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What Happens When Novice Teachers Encounter Reality?

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: “Developing a Theory of Ambitious Early-Career Teacher Practice” by Jessica Thompson, Mark Windschitl, and Melissa Braaten in American Educational Research Journal, June 2013 (50 3, pp. 574-615),; Ms. Thompson can be reached at
In this thoughtful American Educational Research Journal article, teacher-educators Jessica Thompson and Mark Windschitl (University of Washington) and Melissa Braaten (University of Wisconsin-Madison) report on their three-year study of how rookie science teachers fared when they moved from graduate school to practicum to the real world of secondary-school classrooms.
“[T]he early career of teachers is a time of pronounced growth and reorganization of thinking about one’s role as a professional, the capabilities of students, the goals of instruction, and how to support learning,” say Thompson, Windschitl, and Braaten.
Unfortunately, it is very common for rookie teachers to leave behind the “best practices” they learned during their training and regress to the traditional, teacher-centered instructional practices they see being used by their new colleagues.
Thompson, Windschitl, and Braaten begin by describing the ambitious science teaching practices they taught their teachers-in-training:
- Selecting big ideas and models: Focusing on a small number of important ideas framed by overarching essential questions, which gives coherence and purpose to lessons and scientific investigations.
- Working with students’ ideas: Eliciting and making visible students’ conceptions and misconceptions about the topic and using those to inform instructional decisions and connect science learning to students’ lives. Throughout each unit, teachers check on students’ understanding using formal and informal assessments and adjust instruction accordingly.
- Working with science ideas: Helping students understand science “not as a set of facts, but rather as testable models or theories that are revised over time based on evidence and new ideas,” say the authors.
- Pressing for explanation: Continuously asking students “what happened in a science activity, how something happened, and a causal explanation for why something happened,” say Thompson, Windschitl, and Braaten. “Novice teachers used this framework to examine samples of students’ work and to interrogate their own understanding of the science content.”
How well did new teachers carry out these ambitious teaching practices into their classrooms? They fell into three groups:
- Trajectory 1 teachers were successful at using all four practices.
- Trajectory 2 teachers used only a few in isolated pockets of the curriculum.
- Trajectory 3 teachers didn’t implement them at all (although they used some of the rhetoric as a fig-leaf over conventional teaching practices).
What made the difference? Thompson, Windschitl, and Braaten found three explanations:
- First, who teachers identified with: Teachers varied in how they navigated the “two worlds” of university training and their school colleagues. Those who successfully used ambitious teaching practices identified and related primarily with the university. The Trajectory 2 teachers tried to straddle the university and school contexts, using some progressive practices but conforming to the more traditional expectations of their principals and science departments. And Trajectory 3 teachers totally identified with their new colleagues and conventional instruction.
- Second, using students’ thinking: All the new teachers checked for student understanding, but only Trajectory 1 teachers actively used students’ responses to fine-tune their teaching, producing, say the authors, “a cascade effect on both teacher and student learning, thus contributing to the development of classroom communities that treat students’ ideas as legitimate resources for building knowledge…They formed narratives of being teachers who elicit, listen, and puzzle over how to build on students’ tentative understandings of science ideas. The consolidation process of defining their essential roles as an educator helped them override contextual pressures to teach in conservative ways.”
- Third, using tools provided by university instructors: “Taking up well-designed tools supported modifications to discourses and practices and helped novice teachers address vision-to-practice gaps,” say the authors. The tools were a vital bridge between university theory and the tug of traditional practices in public schools, allowing the first group of novice teachers (and to a lesser degree the second) to develop a strong science-teaching repertoire.
What are the implications of this study for teacher training and induction? Imbue effective practices; provide practical tools that make it easier to implement those practices in the classroom; maintain ties with new teachers; and, most important, make sure teachers are constantly using students’ ideas and level of understanding to drive continuous improvement of teaching.
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 488, 3 June 2013.

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