Mark Windschitl, Ph.D., Professor of Science Teaching and Learning, University of Washington
Karin Lohwasser, Ph.D., Assistant Teaching Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
Tammy Tasker, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Michigan
Soo-Yean Shim, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Scholar, University of Illinois
Caroline Long, Doctoral Student, University of Washington
A growing number of pre-service STEM teachers are being prepared for work in high-need settings, to enact instruction that foregrounds responsiveness to students’ ideas, supports diverse sensemaking opportunities for learners, and maintains educational justice as a core value (see Davis, et al., 2019; Stroupe, et al., 2020). This kind of ambitious teaching aims to support students of all backgrounds to deeply understand science ideas by drawing upon their everyday experiences and existing funds of knowledge, to participate in the activities of the discipline, solve authentic problems, and develop identities as knowers of the natural world.
Our research asked: Do these aspiring educators see these kinds of ideals being enacted when they enter host classrooms for their culminating clinical experience (a.k.a. student teaching)? Do they get opportunities to try out with students? And, in what ways does perceived congruence between the vision of science teaching supported at participants’ universities versus in their host classrooms relate to their opportunities to be supported in meaningful planning roles during their clinical experience?
To find out, we studied the experiences of 65 pre-service secondary science teachers (PSTs) from three different preparation programs around the country (Windschitl, Lohwasser & Tasker, 2021). All members from two cohorts at each of three university-based teacher preparations programs were asked to participate. Only two declined, and one had to drop out. These were graduate-level, meaning that candidates entered with a bachelor’s degree in an area of science or engineering. Seven participants identified as first-generation college students and 14 as first-generation immigrants. Twenty-two identified as non-White, including four Filipina/o, four Chinese-American, five East Indian, and four Latinx. Forty-eight participants were women. Each of the programs featured methods and assessment classes designed around recommendations in widely-cited consensus documents, with a focus on student sensemaking and equity in science teaching. Instructors drew upon research-based reports such as the Framework document (NRC, 2012) for the Next Generation Science Standards, Taking Science to School (NRC, 2007), and Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center (NASEM, 2019). Practices consistent with recommendations in these documents were modeled by methods instructors at the participating institutions, supported with particular tools and conversations during university coursework, and studied in classroom videos.
In addition to revealing planning opportunities, we used the same instruments to determine how congruent they perceived their host mentors’ practices and classroom cultures to be with the visions of teaching advocated in their university coursework. We assessed their observations on four criteria that reflected research-informed teaching and the kinds of responsive work with students that were modeled in their preparation programs (see for example Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018 as well as these videos). Each were rated on a 1-5 scale (Table 1):
Table 1. Four Components of Congruency Between Teaching Practices Observed in Field and Practices Emphasized by University Faculty
What did we find? First, the congruence scores varied dramatically. Some PSTs described everyday instruction in their host classroom as highly consistent with what was advocated for, demonstrated, and rehearsed in their preparation coursework. Others observed instruction that was out of step with all four congruence criteria, meaning no connections to student experiences or interests, few chances for students to engage in sensemaking talk, disciplinary activity commonly reduced to procedural labs, and almost no formative assessments to furnish student feedback or to modify instruction. Second, participants’ opportunities to actively learn about planning were markedly different in high-congruence placements (composite score across 4 criteria from 16-20) and medium-congruence placements (composites from 10-15) as compared to low-congruence placements (composites from 4-9).
While most PSTs were eventually able to design their own lessons at some point during the clinical experience, those in high and medium-congruence classrooms were more likely to 1) receive early scaffolding for this work in the form of co-planning with mentors for extended periods of time, 2) take the lead in planning for a longer period of time, and 3) gain “permission” to try out planning strategies learned in their university coursework. Approximately 72% (8 of 11) of participants in high-congruence placements and 60.0% (9 of 15) in medium-congruence placements followed these trends. Only 17.9% (7 of 39) of individuals in low-congruence placements experienced this pattern of planning opportunities.
