Friday, November 26, 2010

Small Groups Literature Discussions as Seen Through CHAT

When I was a child, my dad was a mechanic and I remember him using the common proverb, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I know that it is nearly impossible to get a SAE (American standard) bolt tightened with a metric wrench, therefore I have to identify the job I want done and find the appropriate tool. In schools, matching the right tool to the right job is just as important, whether that tool is in curriculum, pedagogy, or materials. However, sometimes, when a new tool is developed, it tends to be applied to multiple jobs, with varying results.

In response to calls for more student-centered instruction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one tool that has been applied indiscriminately in schools is small group literature discussion groups. Several different structures for small groups literature discussions were developed such as Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles; Peterson & Eeds' Grand Conversations; Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kugan's (1997) Questioning the Author; and Raphael & McMahon's Book Clubs. Each of these models guide students to take a distinct stance toward literature, often through pre-discussion written preparation of questions, notes or role sheets. Stance, originally theorized by Rosenblatt (1978), means the purpose for reading the text and she identified a continuum of two stances – aesthetic, or the experience lived through the literature and efferent, or the information the reader can take from the text. Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner (2001) add a third stance, that of critical/analytical in which the reader questions the text for its argument,bias, or worldview. Each stance requires a particular type of thinking and privileges a particular style of discussion.

Currently, language arts teachers are encouraged to use a generic form of small group literature discussions as this embodies many of the tenants of Best Practice as defined by Daniels & Bizar (2005) such as cooperative, student-centered, active learning with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills. Often teachers select a defined model, like those named above, and implement it by-the-book. Yet, without interrogating the purposes and structures of the small group discussions, from the perspectives of both teachers and students, there is a good chance that fulfilling the method becomes more important than the impact on learning. In other words, both teachers and students need to identify the job that needs to be done before the right tool can be chosen rather than choosing a tool for an unspecified job. As the old adage goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)

Originating in the social-cultural theories of Vygotsky, cultural historical activity theory attempts to understand human learning as it takes place through activity, mediated by physical and psychological tools, in contexts and with practices that have cultural, social and historical groundings. Vygotsky (1978) theorized that higher mental functions (thinking) in an individual develops from the social processes that the individual is involved in and can only be understood through the tools or signs used to mediate the process. Since humans can not directly interact with the world, the psychological tools or signs (such as language) and physical/technical tools (such as a pencil) mediate human thinking and action. These mediational tools are shaped by the cultural, social and historical context, yet they also shape the context (Wertsch, 1991). Vygotsky tended to focus on individual action and thinking, whereas Leont'ev believed that activity is a collection formation of the person(s), world and the activity itself, therefore focusing on the whole activity, with multiple participants moving toward a group outcome or motive, is more important than the individual action and that the individual action can only be understood in the context of the activity. Engestrom moved the unit of analysis to encompass the entire activity system, which would then account for tools use, distributed action among members and the evolving social, cultural, and historical results of action over time. In this model, the system is a dialectical relationship in which people influence and are influenced by the context of the activity. Engstrom identified the major component of the system as: subject (person), instruments (tools), object(ive), outcome, division of labor, community and rules (See Figure 1). The activity system is being constantly constructed and renewed by the interactions of the components, which, over time can develop contradictions within the system. These contradictions motive change to new forms of activity

Contradictions are the core of activity system analysis. By using cultural historical activity theory, an activity system can be analyzed at multiple levels. Primary level contradictions are those that occurs within the components of a system. For example, the understanding of how to use a tool differs between people, so although the same tool is used, it is used differently. Secondary contradictions occurs between components of the system. For example, then the rules of the context does not allow for the outcome to occurs – otherwise known as a Catch-22. Finally, a tertiary contradiction occurs when activity systems intersect such as the activity system of school district policy collides with the activity system of the classroom.

Small Group Literature Discussion

In the past, literature discussions in the secondary classroom were specifically teacher-led and generally focused on textual, surface level comprehension or one-sided, lecture format. This led to a pattern of interaction known as IRE – Initiation by teacher, Response by student, and Evaluation by teacher (Mehan, 1979; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). With this staccato rhythm, students generally did not originate or extend the conversation. This has been the model classroom for almost 100 years – teacher firmly in control of covering the curriculum, while students obediently follow. In other words, a strong focus on what Rosenblatt (1978) called an “efferent” stance to the literature, or information gathering.

However, with the development of reading response theory (Rosenblatt, 1978) and an understanding of the power of discussion based approaches, many teachers began experiment with instruction that was more responsive to student interests. Often these led to discussions that lie within the “aesthetic” stance (Rosenblatt, 1978) or an “expressive” stance (Jakobson, as cited in Soter et al, 2009) such as Eeds & Wells' (1998) Grand Conversations, in which students took a more active role in the generation of discussion. This precipitated a move toward peer-led discussions such as Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles, and Raphael & McMahon's (1994)Book Clubs. Both forms emphasize student generated response to create authentic conversations about text, not just answering questions.

