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Curriculum Deliberations Over Time: A Nexus of Teacher Dilemmas, Questions, Experimentation, and Agency

by Richard Sawyer - 2017

This article examines 24 teachers’ perceptions of their curriculum and curricular choices over their first 11 years of teaching. Adaptive expertise and teacher visioning were used as a conceptual frameworks. A theme of diversity runs through the alternate route elementary teachers. Some of these teachers from diverse backgrounds promoted a social justice curriculum, but their teaching skills often lagged behind their goals for societal change. Eventually, on both the alternate route elementary and secondary levels, some of these teachers valued and implemented an integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum. The college-prepared teachers focused more on the creation of integrated learning environments on the elementary level and the adaptation of content to learning on the secondary level. Some of the college-prepared secondary teachers used more learning-centered approaches in all their classes from the start of their careers. Others were more influenced by the classroom context (the level of the class or the subject matter) and initially were more innovative in their beginning or “basic skills” classes than in their advanced classes. Most of the teachers in both preparation groups who remained in the classroom began to develop a sense of adaptive expertise.

In the mid-twentieth century, Suzanne Langer (1942) described the ways which paradigms expire as new questions seize our imagination. She notes, in particular, how new questions are often framed in terms foreign to old paradigms—the new questions are written in a “New Key.” (Peck, 1999)

While referring to epistemological paradigms, Langer’s thesis raises questions about teachers’ curriculum decisions: How do teachers’ curriculum choices change over time? What questions related to curriculum do they consider? How do these questions impact their curriculum decisions? And how is it that some teachers begin to make curriculum decisions in counterintuitive ways, leading to personal “paradigm shifts” and views of teaching and learning in a “new key”?

To explore these questions, this article first presents a “broad-brush” description of the patterns of curriculum decision making by the alternate route and college-prepared elementary and secondary exemplar teachers. Following this discussion, in-depth narratives of two teachers who both effected change in their classrooms and their schools are presented.


Teachers make thousands of choices daily that reflect a constellation of forces and processes. More obvious choices include those about students, materials, grading, classroom management, curriculum pacing, and student assessment. Less obvious choices include those about the relationship between curriculum and communities, social justice, and school reform.

As teachers make choices, their beliefs about subject matter, students, teachers, and learning environments meet a dizzying array of value-laden forces. Given the multilevel nature of curriculum, a range of stakeholders participate in curriculum making processes (Sowell, 2000). This participation is often done on an individual level, with students, parents, and even administrators, or it may take place on a more abstract or policy level, as with district or state accountability measures.

Often these forces are neither clearly consistent nor even clearly inconsistent with teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, but rather are more ill defined and ambiguous, placing teachers on a shifting and often politicized landscape. For example, although teachers may support the concept of standards for students, the content and high-stakes nature of accompanying assessments may not be consistent with attempts to create a nurturing classroom environment. Daily, teachers draw on their knowledge of subject matter, child development, and social context and “must be able to negotiate the interests of all of those who have an investment in what ought to be taught in a given classroom” (Bolin, 1987, p. 102).

Many additional contexts influence curriculum choices that teachers make. For example, these choices are intricately interwoven with their sense of identity in the classroom (Bradbeer, 1998; Grumet, 1988). As individuals develop in multiple and often inconsistent ways, views of curriculum and teaching approaches may also develop along multiple paths—within the same individual (Sawyer, 2004). Whereas some of these paths may be seemingly linear, others may be more recursive, counterintuitive, and metaphoric (in the sense of applying concepts from one subject to another). Teachers’ personal histories in relation to their schooling add another layer to how they make choices (Sawyer, 2004). For example, some teachers identify strongly with their own teachers, whereas others are “counter-identifiers” and more rebellious (Lortie, 1975). This sense of identification has a complex relationship to the content and depth of teachers’ reflection on their practice (Zeichner & Liston, 1996). Furthermore, teachers’ vision for their curriculum may play an important guiding role to their decision making (Duffy, 2002; Vaughn & Faircloth, 2013).


The concept of teacher as curriculum maker presents a framework for understanding the timing and the locations of teachers’ choices. Curriculum making suggests that teachers play an active role in both the formulation of curriculum and its enactment, thus assuming the lack of a duality between these two domains. This assumption reformulates the conception of the teacher as something separate from the curriculum (Clandinin & Connelly, 1992; Paris, 1993; Zumwalt, 1988) and recognizes a level of teacher agency (Paris, 1993). Curriculum making involves processes generated by the dynamic interrelationship of Schwab’s (1973) four commonplaces of curriculum: multiple milieus, subject matter, teachers, and students. Within the classroom, the notion of curriculum making underscores the view that curriculum is partly created in the process of its use. In this view of curriculum, the distinction between material and methods, curriculum and instruction, is erased (Clandinin & Connelly, 1992); curriculum knowledge “is not viewed as a product or an event, but rather as an ongoing process,” which recognizes externally designed curriculum as a possible resource (Snyder, Bolin, & Zumwalt, 1992, p. 429). Furthermore, students, teachers, and others co-construct curriculum in relation to narrative meaning making with past, present, and future dimensions (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988).

In a process that may take years, teachers frequently change their curriculum ideologies and practice over the course of their careers (Shiro, 1992). However, this process may present teachers with many challenges. For example, teachers with a strong disciplinary focus may feel that adapting their curriculum is threatening the integrity of their subject (Grossman & Stodolsky, 1994; Shulman, 1986; Stodolsky, 1993). Teachers’ educational history and their implicit assumptions toward teaching and learning may also impede growth of practice (Wallace & Louden, 1994). Lortie (1975) has called teachers “entrepreneurs of psychic profits” from students, a situation that might lead teachers to insulate classroom practice to protect their reward system. This reward system may be deeply ingrained given an apprenticeship-by-observation (Lortie, 1975). An extension of teaching based on this form of preparation may still be “intuitive and imitative, rather than explicit and analytical, based on individual personalities rather than pedagogical principles” (Lortie, 1975, p. 62).


