preservice teachers rethink the purpose and practices of teaching. Every one of us, given our many years of participation in some form of schooling, have developed an internal story of what we think teachers do and think about. This is Dan Lortie’s famous “apprenticeship of observation” (Lortie, 1975/2002). Our superficial observations of real teachers become entwined with a mythologized version of teachers in popular films, such as Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers. However, our superficial observations and the movies extolling (often White) fictional teachers as “saviors” of minoritized students in underserved schools obscure the professional training and work of real teachers.
One pernicious image of teaching in need of disruption is the “sage on the stage,” where a very charismatic teacher delivers subject matter information to students through various fact-laden presentations (or entertaining performances) which I refer to as “delivery pedagogy” (Stroupe, 2016). The outcome of delivery pedagogy is often that students are supposed to correctly recall and repeat the teacher’s facts on various assessments.
Instead, we must build a new image of instruction, in which teachers provide rigorous and equitable learning opportunities to all students using specialized practices and tools that are learned, developed, and adapted over time. One such framework that I have co-developed with Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, and Melissa Braaten is called Ambitious Science Teaching (Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018) in which teachers:
- Attend to culture and equity of opportunity for all students;
- Anchor students’ on-going learning experiences in complex and puzzling science phenomena;
- Use students’ everyday ideas, experiences, and questions as resources within the classroom community to advance everyone’s thinking;
- Legitimize students’ participation in, and co-development of, ensembles of STEM practices to test ideas they believe are important to their developing explanations and models of the world;
- Provide daily opportunities for students to reason through productive talk;
- Provide students with access to specialized tools and routines and co-develop tools and routines with them that support their attempts at STEM-specific forms of writing, talk, and participation in activity;
- Make student thinking public and subject to consideration by the classroom community;
- Sequence learning experiences to help students integrate ideas together and revise understandings of “big ideas” of STEM fields.
These interconnected elements provide a broad picture of teaching that helps disrupt preservice teachers’ initial vision of the profession.
Disruption 3: Entrenched inequities that privilege certain knowledge and forms of participation
While disrupting what preservice teachers think about STEM fields and teaching is important, perhaps the most crucial disruptions are around entrenched notions about whose knowledge and forms of participation are valued in classrooms. A common adage many new teachers adopt is that “all students can learn STEM concepts.” While noble in rhetoric, not all students are seen as equally smart, capable, or motivated because of historic and purposeful sociopolitical power structures. In particular, Ann Rosebery, Beth Warren, and Eli Tucker-Raymond argue that minoritized students are consistently treated as though their knowledge and ways of acting are “less” or irrelevant, and in fact are not aligned with school norms and dominant paradigms of STEM participation (Rosebery, Warren, & Tucker-Raymond, 2015).
By privileging some forms of knowledge and participation (likely those that align with a teacher’s view of the world) a particular form of inequity – epistemic injustice – is perpetuated. Epistemic injustice refers to the purposeful discrediting of an individual or group’s credibility as a knower (see Miranda Fricker’s book for an introduction (Fricker, 2007). My colleagues Emily Miller, Eve Manz, Rosemary Russ, Leema Berland, and I argue that teachers’ positioning of students’ knowledge and forms of participation can lead to continual epistemic injustice (Miller, Manz, Russ, Stroupe, & Berland 2018).
The perpetuation of epistemic injustice – and any injustice against students – is readily denounced by many educators and policymakers. However, the move to more equitable classrooms remains glacially slow. While many educators acknowledge that equity matters, it is important that we do not conceptualize “equity” in overly generic terms. Historically, equity and inequity have always existed in relation to particular social markers (e.g., gender, race, class, language proficiency). Equity work in STEM education becomes more impactful when we specify the minoritized social marker groups we aim to support. For example, Niral Shah’s work on race in STEM education shows how STEM subjects like mathematics are always situated within broader racial ideological contexts that transcend the immediate learning environment (Shah, 2017). These racial ideologies make available false narratives about STEM ability that can lead to racial biases in students’ and teachers’ perceptions about who does (and does not) have the ability to succeed in STEM.
To prepare preservice teachers to recognize inequities and to disrupt epistemic injustice in classrooms, we must acknowledge that there is no single panacea. However, a key part of any solution must involve making the problem of addressing inequity concrete. For example, my colleagues Niral Shah and Daniel Reinholz have developed EQUIP, a free web app that is designed to support teachers in tracking patterns of implicit bias in classroom interaction and reveal inequities in the distribution of students’ opportunities to participate. EQUIP can be customized to focus on any social marker, such that teachers can tailor the tool to help illuminate inequities specific to their school or classroom. Preservice teachers can also use the EQUIP app to learn to see and trace inequities in classrooms in order to understand what they must shift as beginning teachers to disrupt epistemic injustice and other entrenched inequities.
