Caroline and Jacob joined us on episode 018 Listen for What’s Behind the Words to discuss how they research responsive teaching with veteran teachers.
Ralph: So this month’s primary segment; I had a chance to travel down to Texas to do a professional development event with the UTeach program and all of the replication sites from around the country where we got together and talked about best practices associated with teacher preparation programs. During that process they had a poster session where students and faculty and anybody who may be interested had an opportunity to share all the work that they’ve been doing on some particular topic. During that session I was really excited to get to stop and chat with a couple of F.S.U. students who did some really interesting work that I wanted to hear more about. So honestly, I just stand there in the middle of that poster session was like, “Hey, you want to come on the podcast and tell me more about it,” and they, foolishly, were like, “Yeah, totally. We’re going to do that.” So we have them on the show to chat with us about the work they’re doing down in Florida. Let me introduce you to Caroline Herbster who Is entering her senior year at Florida State University where she is a pre-service secondary mathematics teacher in the FSU-Teach program. She began undergraduate research on responsive teaching during her sophomore year of college exploring the tensions and affordances of taking up the approach. Caroline hopes to teach middle school math and looks forward to implementing these pre-service experiences and research findings in future classrooms. We also have Jacob Truett who is a rising senior at Florida State University in the F.S.U. teach program where he is currently pursuing degrees in education and biology. In his hopes to one day work with curriculum design and development, he first dove into undergraduate research with Caroline Herbster and Dr. Lama Jaber by looking at the affordances and tensions that are inherent to response teaching. He is looking forward to implementing the strategies he has learned, not only in developing curriculum, but in his own middle school science classroom. Welcome to both of you.
Caroline: Thanks for having us.
Jacob: Yeah thank you.
Ralph: Why don’t you just give us the short version. Imagine that we are once again walking around in the poster session and a couple of us come ambling up and we’re like, “Hey, what’s going on with your posters? Tell us about what you know about responsive teaching.”
Caroline: Sure. Responsive teaching is a strategy that really kind of flips that traditional style we often see in classrooms. Instead of teachers taking content and directly giving it to the students or actually teaching them, I like to say that response teaching kind of flips that so that we focus on the students. We listen to their ideas, their perspectives, their backgrounds what they bring to the classroom and really open up the room for that discourse that focuses on the students and allows them to really be the sensemakers and drive the content instruction.
Jacob: Something else that’s a really, really important when it comes to responsive teaching is the fact that it really engaging all students, no matter if they feel represented in a traditional STEM classroom, or really any classroom, or if they don’t feel represented in that classroom, because it is taking the students’ ideas and using them to foreground the entire lesson. No matter what their background is, they always have a voice and a reason and a way to get into a conversation.
Ralph: Give us a little bit of context because your both pre-service teachers right? What’s the nature of the actual work that you are doing since you’re both yet to be in your own classrooms?
Caroline: Good Question. Yes, we are part of the FSU-Teach program at Florida State University. For those who aren’t familiar with U-Teach style, we are both pursuing two degrees. I’m focusing, my primary degree is in mathematics, Jake’s primary degree is in biology, and then our other degree is in education through this FSU-Teach program. Our classes are really focused on STEM education, student centered teaching, and smaller courses that allow us to explore those instructional pathways. In FSU-Teach, one of the courses that really opened our eyes to responsive teaching was Knowing and Learning. In the knowing and learning course, a lot of our assignments that we did, we would watch videos of responsive classrooms, or not necessarily responsive teaching classrooms, but math and science classrooms where these students are engaging in discourse about the subject and having very high opening conversations where they’re able to talk about certain topics without necessarily having right or wrong answers. That’s one of the things that I think responsive teaching really allows for and illuminates, is opening up that classroom to all students’ voices with and within that, making sure that the students have an agency, and that they don’t ever feel like they are being put down for ideas that they’re bringing to the classroom or the table. As I was saying, we are really open to responsive teaching within this course, knowing and learning, but in knowing and learning we were focusing more on the students’ perspective of things. Trying to, as teachers, as pre-service teachers, trying to put ourselves in the perspective of students to better understand how we might ask questions, or write lessons, From there, Jake and I really were interested in what’s going on at the teacher level of this. You know we’ve consistently put ourselves in the students’ perspective trying to understand their prior knowledge, or prior misconceptions, or even their cultural backgrounds and and how that affects their perspective on a hot topic in the classroom, but then we were curious as, well, “How are the teachers taking this up?” and, “What are they feeling on their side?” so that was really what motivated our research. Then we were able to do an independent study with Dr Lama Jaber where we worked with her with research and data collection that she had already done from a professional development, but we were analyzing videos for the most part in which we were looking more at the teachers than the students.