We examine the curriculum decision-making patterns among the alternate route elementary and secondary teachers, as well as the college-prepared elementary and secondary teachers. Two questions drove our analysis of the data on the teachers’ views of their curriculum. First, what were patterns to their curriculum decisions over time? Second, how did these patterns compare and contrast? Analyzing the data to identify curriculum decision patterns of these two preparation pathways helps to “depoliticize” the discussion and opens a lens onto new ways of viewing alternate route and college-prepared teachers’ perceptions of practice. As an additional lens to our analysis, we also examined the extent to which our teachers acquired a sense of adaptive expertise in their teaching. Teachers who display adaptive expertise in the classroom “are prepared for effective lifelong learning that allows them continuously to add to their knowledge and skills” (Bransford, Darling-Hammond, & LePage, 2005, p. 2). Adaptive experts develop a capacity for personal and professional growth in relation to the promotion of learning of their diverse students (Corno, 2008; Randi & Corno, 2005). Such teachers begin to challenge their own specific ways of learning and understanding to gain a new respect for and understanding of more diverse ways of learning and understanding.

We further applied the concept of “teacher visioning” to our analysis. Related to adaptive expertise and drawing from a range of theories about teacher thinking (e.g., teacher knowledge structures, life histories, and personal practical knowledge), teacher visioning provides a framework for examining both the conceptual and pedagogical aspects of teachers’ work (Duffy, 2002; Zumwalt, 1989). As a framework for examining how teachers are “independent users of professional knowledge” (p. 331) within specific classroom contexts, it is focused on both teachers’ pedagogical competence and their fluency and agency in using this conceptual map to promote the learning of diverse students. Teachers with such visioning—adeptly using professional content and pedagogical knowledge—are “psychologically strong enough to use professional knowledge in creatively resourceful ways” (Duffy, 2002, p. 332). Activating their operational maps, teachers who exhibit visioning may draw from broader personal beliefs and values about the meaning and goals of education (Sawyer & Laguardia, 2010)—for example, that education should promote social justice. These beliefs potentially add a sort of meaning-and-motivational compass to their actions. They also provide the basis for an image of desired practice, which may guide and sustain teachers throughout their careers (Hammerness, 2006; Vaughn & Faircloth, 2013).

Finally, after our discussion of the teachers’ curriculum decisions, we present short case studies of two of our exemplars. In these case studies, we examine in detail how they used choice in their classrooms in order to give a more in-depth look at the evolution of these teachers’ decisions and choices.


The following discussion first examines the elementary teachers, followed by the secondary teachers. As we discuss these two teaching levels, we first consider the alternate route teachers and then the college-prepared ones.


A total of eight elementary teachers entered teaching by way of the alternate route or college-prepared pathways. Tables 1 and 2 give an overview of some of the individual themes in their teaching.

Table 1. 11-Year Summary of Teaching Patterns Among Alternate Route Elementary Teachers by Time in Teaching


Teaching Patterns Over 11 Years


Initially more learning-centered and thematic in language arts than the other subjects. Emphasized rules and procedures in math.

Initially strong multicultural emphasis in language arts and social studies, eventually expanded to all subjects.

Eventually came to promote a social justice and critical thinking curriculum in all subjects.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.


Teaching uncertainty replaced by contradictory approaches.

Initially academic and prescriptive.

Reticent in talking about her work.

Stayed consistently traditional for over five years, by sixth year began experimenting with whole-language approaches.

Remained in the classroom through at least her 11th year.


Initially traditional in practice but sought change and new ideas.

Became more innovative: Explicit experimentation marked teaching.

Tried to promote environmental awareness.

Left teaching after her fourth year.


Abstract, high-level, and prescriptive in teaching mathematics.

Classroom management problems.

Disappointed in learning level of students.

Left teaching after first year.

Table 2. 11-Year Summary of Teaching Patterns Among College-Prepared Elementary Teachers by Time in Teaching


Teaching Patterns Over 11 Years


Initially frustrated by school focus on traditional and teaching-centered instruction.

Within four years, consistently creative and generally integrative in all subjects.

Remained in the classroom through at least her 11th year.


Followed school’s curriculum plan (e.g., use of computer LEGO logs in science).

Became more problem-based and experiential.

Initial differentiation in teaching became more pronounced.

Moved to interdisciplinary curriculum.

Left classroom teaching after nine years to become a peer coach for other teachers in her district in her 10th year.


Initially mixed: traditional with some experiential.

By midpoint, was creative and learning centered in language arts (students’ questions leading learning), but not math.

Implemented portfolio project in school.

Went on maternity leave after eight years of teaching.


Initially traditional and teaching-centered.

By fourth year, both creative and generally integrated but also use of Madeline Hunter.

Went on maternity leave after seven years of teaching.

Alternate Route Elementary

A dichotomy existed within the group of alternate route elementary teachers with regard to their views of practice over the first 11 years of their careers. Whereas some of them favored a more prescriptive curriculum emphasizing defined content and little differentiation, others favored a more progressive curriculum supporting societal change. Kathy and David, for example, were initially more conservative and prescriptive in their views of teaching. For example, Kathy mentioned how she was seeking new ways to deliver knowledge to her students: “I found myself at the beginning wanting to give everything to the students, wanting to teach everything, like within one or two days. And I found out later on how to set the time into bigger blocks rather than just concentrating on one day” (Y1). As can be seen from this quote, this teacher reflected not on how to engage her students’ learning, but rather on how to slow down her delivery to give them more time to receive knowledge from her.

Although most of the alternate route elementary teachers did not have severe classroom management problems, David did. He described a low point during his provisional year:

They [the students] got so bad—where I was getting so little done and competing with their voices, I wanted to divide the class between those attempting to pay attention and send the rest back to their classroom teacher and teach only those who wanted to listen. I’ve wanted to do this several times. (Pre-Y1)

He mentioned that he often started his class by giving his students “brain teasers.” This particular teacher found teaching frustrating and left the teaching field entirely after only one year.  