Most of the models of student-led discussion use some form of pre-discussion writing based on the text. This may take the form of Role Sheets (Daniels, 1994), reader response logs, double entry journals, or sticky-notes on the page. Some of these techniques have been researched individually and separate from their use in discussions and have been shown to provide opportunities for students to actively make meaning from the text. However, there has been anecdotal evidence of mechanic, stilted conversations when using Role Sheets, or reading response logs within a student-led discussion of literature. This sometimes leads teachers to abandon student-led discussions because they feel the discussion lacks depth and meaning. However, multiple researchers have shown that discussion based approaches leads to better understanding of the text. (Applebee et al, 2003; Murphy, et al, 2009).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Teachers Taking Charge of Their Own Professional Development

Too often, professional development programs in schools use a “drive-by” or “shot-gun” method of in-service. In the drive-by, teachers are herded to an auditorium to hear an expert explain how to use a new method or technique and the teachers are expected to implement it in their own classrooms without any support or follow-up. The shot-gun approach provides teachers with a variety of choices, but no focus for the school or student learning. It is clear neither approach is effective in changing teachers' daily practice, yet it continues ( Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998). So, what should schools and program directors consider when approaching the professional development of its teachers?

When designing professional development programs, Ball & Cohen, (1999) encourage a systematic approach for designers which asks the following questions: “First, what would teachers have to know, and know how to do, in order to offer instruction that would support much deeper and more complex learning for their students? Second, what sort of professional education would be most likely to help teachers to learn those things? Third, what do these ideas imply for the content, method, and structure of professional development?” (p. 7). Rather than focusing on bringing in a new method or technique, this approach encourages teachers to investigate their own work, determine their own needs and time-frames and provide scheduled time to allow teachers to meet, talk and document their investigations.
This follows the theory of andragogy - the methods and techniques used to teach adults - as schools must also take into account that the “students” of the instruction are adult learners with unique needs. Malcom Knowles (1984) considered the adult learner to be a different type of learner than a child. He reintroduced the term andragogy, as compared to pedagogy, to help distinguish the characteristics of working with adult learners from those used with children. These characteristics include: 1) Being more self-directed 2) Having a reservoir of experiences as resource for learning 3) Needing immediate relevance to learning 4) Having clear purposes for learning 5) Being internally motivated 6) Wanting problem-focused learning experiences. Ball & Cohen's (1999) recommendations address most of these principals.

Schools must also help teachers embrace the identity of a lifelong learner. Each year brings new students, materials, technology, standards and policy changes. Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, Bransford, Berliner, Cochran-Smith, McDonald, & Zeichner, (2005) contend that teachers need to be “adaptive experts” (p. 360) who are able to balance efficiency and innovation to effectively respond to complex classroom needs. To become an expert, a teacher must be motivated to deeply reflect about his/her own teaching practices. The authors also recognize that innovation can be challenging and even threatening, as teachers must “re-think key ideas, practices and even values in order to change what they are doing” (p.361). This may at times led to decreased efficiency, as teachers learn new ways of thinking; yet by abandoning some ineffective practices and adopting new ones, teachers become more expert. In other words, we should expect a learning curve when teachers try new materials, methods or techniques and support the struggle teachers must endure in order to better their practice. This support is best found in communities of practice – working side-by-side with other teachers to improve teaching. In addition, coordinated time is needed to allow teachers to meet and discuss their work.

Traditionally schools tend to look to the principal, curriculum director or other specialists to provide the leadership and direction for professional development. However, by accepting the principles of adult learning we can change this paradigm. More teachers are becoming informal teacher-leaders in their schools, especially when the formal processes of leadership have been ineffective. According to Whitaker (1995), “These [informal teaching] relationships often determine the degree to which the beliefs of faculty members can be changed on a schoolwide basis” (p. 356). When teachers learn something new that is effective with students, they often want to share the results of their learning. “A powerful relationship exists between learning and leading. The most salient learning for most of us comes when we don’t know how to do it, when we want to do it, and when our responsibility for doing it will affect the lives of many others. This is where teacher leadership and professional development intersect . . . only when teachers learn will their students learn” (Barth, p.445.) Effective principal leadership, and long-term change, can be enhanced by identifying and supporting these informal leaders (Zepeda, Mayers, & Benson, 2003). 

Recently, teacher improvement has been a fodder for politicians and Hollywood producers, with a range of solutions proposed from pay for performance to alternative certifications. Yet the real issue is not teacher improvement, but rather teacher learning. If we recognize that teachers are learners, with unique needs and issues, we can eliminate the deficit model of professional development and instead, focus on the strengths and expertise already embedded in our schools with a goal of supporting the continued learning of all teachers, which will then result in increased student learning and achievement.

Ball, D. L. & Cohen, D. K. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes and L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 3-32). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Barth, R. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(6), 443-500.
Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Bransford, J., Berliner, D., Cochran-Smith, M., McDonald, M., & Zeichner, K. (2005). How teachers learn and develop. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.) Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 358-389). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. (3rd ed.), Houston: Gulf Publishing.
Loucks-Horsley, S., Hewson, P. W., Love, N., & Stiles, K. E. (1998). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Whitaker, T. (1995). Accomplishing change in schools: The importance of informal teacher leaders. Clearing House, 68(6), pp. 356-357.
Zepeda, S. J., Mayers, R. S., & Benson, B., N. (2003). The call to teacher leadership. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.