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'Wisdom of Practice' Studies Provide Perspective on Teaching

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What Lee S. Shulman calls "wisdom of practice'' studies are providing the Stanford Univerity teacher-assessment project with an essential ingredient in any move toward better professional evaluation: a clearer understanding of how seasoned teachers think about and approach their work.

The studies undertaken by the Stanford researchers will give an in-depth look at how 22 exemplary teachers teach elementary-school mathematics and high-school history--the first two fields for which prototype assessments are being developed.

"The wisdom-of-practice studies are predicated on the assumption that our very best teachers are already capable of performance in the classroom that neither our theories nor our research is yet capable of explaining, much less predicting,'' said Mr. Shulman, the project's principal investigator.

Because of this, he said, "the sources of our standards for teaching have to go beyond what the research literature says, and include carefully rendered accounts of what teachers are actually doing in the field.''

He argued that such studies should lend "credence and credibility'' to the decision to provide teachers and researchers with an equal voice in setting standards for test development.

'Professional Amnesia'

In a broader sense, Mr. Shulman said, the exemplary-teacher studies address what he describes as a personal obsession: the field's "professional amnesia.''

"Most other professions have a natural manner in which they record, for purposes of later study and enlightenment, both the processes and the products of their practitioners,'' he said.

"If I'm in architecture, I can go back and study the plans that other architects have developed and designed. I can even study successive drafts of those plans. And then I can go look at the buildings and walk through them.''

In contrast, he noted, "great teaching, just like mediocre teaching, disappears into thin air as soon as it's completed.''

"We don't have a way of accumulating the exemplars of good teaching and somehow making them available for study,'' said the Stanford professor of education.

In that sense, he said, the wisdom-of-practice studies are contributing to a "substantial and serious case literature about teaching.''

Interviews, Observations

Suzanne Wilson, director of the Stanford research project, and Gaea Leinhardt, senior research associate with the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, are directing work on the case studies.

The teachers being studied come from California, Connecticut, Michigan, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. They were nominated by colleagues, administrators, and inservice instructors, and their final selections depended on a number of criteria, including the types of students they teach and the schools they serve. Minority representation was also a factor.

Each wisdom-of-practice study consists of approximately 10 interviews on a range of topics.

For example, the teachers were asked in one interview to give a step-by-step description of a particular lesson they had planned, including samples of the materials they used.

In another interview, elementary-math teachers were presented with a number of problems that students might encounter on a worksheet or a test. They were asked to sort the problems by type and level of difficulty, and to describe the conceptual understandings a student would need to answer them.

"The logic of the interviews,'' Ms. Wilson said, "has been to think of things that teachers do--activities they engage in--that will serve as a forum through which you can look at the knowledge they have and their use of knowledge.''

To complement the interviews, the researchers have tried to observe each teacher's classroom at least six times.

Theoretical Model

The researchers are trying to match the data from the interviews and the classrooms with a theoretical model of how teachers think about their subject, and the steps they take to teach it effectively.

In addition, they are highlighting ways teachers reason that are not reflected in existing models of teaching--such as the way values influence what teachers choose to teach.

"Another piece that seems to be missing [in current models about teaching],'' Ms. Wilson said, "is passion for the subject matter.''

"A number of people report that they went into teaching because they love the content, and they want to communicate that passion for the content to kids. That's not in any model of the logical components of a knowledge base.''

The researchers are also trying to describe and record particular experiences or "stories'' that have shaped teachers' instruction--in the same way that precedents have shaped legal arguments.

For example, Ms. Wilson said,one teacher was observed teaching a lesson about the Vietnam War, during which a student became very upset. Later, the teacher discovered that the student's father had died in Vietnam. That experience taught the teacher to be careful about the way he discusses wars in the future.

"Well, where's the principle there?'' Ms. Wilson asked. "What kind of general statement do you make? 'Whenever you teach about war, you have to worry about whether the kid's grandfather or father was a veteran of that war?' That doesn't make sense to me.''

"It's a story, not a principle,'' she said. "Teachers don't apply these stories across any situation. They use their judgment. They use reason. And they have a vast amount of experience that they pull as knowledge in a variety of forms.''

Exercise Development

The reactions of veteran teachers to particular tasks that overlap with test exercises will also help determine how the exercises are judged.

In addition, Ms. Wilson said, the case studies provide a "rich'' source of ideas for new exercises, and a way to try out some of those tasks on willing participants.

With support from the Ford and Spencer foundations, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Shulman have also spent several years doing similar case studies of novice teachers.

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