In contrast to Kathy and David, Gwen and Risa explicitly thought about how to promote societal change, diversity, and tolerance in their teaching. These teachers consciously thought that they could best support the educational growth of their students by allowing them to make clear applications between classroom learning and their communities. In her third year, for example, Risa mentioned, “There are also . . . environmental issues, discussing things that sort of get them going, not just, you know, learning a concept, but getting them to really think about how they feel towards, you know, the outside” (Y3). These teachers were also aware, however, of their limitation in the knowledge (and experience) that could help them with these more contextual and theoretical goals. For example, in her third year, Risa stated,

For this summer I wanted [the kids] to design a research study that they can go and do in their community and isolate problems or things that they find in their community and try to research it or figure out how to solve it, and things like that come up and I’m thinking, you know, I wonder how to design this. I wonder how to do this. I wonder if somebody’s done this before that I can read and figure out if that’s what I want to do or how to change it to make it what I want to do. So there’re things like that that come up all the time. (Y3)

A theme of wishing to promote diversity in the classroom also runs through the teaching of the alternate route elementary teachers, in fact, perhaps more so than in any other group in this study. Three of the four teachers in this group were women of color. Teaching for diversity—specifically to facilitate the learning of their diverse students—was important to them. For example, Risa mentioned in her third year of teaching (when she was teaching in a private school in India),

I’m in teaching because of helping students to get their own self-awareness and you know . . . as a teacher I see that there’s a need for a lot of change in the society in which I work in the States, in the city with urban minority children. I think a lot of times they’re up against a system that’s not out there to help them. (Y3)

At the private school abroad, Risa mentioned, “I think that elementary children often have, especially at an international school like this one, come to a place with lots of different backgrounds, lots of different cultures, languages, religions you know. There’s a whole big mix here” (Y3).

Gwen mentioned in her first year that she focused on using multiculturalism as a teaching-and-learning tool. And Kathy, who is Chinese American and worked in an elementary bilingual program with primarily Chinese American students, thought that diversity meant being a bridge between her students’ home culture and that of mainstream American culture: “[There are] definitely cultural differences. I take them for granted because I understand their culture. I tell parents, ‘This is the way Americans do it here.’ There are lots of misconceptions. I’m the go-between. I bridge the gap between parents and teachers” (Pre-Y1). In her third year, she viewed her students’ differences not directly in relation to culture, which was a constant in her classroom of students primarily from Taiwan, but in relation to their ability to learn English:

Even if I just had two kids, they differ so much that I have to do them separately, or I have to spend time with them. There is a lot of individualized instruction in my classroom and I think that’s what makes it difficult. I tried to teach to each kid’s level, but that is, of course, impossible. You group them according to their ability. Sometimes we have, not so much in math, but in reading, we have a third grader and a fifth grader together because of the English that they learned. (Y2)

However, with the exception of Gwen, the discussion about teaching in relation to student differences did not clearly involve cultural considerations or ways of learning.

Each of the four elementary alternate route teachers represented very different degrees of adaptive expertise. Gwen and David can be found on opposite ends of the spectrum. Gwen represents a classic example of a teacher growing in adaptive expertise. She was imaginative and solved classroom problems that were related to the integration of seemingly disparate parts of her curriculum. In the process, she came to view her students and her subjects in diverse and dynamic ways. For example, she replaced her initial drill-and-skill approaches to teaching math with opportunities for her students to engage in contextual, problem-based ways of learning (as evidenced by an interdisciplinary mock-election unit). Her teacher visioning was strongly framed by a motivation to teach for social justice and developed from a pedagogical knowledge in language arts, where from the start she was teaching with thematic units, to math and science slightly later in her career.

David, on the other hand, was only in the classroom for a short period of time, and a certain rigidity in his pedagogical content knowledge and practice dominated his teaching. Frustrated with the learning level of his young students, he left teaching. Kathy’s curriculum decisions, unlike those of David, framed and reflected her growth in routine teaching expertise. Remaining consistently traditional in her teaching over the years, she considered how to improve specific and fairly prescriptive teaching strategies. For example, she initially taught by a whole-class teacher review of the basic rules, followed by student practice and repetition. By her fifth year, she described more skillful ways of teaching math but with approaches still emphasizing formulaic steps.

Risa had all the personal characteristics to gain adaptive expertise: She was intelligent, imaginative, and creative. She had a vision as a teacher to promote diversity and become a dynamic constructivist teacher, although initially she taught in traditional ways. Before she left the classroom after her fourth year, her curriculum considerations reflected flexible and contextual approaches to teaching. Many of her unanswered questions drove her back to graduate school in education to deepen her knowledge about teaching and learning.

College-Prepared Elementary

Some patterns in how the college-prepared elementary teachers viewed their practice are in contrast to those of their alternate route colleagues. The college-prepared teachers were consistently focused throughout this 11-year period more on student learning within their classroom, and less on the applications of that learning for societal change. As a group, they were also very similar in their progression as teachers. Most of them initially made curriculum decisions that were consistent with accepted notions of teaching at the time they completed their preparation programs. Initially, the decisions of all of them involved some form of cooperative group work for their students. At the same time, three of them also stressed teaching computation and drills in math, and predefined formats in writing.

However, as a group, they all discussed their construction of an integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum. By about their third year, all four of them were using whole-language approaches to teaching language arts and integrating reading and writing into the other subjects. In her sixth year, Angie, for example, talked about her teaching:

Now that we’re involved with writing in the social studies, people are seeing the benefit of it so they’re like “Wow, I’d like to do that with some of my science stuff” and they’ve taken it upon themselves—small groups of teachers—mostly at the middle school . . . and in a lot of cases [adding] language arts components like giving speeches or putting together newsletters or that kind of thing. (Y6)

Later, in her peer coaching role, she described collaborating with another teacher to integrate reading into science:

She and I re-wrote the entire fourth grade science curriculum and we’re implementing our ideas in one classroom right now. So we’re piloting an entire re-write of a whole year of science in the fourth grade. And the project we’re really pleased and proud of has a mythological base to it—we’re examining literature along with science. (Y11)

The college-prepared elementary teachers were also considering how to promote their students’ hands-on and experiential learning, often within a problem-solving format. For example, Angie described a program she used in class that had been first adopted by her school:

In science, we had something new we had to do. It’s called Lego Logo. It is a program where we use the computers and we link building pieces to construct different types of projects. It was the first year we used it with the children in the classroom and I was particularly pleased with how well the children worked with one another and how well my ideas as far as how I was going to run this first-time program worked. (Y2)

Teaching science in her first year, Emily had her students experience firsthand the mystery of rocks and minerals:

