Research and the Messiness of Classroom Teaching

I’m interested right now in learning more about what it means to hold an asset orientation as a teacher. My working understanding is that when teachers hold an asset orientation, they frame everyday interactions by looking for strengths, valuing student thinking and assigning competence. There’s a ton to read on the topic; I tweeted and got a great reading list from many folks in response, and a recent issue of Teachers College Record focused largely on asset-oriented and similar approaches to teaching and teacher education.

Asset-oriented teaching is a fascinating body of research to study, and I’ve been interested in learning more about research in education for a long time. I think I made a mistake for a while thinking that an asset orientation isn’t “real” research. It’s not a variable a researcher can control in a lab. But teachers make hundreds of decisions a day; an asset orientation helps to understand where those decisions come from, and the impact they have on students. I see an asset orientation as a problem frame, as Horn, Kane, & Wilson write:

This approach contrasts with much of what I see shared as evidence-based teaching. I see folks sharing about spaced practice, or interleaving, or dual coding. And these seem really valuable! But they are typically focused on inputs: what does the teacher do, how is the curriculum designed, what questions are asked. An asset orientation is focused on how teachers respond: what to do when a student is stuck, or shares a misconception, or has a conflict with another student.

I’ve found Daniel Willingham’s comparison to architecture helpful in the past:

Architects, like teachers, usually have multiple goals they try to satisfy simultaneously. Safety is nonnegotiable, but architects may also be thinking to a greater or lesser extent about energy efficiency, aesthetics, functionality, and so on. In the same way, some goals for teachers are nonnegotiable — teaching kids to read, for example — but after that, the goals are likely to vary with the context. In addition, architects make use of scientific knowledge, notably principles of physics, and materials science. But this knowledge is certainly not prescriptive. It doesn’t tell the architect what a building must look like. Rather, it sets boundary conditions for construction to ensure that the building will not fall down, that the floors can support sufficient weight, and so on.

In the same way, basic scientific knowledge about how kids learn, about how they interact, about how they respond to discipline — this knowledge ought to be seen as a boundary condition for teachers and parents, meaning that this knowledge sets boundaries that, if crossed, increase the probability of bad outcomes. Within these broad boundaries, parents and teachers pursue their goals.

-When Can You Trust the Experts? (p. 221)

But there’s an issue with the comparison between teaching and architecture. When an architect designs a building, odds are pretty good the building will stand and serve its basic purpose. Yet in my class, every year, I fail. Students leave math class with profound negative feelings toward math. They can’t graph a polynomial, they forget the meaning of expected value, or they reverse the rules for function transformations. Education isn’t like medicine, where once someone is diagnosed with strep throat a doctor can be fairly confident in the success of the treatment. Teachers need to respond, in the moment, every day, when things go wrong — and not for one patient, but for a classroom of students. I’m interested in research that accounts for the uniqueness of humans, for the idiosyncrasies of young people, for the vagaries of learning and memory. Yet research often gravitates toward what is easiest to measure, or what can be distilled into a randomized controlled trial. I see this research as valuable, but also as a bit sterile and sometimes distant from the realities of classrooms.

What does a vision of research look like that’s responsive to the experiences, struggles, and individualities of all the humans in a classroom? What does research look like that honors the messiness of young humans, of learning, of everything that’s happening in classrooms each day, the in-the-moment decisions, the emotions, and the identities of the individuals involved?

I have a lot more to learn, but I think the shift I’m making right now is framing my problem differently. My problem is that I want to learn more about research on teaching and learning. But in trying to meet that goal, I have a natural bias for easy and concrete solutions. I wonder if diving into research that offers fewer easy solutions and more tensions to navigate and is more authentic to the discipline of teaching and the challenges of classrooms. So my problem is not to find solutions, but to find harder questions that get at the messiness of classroom teaching.

5 thoughts on “Research and the Messiness of Classroom Teaching

  1. sarabvaughn

    Wow. Just wow. This is so well written, and better yet, has me thinking. The prompts for PAEMST are framed just as you state, how do teachers respond, what does the teacher do when I student is stuck, how does the teacher respond in the moment when real life happens. Those are my takes on what the PAEMST prompts really ask–not the real prompts. Thanks for this post. I’m in a place right now where your reflection resonates with me.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Glad this has you thinking! It has me thinking too. I need to figure out where to go next — what are the pieces that help a teacher respond in the moment in ways that are productive?

      1. sarabvaughn

        What about keeping a list running, what does not work and what does work in the moment. See what reveals itself from reflecting on what we actually do. Then determine if a clear thread is running through each side of the list. May not be definitive but perhaps it can be a tad enlightening. Just a thought.

        1. dkane47 Post author

          That would be interesting, but I think it’s often hard to know in the moment if I made the right decision. Some of those decisions have implications down the road that I don’t understand right away.


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