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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Learning to Teach by Uncovering Our Assumptions Part 1

by Judith M. Newman

One day Lee, a sixth grader, was struggling with some comprehension questions from his reader when he came to me for help. It was the kind of question where the students had to read between the lines and devise their own answers. I told Lee there was information on page 42 which might help him. A few minutes later he was back complaining he could not find the answer on that page. I sent him away telling him to take a closer look. A short time later he turned to Melissa, a student in his reading group, and exclaimed, "Melissa, let me see your reader to see if the answer is on your page 42!"

Mary MacDonald (1986), a teacher in one of my graduate classes, wrote this brief, amusing story at my prompting. I had asked the teachers to keep an eye on what was going on in their classrooms and to bring to class a couple of short descriptions of incidents which caught their attention. I saw the stories as a tool for conducting research on ourselves. These "critical incidents," as we came to refer to them, offered us a way of exploring our assumptions about language, about learning, and about teaching.

Although she knew it held an important lesson for her, Mary had a difficult time, at first, deciding precisely what the story helped her understand. After some discussion she was able to see how she'd inadvertently reinforced Lee's expectation that the meaning was indeed in the book by telling him to take a closer look at the page. Now she was able to consider what she might have done to help him discover that reading is an interpretive activity.

Our analysis of this incident, and many others like it, made us aware of the following:

Everything we do in the classroom is founded on a set of assumptions about learning and teaching, about knowledge, and about what counts as legitimate reading and writing. That is, each of us operates on the basis of what Chris Argyris (1976) calls our "action theories. "

Our beliefs about learning and teaching are largely tacit. We operate a good deal of the time from an intuitive sense of what is going on without actively reflecting on what our intentions might be and what our actions could be saying to students.

Our beliefs about learning and teaching can only be uncovered by engaging in systematic self-critical analysis of our current instructional practices.

We began using critical incidents as a way of finding out more about our current beliefs and about the assumptions underlying what we were doing in the classroom. We collected and shared stories which contributed to our understanding about language and learning and about our role as teachers. Sometimes the incidents confirmed what we believed; more often, however, we were forced to reappraise our assumptions. What these critical incidents often revealed, was a surprising gap between what we said we believed about learning and teaching (our "espoused" beliefs) and what our actions were conveying.

In the beginning, I didn't seem to have many stories from my own current teaching and I was bothered by that. Then, quite unexpectedly, I was inundated with stories. One night that week, finding myself unable to sleep, I jotted a number of incidents in a notebook.

It was at that point I realized something useful: the incidents which help us change as teachers aren't big events—they're the small, everyday, ongoing occurrences. I wrote:

I can see our learning opportunities come from comments made in passing, from a statement overheard, from something a student might write in a journal, from something we might read either because it confirms our experiences or because we disagree and have to consider what we believe instead, or because it opens possibilities we haven't thought about before.

I also realized the learning remains hidden unless we have some reason for making it explicit. Writing the stories down was important. It forced us to explain the situation to ourselves. Engaging in this kind of analysis alone wasn't easy. We needed to ask one another questions such as

why was an incident memorable?
what made it significant?
what did we learn from it?
how might we have dealt with that situation differently?

in order to see the point of the story and to talk about the underlying assumptions.

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