Preparation programs as an opportunity to rebuild teaching and learning
Disrupting preservice teachers’ ideas about STEM fields, teaching, and entrenched inequities that privilege certain knowledge and participation is only half of the work of teacher preparation programs. Merely challenging preservice teachers’ ideas leaves a vacuum of pedagogy that could be filled by strategies or concepts that perpetuate inequities against minoritized students in underserved schools. In other words, we cannot hope that preservice teachers will figure out great teaching on their own. If we, as teacher educators, want preservice STEM teachers to act given the disruptions they have experienced, we must provide them with practices, tools, and opportunities to rehearse teaching, and openings to learn from students’ communities.
Teaching is not “natural,” nor are some people “born to teach.” Teaching is a learnable profession that is supported by evidence-based practices and tools. Such practices and tools help preservice teachers have a common language to plan and discuss teaching decisions, enable teachers to embed the principles of professional teaching (such as those of AST described above) into instructional actions, and provide new teachers with a concrete foundation to begin their careers.
For example, our work in science education with AST (Ambitious Science Teaching) was initially designed to support preservice teachers. Thus far, AST is comprised of core teaching practices and a suite of planning and interactional tools. By “core” we mean that they: (1) support student work that is central to the discipline of the subject matter, (2) apply to different approaches in teaching the subject matter and to different topics in the subject matter, (3) can be revisited in increasingly sophisticated and integrated acts of teaching, (4) readily allow teachers to learn from their own teaching, and (5) play a recognizable role in a larger coherent system of instruction that explicitly supports student learning goals.
While these core teaching practices represent sophisticated ideas about instruction, taken individually they do not include the full range of professional work teachers must engage in during instruction. AST seeks to incorporate these ideas into a coherent and comprehensive vision of instruction grounded in a set of practices that work together in explicit ways to achieve learning and participation goals for students. We argue that for preservice teachers, a focus on the practices of AST is one way to make visible the technical core of teaching, and enables novices to better understand the reality of daily professional work.
Opportunities to rehearse teaching
While teacher preparation programs can provide preservice teachers with examples of learnable practices, such experiences keep teaching abstract and removed from reality. Preservice teachers, then, need opportunities to rehearse the learnable practices in a safe environment, and they need to receive ongoing feedback about their progression towards ambitious teaching. Mary Kennedy, Pam Grossman, and other teacher educators argue that learning ambitious teaching requires “pedagogies of enactment” through which preservice teachers are supported in rehearsing the instructional practices within the context of preparation programs.
One important reason for rehearsing teaching is that preservice teachers must learn to make principled pedagogical decisions during moments of inevitable uncertainty. Eve Manz and Enrique Suárez note that learning to navigate uncertainty, which can emerge from the events of STEM research and from moments of classroom interaction, is extremely difficult (Manz & Suarez, 2018). Therefore, a pedagogy of enactment means that we, as teacher educators, must purposefully provide preservice teachers with moments of uncertainty during their rehearsals of core practices that require them to make principled pedagogical decisions.
To bring uncertainty to life, my colleague Amelia Gotwals and I co-developed an opportunity for rehearsals in our methods class at Michigan State University, dubbed “macroteaching” by one of the preservice teachers. Macroteaching is an extension of the popular “microteaching” experience that is common in preparation programs in which preservice teachers try out a skill or strategy with a small group of colleagues or students for 10-15 minutes. Macroteaching builds on the idea of microteaching by providing preservice teachers with an opportunity to plan, teach, and reflect on an entire unit of instruction – 10 to 12 instructional hours – serving as the teacher to their peers in the methods class. Working in teaching teams of 4, our preservice teachers created opportunities to:
- Pause instruction to ask for instructional guidance from instructors and peers,
- Overcome a shared fear about the unpredictability of classroom talk as they used students’ emerging ideas as resources for instruction, and
- See invisible features of STEM disciplines that students are expected to learn.
Importantly, macroteaching occurred publicly, creating a collective community of learning about AST and core practices rather than framing teaching as an individual enterprise (Stroupe & Gotwals, 2017). See this interview about our study.