I was doing a science lesson, which first of all is not my strength, and we were doing rocks and minerals, and the kids were really excited about rocks and minerals. They just love rocks. And I had brought in some of those fluorescent rocks from northern New Jersey, and it was from my midterm . . . student teaching evaluation. And we had all the kids come to the back of the room. We shut the lights out. And we had the fluorescent light. And they got to see the different colors on the rocks and talk about the minerals and why they do that. And, oh, it was just. It was so exciting, for a whole week that was . . . can we look at these rocks? Can we do this? That was a great lesson. They really liked that. (Pre-Y1)

Teaching vocabulary in her first year, Emily had her students drill with word-cards, having the drill be a pre-reading activity of a new story. Reflecting on teaching vocabulary at this time, she mentioned, “[I would like to use] a lot of language experience, [and] approaches, voluntary reading, you know, skill learning through various approaches, rather than the basal reader or the spelling text thing. And that is really what I am going to use, I hope. It is coming sometime” (Pre-Y1).

As can be seen from this quote, Emily is hoping to promote her students’ learning new vocabulary within the context of contextualized reading but was struggling with it at the moment.    

They also adopted more conceptual ways of teaching mathematics. Although initially prescriptive in teaching math, Elisa began using the project-based Chicago Math Program by about her sixth year. She mentioned, “We do a lot of different projects. And this year we started the University of  Chicago math program. . . . The kids kind of go with different projects on their own and the concepts of math rather than drill. Usually on a theme, we have a science center and art projects” (Y6).

Trying to teach in new ways, they often considered how to cope with school constraints. Phyllis, in discussing teaching math in her third year, said, “I taught fractions this year. It’s very difficult to teach fractions to third graders when you have no manipulatives, so I tried making my own, but I am sure I’m reinventing the wheel” (Y3). Slightly later in her career, in fact, Phyllis actually wrote a chapter for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In general, the college-prepared elementary teachers consistently tried to promote student creativity as they taught.

The college-prepared elementary teachers were fairly consistent in how they developed a sense of adaptive expertise toward their teaching. Initially, each of the four teachers we followed discussed their teaching in at least one subject in flexible, creative, and dynamic ways (and other subjects, such as mathematics, in more prescriptive ways). Each of them over the years began teaching in integrated units. In her first year, Angie, for example, taught math, science, and language arts separately from each other. At that time, she experimented with students learning both basic skills and interpretation in math, having them solve work problems together and share their solutions to each other. By her fifth year, she was consistently teaching through the use of integrated, interdisciplinary units. Phyllis is another interesting example. Initially, finding herself in a private school emphasizing teaching through rules and repetition, she thought her job was to “bombard kids with knowledge” but felt frustrated with what she perceived as limitations of the curriculum. She experimented and tried different approaches and by her third year was discussing how she was using a range of approaches, such as the use of manipulatives (saws and drills) to support the math text. Their vision of teaching was focused more on themselves as the “good” teacher who engages students in powerful learning situations and less focused on societal goals and concerns.


Eight alternate route secondary teachers and nine college-prepared ones were selected as our exemplars. Tables 3 and 4 review thematic patterns related to their perceptions of their curriculum.

Table 3. 11-Year Summary of Teaching Patterns Among Alternate Route Secondary Teachers by Time in Teaching


Teaching Patterns Over 11 Years



Initially mixed workbooks with projects to teach writing.

Influenced by learning-style approaches.

By fourth year, both kinesthetic and prescriptive teaching and learning.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.



Abstract and teacher centered initially (sought identical student essays) but taught with a sense of mystery.

Divergent, “real-world” applications as frame for student learning.

Eventually, interdisciplinary and authentic project-based curriculum (e.g., television journalism project).

Took a year break from teaching in 10th year when moved out of state and could not find a job. 


Math (English

& Social Studies)                     

Initially taught multiple subjects: traditional in math, progressive in language arts and social studies.

Eventually more integrated, interdisciplinary, and project based in both areas.

Community-based curriculum.

Emphasis on diversity.

Left teaching midyear in her third year for grad school, taught overseas in fifth year, couldn’t find teaching job in sixth year, returned to teaching for seventh through 11th year.



Initially prescriptive in college prep and honors classes.

Learning centered and creative in life skills English.

Use of learning styles in teaching.

Starts interdisciplinary English-history curriculum.

Creative, thematic, and learning centered in all subjects by seventh year.

Taught through the ninth year, with third and sixth year off for graduate school. In her 10th year was a coordinator for charter school center. 



Subject matter emphasis: lecture approach.

Whole-class homework review.

Left teaching after his fourth year. 



Initially explored innovative approaches: activities to “demystify” computer, real-world computer applications.

Disappointed with lack of student learning and classroom management.

Thought teaching too conservative; left teaching after her third year.



Emphasis on subject. Little or no teaching differentiation.

Issues with classroom management.

Left after first year: disillusioned with students.

Left teaching after first year.



Left teaching in November of first year.

Table 4. 11-Year Summary of Teaching Patterns Among College-Prepared Secondary Teachers by Time in Teaching


Teaching Patterns Over 11 Years



Initially progressive in lower level mathematics (life skills) and traditional in college prep and honors.

Became creative, promoting conceptual approaches to learning mathematics.

Joined district assessment team to change assessment re: process math.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.



Initially, mixed prescriptive writing, grammar drills, and writing portfolios.

Initially strict grading policy that failed many students.

Eventually, student cooperative groups and reciprocal teaching.

Progressive in special education.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.



Initially, considerable teacher talk and grammar and writing drills.

By year 3, more intentional in building on student motivation in writing.

Eventually used whole-language approaches and student self-expression.

Eventually promoted whole-language and discovery learning.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.



Initially more creative at first.

Became more test focused over time.

No team-teaching or collaboration.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.




Initially progressive (thematic units, holistic grading, grammar in context).

Eventually emphasized ethical ways of teaching.

Used drama in teaching.

Model Congress program.

Remained in teaching at least through her 11th year.



Initially more traditional in college preparatory math.

Established experiential and conceptual math program.

Eventually emphasized learning math for understanding, taught for “uncoverage.”