Ralph: In the stories you’re telling us, we we’ve talked a couple of times about the importance of getting in each other’s classrooms, seeing other people practice their profession, and then taking lessons for ourselves and feeding back to others. Can you tell us a little more about the teachers You’re watching in the videos.
Jacob: Yeah, that is an awesome question. The context of our research was in twelve upper elementary and middle school science classrooms. All the teachers that we watched were what we would consider veteran teachers with about ten plus years of experience each. Each of them had never been exposed to responsive teaching before this professional development course. It was a three part course. In the first one, the teachers themselves got to experience responsive teaching as students. They sat back and they were asked these open ended question and felt that discomfort with just having their ideas out the open. Moving into the second course, the teachers were asked to implement their own responsive teaching in their classroom. That was where most of our data collection came from because we would watch these videos, and get that kind spectator eye into these awesome classrooms, full of this rich discussion that brought about all these tensions that really spurred all of our research. Watching these classrooms, it was really cool to see that these veteran teachers who have been in the classroom for so long were struggling with the same things that we as pre-service teachers were struggling with. Even as these teachers with so much experience and understanding how to teach, and going through class after class after class, and also being taught responsive teaching, they too struggled, which is always really good and comforting to feel because sometimes you feel like you’re going through this all alone. No matter what your level of expertise is there’s always going to be a level of discomfort with something new. Having never been taught responsively, necessarily, it’s really cool to see the difference that arises in each classroom, because each of the classrooms we got to see was very different in the way that they approached responsive teaching and the way that they took up response teaching, and the ways the class received the responsive effect of it. Having that spectator eye, to where we weren’t the one being uncomfortable and we weren’t the awkward ones in front of the classroom trying to get these students to have these ideas and put them out in the world, was really cool because it’s just solidified the feelings we have, but also emphasized how good these tensions were for us to be feeling and how that awkwardness really propelled students to think more in-depth and create these better ideas and these stories within their own head. When we went into this research, tension wasn’t what we were going after. We went into this research very open minded. Dr. Lama Jaber was just like, “Heres these videoes. Help me analyze them. As we watch the videos, we took notes every week. We met up in person. We talked and over time we started to realize that tensions, among the class, among the teacher, we noticed that all of these tensions were something that we all commonly noticed, and so that is what eventually led our research to focus on tension.
Ralph: Give us an operational definition of tension. What are we talking about when we say tension.
Caroline: Tension is the word that we use for any kind of decision moment. The tension is not necessarily…, I don’t know how to word what I want to say.
Jacob: We always struggled with defining this.
Ralph: You mention showing the struggle is valuable in watching these veteran teachers as fledglings. I think the same is true of this conversation. It doesn’t have to be clean and crisp. This isn’t a press release, so we can talk about it. It is alright.
Caroline: What we say are tensions are really the in situ decision that you have to make. Jake talked about how we have this really qualitative work where we’re coding and analyzing these videos, taking notes, and we observed that oftentimes these teachers would hesitate in the classroom. You can see when they would not be certain if they should follow students’ divergent ideas, or stick more to their kind of canonical goal in the discussion, or where they hoped that this discourse would go. Tensions really are the challenges that you face in the classroom in navigating responsive teaching, in choosing whether or not to follow student divergences or follow all these ideas that you’re opening your classroom to, or more so following a stricter idea of your expectations for what you’re going to cover in the discussion or or in the classroom.
Ralph: Well you list some quotes on your poster that I think really speak to this question. One of the lower quotes down here, a teacher reported getting a handle on how far to let tangent questions or explorations go before shutting them down in order to redirect back to the original question was a source of concern or trepidation. I think that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, that’s a thing we ought to think about.
