Ambitious instruction – an example of where education schools fail

I read an interesting piece by Ben Riley about the decline in enrolments to traditional university-based teacher education courses. Riley’s piece had been prompted by an interaction with Maths Education Professor Ilana Horn and that reminded me of a paper by Horn that I had intended to write about.

Try entering the term ‘ambitious instruction’ into Google Scholar and see what comes back. You will find a whole load of articles with a similar format: A university-based teacher educator makes some adjustment to a teacher education program with the aim of ensuring that new teachers adopt ‘ambitious’ forms of pedagogy. The kind of teaching that this term describes is often not well-defined and no evidence is presented to convince us that it is effective. It is as if these papers are written for a reader who already knows what ambitious instruction is and already believes it to be superior.

Why is all of this left unsaid?

Horn’s paper with co-author Sara Campbell is a classic of this genre. In a wonderfully iterative touch, they have noticed that teacher education programs lack something in the learning-by-doing department and so they’ve tried to re-engineer their mathematics teacher preparation course to make it more experiential, all with the aim of promoting ‘ambitious instruction’.

They are aware that there is a conflict inherent in teaching education students to disdain traditional approaches to instruction and then sending these students to learn their craft in placement schools that use fairly traditional methods. Horn and Campbell suggest a new way of looking at things that values some of what the traditional teachers know:

“…taking the larger view on the cultural context of teaching, we can reframe the misalignment between university methods and the field. Instead of positioning traditional practices as a deficit of the teachers themselves, we contextualize their ubiquity, in part, as a consequence of how schooling is organized. Additionally, we as teacher educators value what practicing teachers do have to offer, even if their instructional methods do not align to the ideal of ambitious practice. For instance, they often have deep knowledge of their students, parents, community setting and time management on the job.”

As you wade through the case-studies in the paper, you catch a glimpse of what ambitious instruction might look like. It has to involve ‘rich’ problems, whatever they are. It seems to require group-work because there is an emphasis on the education students learning how to manage this. Lessons also need to be ‘discussion-centered’ and the notion of ‘engagement’ needs to be redefined to allow for non-academic chat:

“Teachers working in discussion-centred classrooms need to reconceptualize what student engagement looks like in this different setting. For instance, if students are given a modelling problem to calculate which fast food chains’ French fries are a better deal, they will most likely talk about French fries, fast food chains and other related topics in addition to linear equations if they are engaged in the problem. When we broaden the terrain of student learning and give students opportunities for sensemaking, the scope of their talk will change accordingly, leading to different images of “engagement”.”

An education student has an epiphany:

“I noticed that the students talked almost non-stop during the groupwork session. Their discourse switched seamlessly and rapidly between math talk and social talk – even some quiet singing/chanting. I was using the task, social/personal, and behavior identifiers we discussed in our Adolescent Development class to track interactions. After a few minutes, I noticed that the boys continued to make steady progress on their worksheet even as they bantered back and forth. Math talk seemed to break out whenever one of the students had a question or was stuck on the problem. Then other group members would explain their solution or offer suggestions. Just as quickly, the conversation returned to non-math related topics. This pattern repeated continuously. At the end of the hour, the group had stayed together and completed the front of the worksheet. During the Teacher Checkout [a class- room routine], each boy was able to successfully explain his reasoning in problem #3. This made me wonder about the way I code student discourse.”

Again, it is not entirely clear why this is desirable. We might have good reason to at least question this approach. For instance, evidence from process-project research suggests that a teacher orientation towards whole-class teaching and academic time on task correlates positively with student performance:

“Effective maths teachers emphasise academic instruction, and see learning as the main classroom goal. This means that they spend most of their time on curriculum-based learning activities, and create a task-oriented, businesslike, but also supportive, environment. They spend time on academic activities rather than on personal matters, group dynamics, socialising or free time…

Research has found that classrooms where more time is spent teaching the whole class, rather than on letting individual pupils work by themselves (e.g. with worksheets), show higher pupil achievement gains. This is mainly because teachers in these classrooms provide more thoughtful and thorough presentations, spend less time on classroom management, enhance time-on-task and can make more child contacts.”

I think the Horn and Campbell paper is representative of a key area where education schools fail. Researchers working in these schools talk to those already inducted in to the same norms and assumptions while going right over the heads of teachers and others involved in education.

Schools of education must make more of an effort to fully explain themselves and their practices to a wider audience.

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4 Comments on “Ambitious instruction – an example of where education schools fail”

  1. Benjamin J Riley says:

    Hi Greg,

    I’m glad you found my blog post interesting — I’ve certainly felt the same about many of yours, including this most recent essay about Ilana Horn and ambitious instruction. Horn has blocked me on Twitter and said some rather charged things to me both publicly and privately, so it’s not always been easy for me to feel positively toward her. Sadly, our disagreement over teacher shortages appears to have damaged our professional relationship, likely beyond repair.

    But here’s something that may surprise you: despite our differences, I believe Ilana Horn is an outstanding teacher educator. We need more Ilana Horns in education schools, not less. My reasons for believing this are drawn from a variety of experiences, none of which you may find persuasive — but I’ll offer them nonetheless.

    First, Horn is deeply committed to actually preparing teachers. Unfortunately, many so-called “teacher educators” do not share her commitment to this mission, perhaps because the incentives in higher education are such that research is often prioritized far more than instruction. I realize this may seem a low bar to set, but the sad reality is that we still have a long way to go before the preparation of future teachers becomes the central mission of education schools.

    Second, Horn doesn’t just clear this low bar — she soars above it. She does this by blogging about issues related to teacher education, interacting with and inspiring practicing teachers through social media and conferences, and publishing articles in academic journals centered around teacher education and the practice of teaching — and those are just the activities I’m aware of. If you asked me to name another teacher educator who stretches this far in attempting to improve the effectiveness of future educators, I would be at a loss to do so. I not only respect Ilana Horn for this; I admire her.

    Now, here is where you might interject to dispute Horn’s vision of what effective education should entail, and demand evidence that “ambitious instruction” is more effective than, say, direct instruction. And I suspect neither she nor I could provide evidence you would find sufficient. In my view, however, our failure to do so should not be seen as evidence of some failure of education schools so much as a reflection of philosophical differences of what effective instruction should be, or what classroom environments should look like. The is cannot resolve the ought.

    I’ll close by saying that I think these pedagogical debates and indicators of a healthy intellectual climate that we should be fostering, not discouraging. Ilana Horn has made an invaluable contribution to that conversation and to the field of teacher education. I’m grateful for this — even if it’s been very hard for me to communicate that gratitude.

    Cheers,
    Ben

  2. […] there. Across the world, education schools prioritise projects such as ensuring teachers use ‘ambitious instruction‘ – another set of progressive education practices that appear to be pursued for mainly […]

  3. […] at maths whilst others want them to improve their collaborative skills. Some educators think that a skilled teacher should accommodate off-topic conversation. Others do […]


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