Left teaching after 10 years to become vice principal in another district.  



Stayed prescriptive and lecture-based for first six years.

Became more progressive when teaching special education later in career.

Left teaching after first year, couldn’t find job out of state, returned  to teaching in her fifth year and sixth year. Took medical leave in her seventh year, taught eighth through 11th year. 



Initially progressive, bucking system.

Had students scaffold each other’s conceptual knowledge.

Found school too traditional; left teaching after two years because her position was eliminated. Worked as financial planner for seven years, returned to teaching in 10th year.

Teaching in 11th year. 



Initially traditional mathematics teacher.

Smooth transition into creative and conceptual math teacher by third or fourth year.  

Eventually more integrated and interdisciplinary (with math and science).

Supported learning for understanding approaches to learning math.

Left the classroom after her third year.

Alternate Route Secondary

The strongest theme to emerge about the perceptions of the alternate route teachers toward their curriculum was their awareness of authentic and real-life contexts for their teaching. For example, Anita continued to work on her own writing during her teaching career, and Jeff had been a financial analyst. Although Jeff was the only person in this group to actually work professionally within his academic field before entering teaching, five of the seven did have degrees in the areas in which they taught. Entering the classroom with a sense of initiative—in fact, nearly a missionary zeal, in some cases, about their subjects—these teachers brought knowledge of and a sense of identification with their subjects. For example, Linda, who had been a homemaker before returning to school to get a math degree to teach that subject, was articulate in describing the importance of authentic knowledge:

I really feel that a lot of teachers who go straight through college and into teaching and really never touch the real world are kind of at a loss to really tell the kids what real world applications there are for their math. Now I see it, and now I realize that . . . it’s just a different way of thinking when you think mathematically, and it’s almost like they should have training [for this]. . . . but I don’t know how you could do it without the teachers staying on the job, for teachers to have training in the field, any field, before they go into the classroom. (Y3)

Her knowledge of her subject can be seen in how she approached a unit on computers:

I think I like the unit on computer hardware because we had one class that took the computer apart to kind of show them how the information is passed from part to part inside the computer and to demystify the computer. Then we went into how the messages get transferred into binary language. We did a lot of transferring into binary codes.  [Probe: How?] I had some visual aids: the lights on and lights off, Christmas tree lights in a row, with different levels of the alphabet to show them the electrical circuits and what was happening with these on/off switches. I had mimeograph sheets of what each letter stood for in binary code so they could make up secret code words. I had posters that brought the message from the person at the keyboard through the CPU, through the compiler—how the message was transferred from the person to the computer’s memory. (Y1)

Linda, however, was an exception; these teachers often focused on “formal” content knowledge at the expense of adapting it into pedagogical content knowledge (Grossman, 1990; Shulman, 1986). Instead of developing a sense of pedagogical content knowledge, slightly

more than one third of the alternate route secondary teachers initially characterized ways of teaching their subject matter as nonthematically integrated lectures. Although these teachers

did not exclusively lecture or have their students only do individual seatwork, these approaches were dominant in their teaching. Instead of adapting their own teaching to the learning strategies of a struggling student, they often thought that it was the student, and not they, who needed to adapt.

At least two of the alternate route secondary teachers were strongly content focused and taught in fairly rigid, lecture-based ways, lacking attention to student development or diversity, structures for caring, and democratic education. For example, James, who held a degree in European history but was hired to teach math, discussed what he perceived to be a problem common to many first-year teachers: “I talk too much. I’m reluctant to give up the chalk. [My liberal arts background] gave me an appreciation of logical structure. Students need that and I’ll keep trying to get it across” (Pre-Y1). Describing how he would change his approach to a lesson he taught on the metric system, where he had begun by showing the class a chart, he said, “I would have more emphasis on math itself. Make clear what they were doing. [I had] some difficulties with students doing things one way, which is not the easiest or most direct way. It’s difficult to shake them out of that” (Pre-Y1).

Although some of the alternate route secondary teachers adhered to rigid views of content in the classroom, more than a third of them eventually embraced interdisciplinary projects in conjunction with other subjects. For example, Barbara began her teaching career by teaching both basic skills from a workbook and composition through student projects. By her second year, though, she was incorporating music and kinesthetic approaches into her teaching within interdisciplinary units. In her second year of teaching, she described one unit she taught as a long-term substitute in a first-grade class in a New York City elementary school:

The math was [incorporated into] the science, and when I did the social studies unit on the neighborhood, we were doing writing, we were doing interviewing, we worked on direction left and right, top and bottom and that helps reading abilities, everything is really connected. “How much did the store owner pay for rent?” It’s economics which is social studies, but is also money, when we went to the bakery that was science, that was, talk about gender, it was a woman who owns her own business. She had different kinds of flour for  every kind of product she put out. We asked her how much flour she had  to order. So really a unit is just ideal for combining all things. (Y2)

Asked how she might change this unit, she said,

I don’t know that I would do anything radically different. I think you have to be tuned into the particular group and this particular approach worked with this group. If I started it with another group and found it wasn’t working, then I think I would adjust it at that point but I really like the idea of expressing, you know, getting the information and expressing it in all different kinds of ways. (Y2)

In addition to Barbara, Penny’s students learned math and English while working on a community project curriculum. Larry’s students learned writing through television journalism, an approach that contributed to his receiving a teaching award at this school. And many of Anita’s curriculum decisions revolved around the English-history interdisciplinary program she started and taught in collaboration with another teacher. These teachers had more of a classroom focus than a social justice focus to their interdisciplinary thematic units.

Three alternate route secondary teachers appear to have grown considerably in adaptive expertise, specifically in their views of pedagogical content knowledge, teaching for diversity, and relational teaching. In her first year, Anita emphasized having her students do close reading of canonical texts as models for their own writing. By her fifth year, she had opened her practice to create the English-history interdisciplinary program, eventually choosing to teach all her classes in creative, thematic, and learning-centered ways. Larry, another English teacher, initially taught writing by emphasizing a prescribed form over student voice but soon decided to organize his curriculum around an authentic and interdisciplinary television journalism project. Penny is an interesting example of a teacher who also gained a sense of adaptive expertise. Even though she was a secondary teacher, she taught not just one subject, but a range of subject matter. In math, she initially had students work with dittos to learn discrete skills. In language arts, in contrast, she established a writer’s workshop in her first year and had students work toward an authentic purpose—the publishing of a class book. She later worked for a year at a dropout prevention program for Hispanic middle school students. Integrating art and community service projects into a math curriculum, she encouraged her students to master concepts, not just mathematical formulas. In time, community improvement became the focus of an interdisciplinary curriculum. These three alternate route secondary teachers possibly had the most conceptually complex form of teacher visioning, focused on goals to develop curriculum consistent with their academic disciplines within authentic, real-world settings.