Learning with and from students in their communities
Finally, while opportunities to rehearse instructional practices are important, preservice teachers need to learn how to build strong relationships with their students. Learning to build relationships with students can be fostered through partnerships with the communities in the students’ lives. The University of Washington (UW) provides an example of a teacher preparation program that is attempting, and learning, to forge strong ties between preservice teachers’ experiences at the university and in the communities they will serve as educators. Ken Zeichner, a leading expert on teacher education at UW, argues that teacher preparation programs and local communities must share the responsibility for teacher preparation because everyone is invested in the same goal – better educational opportunities for students. Preservice teachers, then, need opportunities to spend meaningful time in the schools and communities they will enter as novices – not as saviors or the sole experts but as learners about the histories, values, cultures, and experiences of their students. Such learning opportunities also help communities see that their knowledge and experiences make an impact on the future teachers of their students.
Stakeholder steps for purposeful disruption
While stating that teacher preparation programs need to be disruptive and help preservice teachers rebuild their vision of teaching and learning, actions to change preparation programs are more complex. We need to collectively invest in preparing preservice teachers to serve as the next generation of STEM professionals. Here, I make recommendations for STEM researchers, teacher educators, teachers, and policymakers:
- STEM Researchers – If you are a STEM professional, you can represent the daily practices, norms, and identity of your field for preservice teachers. More importantly, you can partner with teacher educators to bring preservice teachers into your sites of work. Let preservice teachers take on responsibilities beyond cleaning equipment or fetching coffee – provide opportunities for them to engage in the daily and valued practices of your field and make public your decision-making and actions. In addition, do not denigrate teaching as a job possibility or shame students for expressing a desire to be teachers. Many preservice teachers tell me that they hear the mantra “those who can’t, teach” from STEM professionals who view STEM teaching as an unpalatable career option. We need STEM professionals to help recruit more STEM teachers, not discourage them from serving communities and students.
- Teacher Educators – As described in this blog, teacher educators must provide opportunities for preservice teachers to be disrupted in their ideas, and must help them rebuild their image of teaching and learning over time. The most difficult aspect of this work for teacher educators is making public their planning, teaching, and decision-making for preservice teachers. As teacher educators, we must represent what we want teaching to look like, including how we create and foster equitable participation structures in classrooms. We must avoid the hypocrisy of “preaching” about ambitious instruction, yet not practicing our rhetoric. We must also make public how and why we are adapting our instruction based on our preservice teachers’ needs.
- Teacher Candidates and Teachers – Teachers are always learning – it is an inherent feature of the profession. If you are a preservice teacher, be prepared to recognize and question assumptions you have developed about STEM fields, teaching, and entrenched inequities about knowledge and participation. Enter a preparation program knowing that the profession is learnable, and requires rehearsals, building relationships with students in schools and their communities, and lots of hard work. During experiences with students, make sure you demonstrate – through your words and actions – that you value them as people, future STEM leaders, and intellectuals. If you are an experienced teacher, please consider serving as a mentor for new professionals. Make your teaching decisions and actions public to new teachers so that they can learn from your experience. Support preservice and novice teachers as they plan, teach, reflect, and grow by engaging STEM students in rigorous and equitable learning opportunities. Demonstrate how you care for and value your students, both in the classroom and in their communities, over the school year.
- Policymakers – Finally, and most importantly, if you are a policymaker, you have an opportunity to change the course of STEM teacher preparation and opportunities for minoritized STEM learners in underserved schools by supporting efforts to recruit and retain great teachers. We need a reimagined system of support and retention in which the definition of teacher and student success that emerged during the No Child Left Behind era – the increase in standardized test scores – is finally discarded after a generation of research demonstrates that such testing does not measure the quality of teaching nor student learning (please see Polikoff & Porter, 2014 and American Statistical Association, 2014 Statement for examples of concerns about linking a teacher’s quality to student test scores). Even further, policies that aim to rate and compare teacher preparation programs based on the student test standardized test scores of their graduates is tenuous and faulty (von Hippel & Bellows, 2018). Therefore, policymakers can work with partners in STEM teacher preparation to identify and evaluate new evidence of success for preservice teachers and novice teachers in schools. In addition, policymakers could take a stance about the professionalization of teaching by rewarding teacher preparation programs for disrupting assumptions and building ambitious forms of teaching. Rather than pretend that teachers can learn complex professional work online (for example, see Levin, 2018), policymakers can reward STEM teacher preparation programs that make strong community connections and provide opportunities for rehearsals of core teaching practices.
Minoritized students in underserved schools deserve great teachers. With your help, we can prepare the next generation of teachers to provide all students with opportunities to learn about STEM, and to empower students to become future leaders of the disciplines.