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'Unlearning' and 'Mirroring': Transforming Instruction

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This post is by Christopher Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth professor of learning technologies at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and Kim Frumin, a Harvard Innovation Lab Doctoral Fellow.

In March 2014, the College Board grabbed headlines with its plan to overhaul the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) by cutting obscure vocabulary and making the essay optional. In contrast, the recent changes that the College Board has made to Advanced Placement (AP) tests have garnered much less attention. Although AP courses are intended to promote rigorous, college-level instruction for high school students, AP tests have been criticized for privileging breadth over depth. In response to both this criticism and to the 2002 National Research Council (NRC) report on STEM education (Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools), AP Biology, Chemistry, and Physics curricula and exams were redesigned. These courses now emphasize scientific inquiry and reasoning, as well as depth of understanding for big ideas in science, over fixed, broad content coverage of facts. Subsequent NRC reports (A Framework for K-12 Science Education, 2012 and Successful K-12 STEM Education, 2011) and the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next-Generation Science Standards have emphasized the importance of this shift.

These are sweeping changes to a long-standing educational program.  Hundreds of thousands of AP science students--and their teachers--are now expected to grapple with the inquiry process, real world applications of scientific principles, and synthesis of content knowledge at a higher level than ever before. These redesigned AP courses aim to promote deeper learning for students, but what learning for teachers is required to make these changes, and what are the most effective ways to support teachers in this shift?

These are the questions we are investigating as members of the "Professional Development for the Redesigned Advanced Placement" (PD-RAP) project, a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative research endeavor between the University of Massachusetts Boston, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the Educational Development Center, and Harvard University. Our research explores which kinds of professional development best support teachers in adapting to these new AP curricula and exams and how teachers' professional development needs and patterns evolve over time. To help teachers learn about the revisions, the College Board and other providers offer a range of professional development options, from weeklong summer workshops to short face-to-face courses, online self-paced courses, downloadable resources, and online peer-learning communities.

One of the things we've determined in the first part of this longitudinal study is that individual teacher characteristics--such as age, gender, years of experience teaching a given AP class, attitudes toward professional development, and most significant, challenges with the redesigned approach--strongly inform the type of professional development teachers choose. This suggests that teachers are aligning their professional development selections with their perceived needs. As a result, it is critical to provide a range of professional development options to support teachers with their different needs, as they move through a large-scale change in curricula and assessments. 

Of the many forms of professional development we have examined thus far, participation in the online AP Teacher Community (a College Board website where teachers can discuss teaching strategies, share resources, and connect with each other) seems to have the largest positive direct association with both teacher practice and student outcomes, and the relationship is statistically significant. This finding is intriguing and we are now exploring its causes, as "participation" can take varied forms, such as sharing resources every day, posting comments once a month, or just "lurking" within the community once a year.

While we don't know the optimal dosage or intensity of participation in the AP Teacher Community to achieve impact on teacher practice and student outcomes, we are planning to apply--but have not yet formally investigated--two frameworks, unlearning and mirroring, that might inform how the AP teacher online community is useful to teachers in navigating the current revisions.  

Unlearning. Teachers might acquire important aspects of making a major instructional shift via community interactions, sustained over time, related to sharing resources and grappling with questions of practice. We hypothesize that a significant component of this collective learning may be "unlearning." Transforming one's practice to a different suite of objectives, content, and instructional strategies is very challenging because teachers must not only learn new skills, but also unlearn almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions, and values about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling. Professional development requires unlearning mental models developed through years. We believe that the online community might provide a sustained space for teachers to learn and "unlearn" together, but need to formally investigate whether or not this is the case.

Mirroring. Another possible reason that the online community might be effective is that it mirrors, rather than undercuts, the new instructional practices that teachers are to use with their students. For example, the online community offers a collaborative learning environment that enables a team to combine its knowledge and skills, similar to modern scientific practice. This mirroring is also present in the apprenticeship-based learning that is possible when master AP teachers "mentor" less experienced AP teachers through sharing of lessons and labs, answering questions, and posting evidence of what instructional practices worked well. To further emphasize the practice of mirroring, we are suggesting that the AP Teacher Community could also include:

  • Case-based learning to master core scientific themes and inquiry strategies through analysis of real-world situations
  • Multiple, varied representations of concepts that provide different ways of explaining complicated concepts to enable personalization of content

In this way, the delivery of professional development will reinforce and be consistent with its message to achieve the desired impact. Again, we need to formally investigate whether or not mirroring is a substantial component of these teacher professional communities.

As noted, we are in the very early stages of uncovering the most effective ways to support teachers in the dramatic revision of AP Biology, Chemistry, and Physics curricula. While we are thinking about developing new types of deeper learning experiences for students, let's also be mindful of how we are supporting, transitioning (with opportunities for "unlearning"), and recreating these experiences for teachers. We hypothesize that if professional development supports "unlearning" and mirrors the open-ended application and synthesis desired from students, then teachers will be better supported in transitioning to new curricula and exams. Research will determine whether these strategies are effective. 

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