Of the three alternate route secondary teachers who left the classroom, two did so in their first couple of years of teaching. Both mathematics teachers, they held a predominantly prescriptive and narrow subject-matter orientation. The third teacher who left teaching, Linda, sought to teach in more creative and problem-based ways. Her unit in computer science, in which she attempted to have her students “demystify” the computer and do “real-world” computer applications, illustrates this approach. She, however, grew frustrated by classroom management problems as well as the “traditional” nature of her school, leaving teaching before being able to gain a sense of expertise in teaching. An alternate route English teacher, Barbara, did arguably begin to develop a routine expertise in her teaching. While in her first year, she emphasized the use of workbooks in her classroom, and by her fifth year, she was using both kinesthetic and lecture-based approaches in her practice. Although she introduced kinesthetic approaches in math, she continued to use standardized, summative forms of assessment.

College-Prepared Secondary

Compared with their alternate route counterparts, the college-prepared secondary teachers were generally more consistent in their views of teaching, both in terms of individual teaching trajectories and as a group of teachers. One theme related to their teaching contribution is that of initial experimentation with pedagogical content knowledge. This theme may be found among approximately a third of them (Connie, Beth, Debbie, Teresa). These teachers entered the classroom with a fairly clear idea of wanting to try new learning-centered approaches in the classroom. Experimenting with new approaches and reflecting on their outcomes, they became stronger teachers over time but remained qualitatively similar throughout their careers.

Although a social justice theme did not clearly appear in their classes, these college-prepared secondary teachers did choose to promote ethical and relational ways of knowing. In her first year, for example, Renee began grading her students holistically and teaching grammar in context. She was articulate in discussing her thematic units, which emphasized whole-language approaches to teaching writing.

I’m using a modified writing workshop. . . . There’s a mini lesson in the beginning of the class. . . . The kids also have writing that they chose to do on their own. So in a given marking period there will be at least one large team project that will involve 3 or 4 of their classes. Depends on the unit. . . they will have something that they decided on their own that they will turn in. [They will need] to show student-oriented and team-oriented [work]. (Y6)

In her 10th year of teaching, she supported students with learning disabilities:

We’re working on self-advocacy for our students. The one thing I did do two summers ago is put together a college handbook for students with learning disabilities and it was the four of us in our department that did that and it was so well received that the Council for Exceptional Children has purchased it from our board so now our board is going to get a scholarship set up by the CEC and they will have sole ownership of our booklet. (Y11)

Furthermore, Renee spoke about how teachers could be ethical in their work. Also consistent with this theme of initial teacher expertise, Debbie wished to have her students gain more than procedural and computational knowledge of mathematics, which emphasized rules and formulas. Instead, she attempted to foster her students’ conceptual understandings of the subject. Beth can also be seen to illustrate this theme. Similar to Debbie, she was initially more traditional in her college-preparation classes, while more creative in her beginning classes, where she had her students devise and use authentic mathematical applications. Eventually, she began to experiment with experiential and conceptual approaches in all her classes. Both of these teachers understood that structural changes needed to take place for them to implement the curriculum they sought, and each collaborated with other teachers in her school to effect these changes. Whereas Debbie joined her district’s assessment committee to be able to make changes in her honors classes, Beth decided to become an administrator to promote schoolwide change.

Teresa was very concerned with promoting her students’ sense of meaning making in her classroom. One year, her theme was “connections.” In her first year, she was very aware that she wanted a more constructivist curriculum, one that built on students’ prior knowledge, suppositions, and meaning making (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). At this time, she described her initial effort in having her students help construct the curriculum with her.

She mentioned her wish to have her students problem-solve together in thematic units connected to their own interests. Although she found it challenging, however, to go from using a lecture-based approach to a more student-centered one, she recognized that she wanted the discussion to stem from the students and worked to achieve this goal. Her unit goal in her first year was for her students to learn certain complex elements of fiction, such as symbolism and language usage. To this end, she first lectured students in “too much detail, bor[ing] them all to tears” (Pre-Y1). Feeling horribly ineffective with her “streetwise” students (Pre-Y1), she changed her approach to become more interactive. She had her students read the dialogue aloud and as a group discuss it as a murder story related to the plots of popular movies. They focused on the psychology of the individual, in this case, that of Macbeth (Y1). Supplying popcorn and soda, she played the video of Macbeth to the class. Afterward, she felt “proud” that they watched, understood the movie, and “got really involved” in the discussion (Pre-Y1).

Two other secondary college-prepared teachers also recognized that they wanted to change to become learning-centered teachers for all their students. Unlike Renee, Beth, and Debbie, however, Diana and Connie had a more difficult time articulating what this type of teaching might look like and then how they might create such curricula with their students in the classroom. From the start of their careers, Diana and Connie were aware of integrated thematic units and could even discuss the learning theory behind such approaches, but they had a more difficult time creating such curricula with their students. In each of their cases, as they learned to implement such approaches, their teaching values and goals scaffolded their eventual teaching, which became more in line with them. Connie, for example, made a transition into teaching mathematics to promote her students’ conceptual knowledge by her third or fourth year, doing interdisciplinary math and science projects.

There were three other college-prepared secondary teachers who were unique and whose teaching careers did not clearly match those of any of the others. Tina was initially progressive and wished to challenge the system. She found school too traditional and frozen in ways she believed did not promote student or teacher learning. She temporarily left teaching after her second year but then returned after being a financial planner for seven years. Roberta was an interesting exception. Taking a three-year break followed by a one-year break in teaching during her first seven years, she remained traditional and lectured when she did teach during these years. However, she underwent a pronounced change when she began to teach special education later in her career. At that time, she began to integrate active problem-solving approaches into her curriculum. The other thematic exception was Johanna. Initially creative, she became more test-focused over time. Never having had the opportunity to team-teach or collaborate with her colleagues, she became more isolated during her career.