Three types of active involvement in planning emerged from the interview and survey data. The most common was referred to by participants as tweaking, in which they were invited to make minor adjustments to lessons that were designed by their mentors or part of an established curriculum. A second category of activity we refer to as substantive co-planning. In these cases, the mentor and PST worked together at least once a week to change fundamental aspects of (typically pre-existing) lesson structures or units, often choosing different phenomena or events to anchor students’ science reasoning, modifying or introducing new activities and eliminating others, and reassessing activities against the goals for student learning. A third category we refer to as taking the lead in planning. In these instances, the novice would be given the principal role of designing or modifying the core activity structures of lessons at least once a week, for at least one class section (for example, selecting scientific practices for students to engage in, choosing readings, making the instruction more responsive to student’s ideas and everyday experiences, scaffolding sensemaking conversations for emergent multilinguals, or generating new forms of group work). PSTs spoke often about the benefits of taking the lead and creating their own well-articulated system of lessons that used students’ ideas and experiences as assets to build on. This was not just for their own comfort, but to provide connected learning opportunities for their students. Kylie reflected on how she developed a mini-unit on inheritance:
In high-congruence placements, the mentor and PST were more likely to engage in substantive co-planning early in their partnership, then transitioning to the PST taking the lead. In low-congruence placements PSTs were often limited to tweaking lessons for weeks or even months before any kinds of co-planning or lead planning became the norm. PSTs in low-congruence classrooms were more frequently told that a standard curriculum had to be followed with minimal modification. Staying on pace with other teachers in the department appeared to take priority over the states of student understanding in these cases. However, five novices in low-congruence settings were allowed to plan early for lessons that used elements of ambitious pedagogy and learning goals, simply because the mentors were, in their words, “laid back” or “chill about it.” And finally, a full 60% of placements were described as low-congruence, meaning that these novices spent months in classrooms where responsive and equitable teaching were rarely, if ever, observed. Still, most of these same mentors were described as caring deeply about their students and offering all manner of support to their PSTs throughout the clinical experience.
Data from our study indicate that when preparation programs feature visions of teaching that are grounded in the current literature on student learning and equity, then the placements of novices in instructionally congruent classrooms is positively related to their opportunities to learn about planning. This being said, there are studies that suggest pedagogically conservative teachers may also be able to support (coach) PSTs by encouraging their novices to experiment in principled ways with the curriculum and providing some targeted feedback even if they do not themselves demonstrate research-aligned practices of planning and teaching (see Kang, 2018). What is still not clear is why mentors in high-congruence classrooms worked with their PSTs early in more substantive forms of co-planning and allowed them to take the lead in planning for at least one class section earlier in the placements. Even in medium and low-congruence settings we feel that better tools from teacher education programs can help mentors provide systematic opportunities to learn for their PSTs. Here’s what we’ve done to make progress on this:
- We have since interviewed experienced mentors about the kinds of initial conversations with novices that could help both partners feel comfortable in providing and receiving feedback, and taking risks together around planning and teaching. Our collaborators referred to this as a “professional roommate conversation” to be held at the start of the clinical experience.
- We have defined a list of six mentoring practices, complete with videos and a host of other tools to be used jointly by mentors and the PSTs.
- We have also created a one-page trajectory of opportunities—around planning, teaching, assessing, and getting to know students—that spans the clinical timetable and breaks down recommended experiences into increasingly independent options for the novice.
We recognize that it may not feasible for preparation programs to select cadres of mentors each year whose practice is fully aligned with a vision of ambitious and equitable teaching. However mentors could be recruited who are willing to allow novices to use responsive and equitable strategies in their classrooms and who do not feel that they are putting themselves at risk by allowing their PSTs to make defensible adjustments to the curriculum.
The resources we have shared above could support these mentors—regardless of their visions for teaching and learning—to do a few critical things well: to sketch out with their novices a trajectory of planning and teaching experiences that provide strategic opportunities for learning early on and for growing independence across time, allow novices some authority to suggest new directions for lessons or units, and envision mentoring as not just emotional support or a gradual release of responsibility but also a set of practices like making one’s thinking explicit, providing timely and targeted feedback, and examining student work together. In a follow-up study, we are finding that it may be helpful for preparation programs to provide novices themselves with guidance about how to be agentive in their placements. We are creating vignettes of the ways novices can advocate for new teaching opportunities to mentors or break from conservative forms of teaching by mentors without jeopardizing their relationships. In this effort we are framing agency as a necessary component for access to new opportunities for learning and to break from status quo practices in the classroom that may be mis-aligned with educational justice. Future research is needed to see what the connections are between productive clinical placements and early career teaching.
This material is based upon work supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, DUE #1540678 and DUE #1758264.