Caroline: Michael, you just read the one from piecing and time constraints about tangent questions, getting a handle on how far to let them go before redirecting. That’s a very valid tension that you face in the classroom whether you’re trying to be responsive and follow divergent ideas or you know sticking more to that traditional style, students often raise their hand and ask questions that don’t seem to relate to what we’re talking about, but I think it’s very important to consider that everything that’s brought to the discussion in a classroom is brought up because the student thinks that it is related to what’s being discussed. Even from the teacher level, hearing something or looking at a paper, seeing something a student’s written and often times we might think, “This is so off topic, This doesn’t relate,” but to that student it does. It’s important to make sure that they they feel that validity and then within that there is the tension of, “OK, how long do I let this go on? How long can we talk about this question that really I didn’t expect to explore today?” We’re not saying that you have to respond to them in certain ways. We’re not saying that you you must take up this tension this way in order to be responsive, or if you don’t follow a students divergent idea, then you’re not being responsive to them. That’s not true at all. There are many ways to be a response in the classroom. Sometimes being responsive is going to require additional research and looking at some more resources and coming back to the students question or idea another day when you know a bit more about what they want to talk about and what they are talking about. What I’m saying with this really, is just that there are many ways to navigate the tensions that arise in a classroom. One of our goals with this research is really to highlight that these tensions are just natural to responsive teaching. Not necessarily to highlight how to respond to the tension but just to highlight that trying to be responsive and implementing responsive teaching into your classroom is going to inherently bring up tensions that you may not be as comfortable with if you’re used to that traditional style of teaching.
Laurence: Sounds like a public service announcement. You’re on the hype train. You want to get into responsive teaching, and there’s some rocky shores and that’s OK. These are some things you should look out for. When you feel them, that’s normal, because it’s tough and it’s different, but you’re not in crazy town. These are some of the challenges of doing this.
Ralph: As you first sort of navigate the ambiguity of letting students have more ownership of the conversation that they can feel really weird especially as you mentioned, I think all of these teachers were veteran teachers, and so if it’s different than your past experience it can sometimes be a little bit of anxiety inducing if it is not what you’re used to, but then I think you share some other quotes later on as they become more comfortable and more adept at navigating that ambiguous space where students are driving the conversation and were spotlighting more divergent comments, the discussions that arise are really satisfying. A student’s pursuit to that more authentic sense making, and man, that is the good stuff. We’ve talked about that before. I want to put one of those quotes on tape as well because there’s one that I like a whole bunch in your comments about the affordances of responsive teaching where there’s a teacher who said, “I look forward to continuing the practice of doing science in meaningful way not by giving the students the answer but by talking, questioning, and testing ideas to find it together,” and I think that kind of highlights, it’s scary. It is. We should be honest about that. It’s different. If we’re doing it right then that ambiguity persists. We don’t solve that uncertainty year over year or class or class, but it’s compelling. It can be a really satisfying bit of work if we can become comfortable in that uncertain space. What are the specific things that you do or could recommend to any of the listeners who maybe want to promote some of their own responsive teaching or offer some professional development or some advice or some recommendations to some of their colleagues? What were some of the things or some of the shoulds from your your investigation?
Jacob: Especially for any listener who is trying to get people on board with response teaching, is simply just go into the research. Look at all these different articles and books that are all written on responsive teaching and the benefits that come from it. Take that, run with it. Talk to your administration, talk to fellow teachers, talk to anyone about possibly doing one to two responsive lessons, just in the beginning kind of feel it out. Don’t think that you need to instantly switch your entire classroom and be, “I’m only responsive. That’s it. I can’t do anything else,” because that’s not going to be realistic, but it doesn’t have to be a constant responsiveness. You can do just one lesson. You can do one lesson a week. Something like that just to get yourself started and start to understand the tension that you’re going to personally feel, because they’re going to be different for everyone. Start to understand the tensions and then work through them. More and more practice is going to make you more more comfortable, but you’re never going to be one hundred percent comfortable giving over your control, because every year it’s going to be different. Every class is going to be different. Every minute of every day is different. Just working to understand how you’re going to respond to it and figuring out how it’s going to best work in your own.