In terms of adaptive expertise, what is striking is how many college-prepared secondary exemplars grew in adaptive expertise framed by a vision of teaching based on the development of pedagogical content knowledge. Remarkably, of the nine teachers, all but two actually showed evidence of growth. Debbie initially started experimenting not in her advanced classes in which the students were similar to herself (competent in math), but rather in the classes with students who were struggling in math. In these classes, Debbie was more self-critical and was forced to begin using manipulatives, becoming more concrete yet conceptual at the same time. In time, she began teaching all her classes more conceptually and verbally—having her students talk about their solutions and making mathematical applications.

Other secondary teachers shared this narrative of initially having to and then wanting to teach in innovative, imaginative, and, in some cases, counterintuitive ways. Starting this process first in their more challenging classes, they continued it in their more advanced classes.

Two college-prepared secondary teachers started in their first year to teach in predominantly innovative and learning centered ways. Renee built on this beginning and stayed in teaching. In her first year, for example, she was grading holistically, teaching grammar in context, and using whole-language approaches in reading. By her third year, she could discuss how she interwove Vygotskian learning theory into her practice, and by her sixth year, she was team-teaching interdisciplinary units and emphasizing a moral aspect to teaching and learning. A key characteristic of adaptive expertise in teachers is lifelong learning. Renee discusses this concept in relation to her returning to school herself: “I still had questions, and I believe that as an educator you can’t stop learning. Not for me obviously. Every five years what needs to be known doubles. What are you demonstrating to your students? What kind of role model are you for them?” (Y6). Tina also started teaching in innovative, self-aware, and diverse ways. But she, in contrast to Renee, left teaching, becoming frustrated with her perception of traditional teaching approaches and the slow pace of change at her school.  

In this section, we have discussed general patterns of curriculum decision making for 25 teachers in both preparation pathways. A more detailed examination of the curricular thinking of one teacher from each of the two pathways is presented in the following section.


The following two narratives offer short case portraits of two teachers, Gwen and Debbie, whose curriculum decisions changed dramatically over the first 11 years of their careers. The two case portraits were selected as illustrative examples of key themes from their respective certification pathways. The first one highlights ways that an alternate route elementary teacher considered diversity, creativity, and the cultural lives of her students. The second one presents a college-based secondary mathematics teacher’s thinking about pedagogical content knowledge, adaptive expertise, and her students’ differentiated learning. Their cases illustrate the contradictory nature of curriculum deliberation and the limitations of defining approaches to teaching and curriculum in consistent ways (e.g., a “traditional” or a “progressive” teacher, a change agent or status quo investor). Instead, our study suggests that over the course of 11 years, the choices that these two teachers made in their practice created and supported a “messier” and more idiosyncratic form of curriculum development (Calderhead, 1987; Huberman, 1993). In addition to increasing the scope of their choices over time, both of these teachers also collaborated in making curriculum with their peers, adding an additional dimension to their curriculum decisions.

Some of the data for these case studies came from two additional interviews of Gwen and Debbie in their eighth year of teaching.


Growing up in a New Jersey industrial city, Gwen, an African American, was a member of a family that was actively involved in community affairs. Before entering teaching at the age of 32, she had taught and mentored children of many backgrounds at local churches and in youth organizations. Still, she realized her childhood dream to become an elementary teacher with caution and deliberation. As a college student in the early 1970s, she was the first African American woman to attend a prestigious private New England liberal arts college. There, she resisted a desire to take education courses, majoring instead in developmental psychology. She eventually left a multiyear business career to follow an impulse that had become her “calling” to teach: “I was militant back then. And I said, ‘No, that’s not the only thing for Blacks, just teaching and nursing’” (Y2).

Gwen chose to teach at an elementary school in a small district, which eventually fell into state receivership. At the end of her second year of teaching, Gwen described the students at her school: “We have a lot of kids where the situations at home are just unbelievable. We are not just talking poverty here. We’re talking drugs, child abuse and the whole bit” (Y2). Though an optimistic woman, Gwen described her school with a series of “Noes”: no supplies, no support for teachers, and no books for students.

In contrast to her concerns about the school, she always had the highest expectations for her students. Throughout her first 11 years in the classroom, Gwen held strong convictions about the uniqueness and value of each individual child. She thought that the most important characteristic for teachers was a thorough knowledge of child development grounded in respect and high expectations for all children. To help all children learn and develop, it was important to first make them feel capable and successful as learners. If students were going to replace cycles of defeat with those of pride in academic success, teachers—as role models, facilitators, and unflinching advocates—would be by their sides.

Many of Gwen’s beliefs about how students learn specific subjects, however, contradicted her core values. For example, in her first year of teaching, she believed that students learned mathematics and reading best by using workbooks for mathematical drills and basal readers for phonics lessons. But she also thought at this time that the ideal teacher was nurturing. Two years later, she thought that low-income students benefited most not only from teacher-directed, focused whole-group instruction but also through process approaches to learning. These views may have been further complicated by a practical belief that standardized tests functioned as important gates to future advancement to students from urban areas. However, by the end of her fifth year in teaching, many of her beliefs about teaching and learning and subject matter had become more consistently centered on views of children as active and interactive learners engaged in projects designed to promote creative and critical thought.

Two months after beginning teaching, Gwen discussed being surprised by the gap between what she expected and what she encountered in the classroom: “My first teaching style was too independent, my standards too high . . . I now use lots of repetition and am much slower. . . . I have to spoon feed them” (Pre-Y1). At this time, her teaching was prescriptive and pragmatic, emphasizing the basics and discrete skills. Instead of following existing curriculum material, though, Gwen often chose to construct and adapt the curriculum to her students. In mathematics, for example, she emphasized drills around discrete problem-solving steps. Finding the assigned text too challenging for many of her students, she disregarded the book: “I didn’t use the book. Instead, I used the board. To teach concepts I use shapes . . . I do five or six problems to see they get it” (Pre-Y1).

