Why are some teachers able to expand students’ access to STEM while others are not? Students from marginalized communities are systematically denied STEM learning opportunities, but some teachers manage to disrupt unjust policies and create more equitable learning environments. Schools are difficult places to make change (Little, 2003), so we wanted to better understand how teachers who were able to make changes in their schools did so.
We took a sociocultural perspective, seeing learning as dependent on the mediational means available in a setting (Greeno & MMAP, 1997). These mediational means, which are resources like discourses and tools, make particular opportunities in particular contexts at particular moments of time possible (Norris & Jones, 2005; Wertsch, 1994). We also drew on Goodwin’s (1994) concept of professional vision— a socially-situated way of seeing– to understand how teachers make sense of their sociocultural settings. Professional vision has political consequences; what a teacher sees as significant within an oppressive system can change her approaches to the problem.
For the teachers in our study, using a systemic lens to focus their professional vision helped them identify ways to disrupt policies in their schools that they saw as oppressive.
This study took place in a research-practice partnership between researchers and a professional development (PD) organization that focused on STEM, pedagogy, and teacher leadership. Participants were secondary mathematics teachers in a large urban district in the western United States, and many of them were regarded as leaders by their colleagues and/or held official leadership positions in their schools.
We collected data in teachers’ schools and in PD settings, emphasizing teachers’ sensemaking and perspectives on these contexts. We took ethnographic fieldnotes and collected artifacts from classroom observations, teachers’ collaborative planning meetings, and PD workshops. We analyzed data using grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and constant comparison (Boeije, 2002), with the aim of understanding how teachers learned to disrupt oppressive systems.
We share findings from two cases where experienced (between 8-18 years) mathematics teachers effectively challenged oppressive policies, and one case where they did not (for an additional case, see our full paper). All of these teachers aspired to create more equitable learning environments for their students, but they differed in whether their professional vision focused on individual or systemic phenomena as they made sense of ideas like opportunity and justice in their settings. As they thought about what they might be able to accomplish, teachers who took a more systemic view saw their potential actions in different ways than those who took an individual view. In other words, their professional visions shaped what could be accomplished by the distributed agency in the sociocultural settings. These cases show how teachers can disrupt policies that limit students’ access to important STEM learning experiences.
Discussion and Implications
Lauren and Isabella’s systemic lenses enabled them to identify mediational means in their settings that could be leveraged to change policies that limited students’ STEM learning. It was not merely their intentions or abilities as teachers, nor solely the available resources, but rather the interaction between their professional visions and the distributed agency in the system that led them to disrupt oppressive policies. By contrast, Kayla and Chloe similarly found a school policy to be limiting but saw themselves as individuals in opposition to a system rather than as participants in the agency distributed across a sociocultural setting, which foreclosed opportunities to act despite their desire for change. Based on this study, we recommend that:
- Ask not only about changes that can be made in your classroom, but about the policies or practices behind injustices.
- Think creatively about how changes can be made at the systemic level. Going through official channels to create change may not always be the most effective pathway.
- Think expansively about with whom and where you may have influence, and when it might be best to discreetly advocate.
- Principals / School Leaders
- Be transparent with your staff about the external expectations you face in your position, and about where you do and don’t have flexibility in making decisions.
- Other Education Stakeholders
- Look beyond just talking to teachers; think about others who might be able to change the policy or system.
- Collect information from multiple perspectives about what is possible and who to talk to.
- Consider a multi-fronted effort: approach multiple people at multiple levels of the system about what they can change.
- Education Researchers
- Examine how and why teachers’ professional vision may be shifted from an individual to a systemic perspective.
- Explore the conditions under which shifting teachers’ professional vision leads to significant change for urban students.
- Teacher Educators
- Teach the history and social contexts of schooling as complements to pedagogical methods.
- Provide pre-service teachers with opportunities to brainstorm multiple and systemic approaches to pedagogical and professional dilemmas.
- Support pre-service teachers in building relationships with mentors, colleagues, administrators, and parents at their school sites.
When teachers have an individualized understanding of the institutional barriers to STEM learning, rather than a systemic view of the possible actors and opportunities within a system, it is difficult to mobilize the mediational means available to disrupt oppressive policies. A systemic view may not be sufficient for this kind of agentic action, but it seems to be an important facet of teachers’ professional vision. Without it, our data suggest, they would not have been able to create the kind of change we saw. These findings point to the important role that teachers can play in removing institutional barriers to urban students’ success in mathematics—in concert with school leaders, education researchers, teacher educators, and other education stakeholders—by seeing affordances within the distributed agency of the sociocultural setting to enact change.
Note about the Authors: Chen and Marshall contributed equally to this post and are listed alphabetically.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. DGE-1445197 and DRL-1620920. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.