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Can Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

Editor's Note: Karen Martin, elementary teacher and instructional coach for Denali Borough School District in Alaska, traveled to Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantee. She visited over 50 different classrooms and observed almost 70 different teachers and teacher trainees. Her biggest takeaway: that Finnish teachers think and teach in a way that encourages inquiry. Here's how she brought this lesson back home.

By guest blogger Karen Martin

It is difficult to observe, let alone internationally benchmark, thinking, but one of the most profound lessons we can learn from Finland is how to nurture the development of a "thinking profession" of teachers. If we want to create an intellectual, thinking culture for our students, it is imperative that it also becomes the norm for teachers. 

Through many conversations and interviews with Finnish teachers, I began to realize that they fundamentally approach their work differently than American teachers. These teachers are the product of an intentionally designed education philosophy called research-based teacher education, which has as its central goal to educate inquiry-oriented teachers. The outcomes of this type of training are competencies that empower teachers to utilize scientific skills and thinking to critically examine their own practice and to make reflective changes in the moment as they teach. The integration and development of a scientific understanding of educational research and the research process supports a mindset of reflection and evidence-based inquiry that infuses throughout their pedagogical knowing and practice. 

How Do You Help Teachers Develop a Research Mindset and Skills? 

The question I carried with me throughout my adventure in Finland was how could I transfer my learning to my own context to benefit the professional lives of my colleagues? When I returned to my school district, I worked with a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create a continuing education course titled, "Engaging Teachers in Action Research."

karen_martin.pngThrough this course, my teaching colleagues and I developed the basic technical competencies to design participatory action research projects. Through the course, my colleagues could begin to understand how research thinking can be used to more objectively tackle recurring problems of practice and use new types of evidence to critically inform our decision-making, reflections, and our impact.

In the first year of our action research work, eight teachers collaboratively designed investigations to better understand and affect student engagement. Our collaboration forged relationships of authentic trust as we exposed ourselves to the vulnerability of opening up our classrooms to each other, sharing our fears and struggles in teaching, and working collectively to find answers to difficult problems that have persisted throughout our teaching careers.

How Do You Change Teacher Thinking?

One of the most powerful lenses and sources of evidence that my colleagues and I continue to utilize in our action research is a method of analyzing our own thinking in moments of teaching. This is accomplished through a method called "guided reflection" that uses video analysis. In our action research projects, we use video recordings to capture our classroom teaching for analysis of evidence. We then watch the videos of our teaching with a colleague within days of recording a video.

In the videos, we choose critical incidents that help us understand our pedagogical decisions related to our research questions. We analyze these critical incidents by asking what happened, why did it happen, what were we thinking when it happened, and why were we thinking that?

Through this intentional method of developing reflective thinking, we gather evidence directly related to our own impact within our classrooms and have increased our strength and capacity to inquire into our teaching practice at a deeper level. The use of video study has made us more mindful and changed our interactions and metacognition while we are present with students.

Can Experienced Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

During the second year of our action research, our cohort decided to investigate the concept of learned helplessness to better understand how we as teachers influence the ability of our students to persevere and develop positive beliefs about learning. Collectively, we asked:

  • How do we influence these behaviors in our students?
  • How can we influence our students' beliefs about learning?

Fundamentally, these questions are at the very core of our most important and transferable work with students—their ability to become self-regulated learners and their productive beliefs about learning.

The year-long investigation included seven different classrooms in our K-12 school and helped us to better understand what our students believe about learning. We engaged students in conversations about making mistakes, we structured student reflections around making thinking visible, we explicitly taught content about how the brain learns, and we made discussions about what learning feels like part of classroom culture.

Most importantly, our work involved video study analysis of the specific language we used with students and how we interact with students in the moments of teaching. These video reflections helped us realize how we needed to change our teaching behaviors to allow students to do the rigorous work of learning. It is only through video study that we observed how often we rushed in to help our students and how the specific language we used rescued our students from productive struggles and learning.

Through action research, including the use of video reflection, we have witnessed a powerful shift in the embedded beliefs of experienced teachers (some with over 20 years of experience), who had never stopped to question their own thinking and actions. We are experiencing some of the principles and outcomes of Finnish research-based teacher education.

By investigating our own practice and learning to reflect deeply on our pedagogical thinking and decision-making, we have initiated a powerful shift in our classroom cultures that has more firmly placed learning in the hands of our students. The impact of this work on our students and teachers is tangible. Teacher action research and the use of video study for guided reflection can change teacher thinking in a way that positively impacts the culture of learning for students.

Connect with Karen and Heather on Twitter.  
 Image created on Pablo

References:

Husu, J., Toom, A., & Patrikainen, S. (2008). Guided reflection as a means to demonstrate and develop student teachers' reflective competencies. Reflective Practice 9(1), 37 - 51.

Kansanen, P. (1991).  Pedagogical thinking: the basic problem of teacher education.  European Journal of Education, 26 (3), 251 - 260.

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