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Illustration 10: A teacher’s action research on her own biases

We adapted the illustration in this section from a teacher’s personal account of her eye-opening experience with action research (Wickett, 1997). Her experience took place in the context of the NSF-funded Equity in Mathematics Education Leadership Institute project (also known as the EMELI project).

In a workshop on equity issues, this teacher learned about the empirical evidence showing that teachers call on boys more often than girls in mathematics classrooms. She became interested in exploring whether she, too, had some unrecognized biases in the way she called upon students in her class. She feared such biases might impede her goal of providing equitable access and support to all her students.

While the focus of her action research was clear, she struggled with the decision of what kind of data to gather. She searched for a systematic way to examine her classroom practices that would not make her self-conscious and unduly influence her daily practice. After rejecting, for various reasons, the options of audiotaping or videotaping some of her classes, she decided to examine the charts that she routinely created to record students’ contributions in a mathematical discussion. As it was her practice to create these charts by writing down each student’s contribution verbatim, followed by the student’s name, these existing records were indeed ideal to address her question.

Her analysis of the charts created over several weeks revealed some interesting and surprising patterns. While there was not much difference in the numbers of girls and boys she called on, she noticed that she tended to call on the boys first. She also noticed that she usually included students with limited English proficiency only toward the end of the discussions. The teacher describes these findings as “upsetting” to her because they suggested unconscious biases in her behavior.

These finding led to the teacher reflecting on the reasons she called on students in a mathematical discussion and the potential implications of these instructional choices for her students’ learning opportunities. She realized that she tended to call on certain students first because she expected their contributions to be catalysts for other students’ ideas; she was also hesitant to call on students until they volunteered, and some students (especially students with limited English proficiency) tended to do so only later in the lesson, if at all. Despite these reasonable justifications, she concluded that her current practices were not truly giving all students equal opportunities to participate in her mathematics classes. She decided to try to change these practices.

To make sure that she gave all students an equal opportunity to answer first, she made a conscious effort to pause before calling on students during a mathematical discussion. Whenever possible, she asked other adults in the class to write down the students’ responses so that she could pay more attention to facilitating the discussion and to asking questions that could invite more students to contribute. To encourage more students to share in a large group, she also successfully experimented with the use of “dyad.” In this technique, each student has the opportunity to express his or her thoughts to a partner without interruption; each partner is allotted an equal amount of time and students may choose to use their primary language.

The teacher reports feeling empowered by this process. She was able to make positive changes in her classroom practice that resulted in better learning opportunities for her students. At the same time, she had done it at her own pace, taking only the steps she felt comfortable taking at the moment. She sums up her experience in this way:

I had enough information that I could make positive changes yet not so much information that I felt overwhelmed and defeated. … By looking at my practices honestly and without condemning myself, I began the process of recovery and change. … I was able to remain open, freeing myself to try new ideas with my students’ best interests in mind. (Wickett, 1997, p. 104)

Main elements and variations

Teachers can gather and make sense of information in many different ways. In the illustrations in this chapter, we highlighted the following elements common to gathering information and making sense of it:

Teachers gathered information for a purpose. In other words, teachers gathered data and evaluated it to address a felt need or answer a question they had posed themselves.
Teachers actively made sense of the information. Teachers engaged in hands-on interpretation of data, readings or presentations in each activity we reported.
Teachers made sense of the information in interaction with others. In all the activities, teachers at some point negotiated interpretations and made meaning with peers, facilitators and/or experts. Through this process, they benefited from different perspectives and others’ constructions of meaning.

Despite these common elements, professional development experiences in which teachers gather and making sense of information can be quite varied. This was already evident in our two illustrations, and many more variations are reported in the literature. Indeed, the professional development experiences examined in this chapter can be seen as a “collection” related by the fact that each example explicitly engages teachers in learning from and with information of various kinds.

Variations within this collection mostly depend on the source of the information, how the information is gathered, and how the information is examined and used.

As we consider the first variable, the source of the information, the following possibilities should be considered, as they can all present valuable learning opportunities for teachers:

Lectures or presentations. These can be offered by an expert, such as the mathematician in Illustration 9, a more experienced colleague, or even another member of the group. In Illustration 9, for example, each participant contributed a unit presentation.
Published texts. These could include for example articles, books, textbooks or curriculum series. All these resources were used in the inquiry on the geometry curriculum reported in Illustration 9.
Texts produced by other members of the learning community. These texts could be created by a facilitator, individual teachers or even the group as a whole. The list of key geometry ideas the group generated based on the unit presentations in Illustration 9 is a good example of this kind of text.
Videotaped excerpts. These could capture examples of classroom practice as well as other events related to school mathematics reform.
Materials available in electronic form. These could include CD-ROMs, information gathered from the Internet, and even data available in electronic databases.
Various kinds of artifacts. These could have been generated in classroom implementations (such as student work, lesson plans or the “discussion charts” used by the teacher in her action research reported in Illustration 10), or in other reform-related experiences (such as agendas or minutes of important meetings, policy documents, etc.).
Various kinds of data. These data could be the results of the teacher’s own observations or analysis of artifacts and/or demographic information (such as the number of times and the sequence in which different categories of students were called upon in the teacher’s classroom, as transpired from her analysis of the discussion charts in Illustration 10) or data available in the research literature or other sources (such as the data about boys being called on more than girls in mathematics classrooms that the teacher in Illustration 10 read about prior to her own action research).

Each source of information listed above may convey some informational content better than others. Also, different kinds of activities may be more appropriate than others for making sense of information conveyed from these different sources.

A second source of variation in this kind of professional development is how the information examined was gathered. This can happen mainly in two ways:

The facilitator selects the information and makes it accessible to the participating teachers.
The teachers themselves gather the information, following some directions or guidelines set by the facilitator.

The first option is often the preferred one because it saves teachers valuable time. Teachers also benefit from the facilitator’s expertise. However, there is value in empowering teachers to gather their own information, at least some of the time. Whether they search the library, browse the Internet, or collect their own data, teachers can learn skills that will serve them in the future as they research issues independently.

Finally, this type of professional development varies according to what is done with the information. Since the options in this case are too many and too context-dependent to list, we will simply refer readers to the two illustrations featured in this chapter for some examples. We would like to point out, however, how reading and conducting action research seem greatly enhanced when they occur in conjunction with other activities in summer institutes, workshops or study groups, rather than in isolation.

The role played by the professional development provider in this type of experiences may appear to be less central, yet it is by no means unimportant. Professional development providers can serve as invaluable resources for participants as they gather and make sense of information. Moreover, providers can be very influential in framing and guiding these activities and in connecting them to other parts of the professional development program. Depending on the content and format of the information gathering activities, providers may require different kinds of expertise in order to be effective.

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