Caroline: I would say the first thing to do, I think, especially if you’re listening to this podcast you’re likely a teacher who cares about what your students think, and want student ideas in the classroom, and so even if you wouldn’t say that you are a responsive teacher, or you’ve never even heard of responsive teaching maybe, and you haven’t tried implementing this, it’s likely that you are already doing very responsive things in the classroom. I would recommend first sitting down and thinking about what ways you are responsive in the classroom already. Whether that is just providing more probing questions in the classroom, and asking your students to really think about what they’re saying, that’s something that’s responsive. There are many ways to be responsive in little ways in the classroom, even in that traditional style that I have mentioned quite a few times. Another very representative way of responsive teaching is to ask a kind of open ended launching question in the classroom. This is what Jake and I really observed in the videos that we’ve discussed from this professional development. The most common thing that we were looking at in responsive teaching where open ended launch questions. For example, a teacher might ask their science classroom something like, “How do clouds form,” or “What happens to puddles after the rain stops and they all disappear?” That would be something at a lower level, an elementary level likely, but that’s something that really gets the class engaging in this scientific discussion, which is where our research is in. I am studying mathematics, so I plan on being responsive in the mathematics context as well. This is something that you could apply to any classroom regardless of subject. I think that’s really important to note. Being responsive is something that you can do in any context, whether you’re in the classroom or not, you can be responsive teacher when you’re not standing in front of everybody. Allow for sometimes those uncomfortable conversations when things are brought up that maybe other students don’t understand or aren’t familiar with whether it has to do with something cultural or maybe the use of vocabulary when students use the same words to mean different things or different words to mean the same thing. One of the tensions that I personally like to really think about or one of the tensions I would like to explore more in future research has to do with the use of vocabulary and students using content terminology in incorrect ways, in ways that aren’t necessarily accurate. One of the videos that we analyzed was the teacher discussing plate tectonics. In this video she had used the word plate tectonics prior to defining what it meant. A lot of the students were using the term in a way that they thought was appropriate but wasn’t necessarily accurate. She ended up asking questions like, “When you say plate, do you mean a dinner plate?” and so sometimes being responsive can be and as simple as asking your students to define what they mean so that you create more of a shared understanding in the classroom and you are able to have a more developed discourse and discussion about whatever you may be exploring.
Laurence: Yeah! OK! I got some things. One. Language usage is so important. I know that we’re going to talk about that again in this episode and holding our students accountable to proper language usage is an important way to differentiate between answer seeking behavior and sense making behavior because if they just have to say the word plate tectonics, and everybody says, “Yeah, yeah you got it,” then they got the answer, but they do they can explain what they’re talking about. Holding students accountable to the language is a super important part of responsive teaching, especially when you put them in the hot seat, either on their own or collaboratively with their other students to really pin that language down. I’m glad you brought that up. Another thing that I want to say is that when you were discussing the importance of open ended questions you call them launch questions, though sure you can use them at the beginning as the intro, I would say you should have them throughout all of their experiences and discourses entirely. I would just say use open ended questions, and I would drop the launch, because I don’t want to confine them to the beginning of an experience. You gave two examples of questions you said, “What happens when puddles disappear?” and “How does a cloud form?” and you said “What happens to puddles?” might be a lower level question, and what is beautiful about responsive teaching is that those two questions are like post-doctoral level questions also. What happens when a puddle disappears? You can make them get to really complex thermodynamic kinetic explanation of that, or you can tone that down and use whatever resolution you want. So open ended questions not only do they prompt more discussion amongst the students, and more thoughts about how do I answer this question they can be answered so many ways, you also have the power to respond to their answers as deeply or as shallowly as you want to in the classroom. Those open ended questions I find are like the cornerstone of that response of teaching practice. It gives you so much control by giving up specificity.
Ralph: Other than that, what is next for both of you. Are you still looking for classrooms because F.S.U. is producing some serious teachers down there apparently. What’s next for both of you.
Jacob: Both Caroline and I are going through our apprentice teaching in the spring, this upcoming spring. For me, my next step is dependent on where I get a job. Whether that be in Florida or back in Ohio where I’m from, but I would like to start off in a middle school classroom, get some experience under my belt before going back to any sort of grad school, or things like that. I would like to get involved in more research if possible. Right now the future is very wide open.
Caroline: I’m pretty congruent with Jake. Doing my apprentice teaching at the same time, spring twenty-nineteen, and then we’ll graduate and eventually I’d like to go to grad school. I’m not really sure what I want to study yet, which is why I want to be in the classroom first, and also, even when we do our internship, we’re still going to have student assignments, we have to participate in seminar on campus and those kinds of things. I really can’t wait to just have a couple years in the classroom. I’m just being a teacher, not also being a student. I mean of course we’re lifelong learners, but looking forward to getting in the classroom and getting some of that hands on experience and responsive teaching experience and then maybe coming back to school, and well probably certainly coming back to school and using that to help further my education.
Ralph: That’s excellent. I appreciate both of your time, and let me tell you, there are classrooms and job opportunities in Kansas, not to mention a pretty great grad school. So if you’re interested…
Laurence: I know at least one principal that listens to this show and likes to hire responsive teachers.
Ralph: Thank you. You’ve both been wonderful. This is some good work. Well done.