By the end of her first year or early second year, she became aware of an initial dichotomy in her teaching between the use of prescribed approaches and their evaluation through standardized tests and a desire to promote her students’ unique gifts and their sense of identity. She wondered how to teach in pragmatic ways, yet engage her students’ social-cultural identities. This dichotomy was perhaps the primary theme in her first two years of teaching. Looking back on her career, she stated, “In the first couple of years I stayed close to worksheets and drills and dittos . . . I was following what I saw other teachers doing. But it seemed just a little sterile. I was beginning to realize that it wasn’t about the individual” (Y8). Her initial experiments in teaching increased the tension. For example, she brought in reproductions of well-known paintings for her students to describe and express themselves but then evaluated their compositions based on grammar and mechanics. At the same time, she appreciated her students’ verbal talents and wondered how to encourage her students to use those gifts in their writing.

To get beyond this dichotomy and to engage her students’ identities, she began integrating multiculturalism more into her teaching. For example, in her first year, she stated,

I use [multiculturalism] as a learning process. . . . I try to know enough about their history so that the child doesn’t feel like I’m only concerned about those that speak English. During Black History week I might pull out the Spanish explorers or we might talk about some of the Haiti uprisings that had tremendous impact. Then they have Spanish week. During that time we pay a little attention to the Spanish. Last year this worked well because the Spanish parents were really good about sending me some information I didn’t have. (Y1)

She saw parents as assets and asked them to share multicultural ways of knowing.

In her third year of teaching, she asked, “It goes back to the students’ motivation, to the question, how do you light their fire?. . . What makes the kids tick?. . . What makes a smart intelligent child above grade level not [want to] do a thing?” (Y3). At this time, Gwen began to promote her students’ greater engagement in and negotiation of the curriculum (Oyler, 1996). In her second year, she took a course in process-writing, which she then began using, making a connection between it and her students’ sense of identity and community. She now tried to evaluate essays not with a mechanical approach, but rather more “holistically.” But, in addition to integrating process-writing approaches into her curriculum, Gwen continued to work on grammar drills pulled from assigned textbooks. In her third year, she crossed a crucial border for the first time: She created an interdisciplinary unit. When she first began teaching two subjects together (language arts and social studies) in dynamic, progressive ways, she continued to take a more prescriptive approach in mathematics. By her fifth year, however, she began to bring all her subjects together in integrated thematic units.

Increasingly using integrated units, she asked herself the question in her sixth year, “Is this a child who will have a newfound respect?” At the beginning of each school year, she spent a month or two trying to promote a sense of confidence and self-esteem in her students. One way she did this was by trying “to get some kind of feeling what a child’s gift is. . . .  had writers, I had artists, I had some leaders, and I had singers” (Y8). A key theme in her teaching at this time was how to establish learning communities to promote student identity and self-esteem in her teaching.

She now began using student presentations in almost every curriculum area, student-learning centers, portfolios for writing assessment, and interdisciplinary units. Although still as concerned about her students’ standardized tests scores at this time as in previous times, this concern was more balanced, with her using as “many different mediums as possible” (Y8). Gwen structured her assignments to be not only critical thinking activities but also preparation for future high school and even college work, when she would no longer be with her students. In math, she began to emphasize critical thinking by using word problems and hands-on activities with her students. Now using cooperative-group work in math, she stated that peer support and feedback helped all students learn. But, insisting on preparing her students for the High School Proficiency Test (HSPT) test, she still had them do basic skills drills.

In her ninth year of teaching, a presidential election year, Gwen began to collaborate for the first time on a unit with another sixth-grade teacher. Gwen and the other teacher each had their classes select a student as a candidate in a mock presidential election, including a presidential debate between the two classes. In this interdisciplinary unit, she had her students examine percentages and voting patterns; research, write, and rehearse speeches and debates, videotape and analyze mock debates; study ecology approaches; study newspapers; and design persuasive campaign posters. Now, she encouraged her students to use their school and society as a classroom.


Debbie grew up in a New Jersey suburb where she attended public high school. Initially uncertain of a career choice, she decided to major in math and minor in education after working in college as a math tutor to other students. She said that she became a teacher in order to combine her interests in children and math. After completing her student teaching, she took a high school teaching job in a suburban-urban school district a few miles from her own high school. She remained there for at least her first 11 years of teaching. Over the course of her career, Debbie has taught classes ranging from consumer math and standardized-test review to advanced placement algebra, geometry and calculus.

Located in a mixed suburban-urban neighborhood, Debbie’s comprehensive high school enrolled over 1,500 primarily middle-class students. Over the course of Debbie’s career, the school became more diverse and less academically oriented.

Throughout her teaching career, Debbie has consistently believed that the goal of students in learning math is to develop cognitive growth or thinking skills and that students learn best by interactively constructing and discussing concepts. To help students in these goals, Debbie has consistently thought that the ideal teacher invests her teaching with mystery and multiple strategies. In contrast to these relatively stable beliefs, though, other beliefs contrasted in her first few years of teaching. For example, through her first two years of teaching, she maintained that the most important teacher characteristic was skill in teaching technique, whereas by her sixth year, she instead believed in adaptability and sound judgment. And in her first two years, she thought that math was either a problem-solving language or a subject of established rules, but by her sixth year, she considered it a tool for everyday life. For her first few years of teaching, she struggled to reconcile her beliefs between experiential learning and mathematics as a subject.

Through her second year of teaching, Debbie placed an emphasis on relatively prescriptive approaches to teaching math. Looking back at her preservice and first year of teaching from her sixth year, Debbie mentioned, “I just wanted to keep my head above water” (Y6). She tried “to cram many things in before the end of the year according to the curriculum guidelines” (Y1), giving her teaching a fairly prescriptive cast for the first two years in her more advanced courses. For example, in algebra, her routine included reviewing homework, explaining new rules to her students, and giving in-class practice. From her preservice through her second year of teaching, many of her curriculum decisions in her calculus and more advanced classes centered on preparing students for college. At this time, she often taught by taking a firsthand approach to teaching (Bang-Jensen, 1995) and presenting mathematical applications to her students. Perhaps the turning point for her teaching in a more hands-on way can be found when she brought a soccer ball to class during her second year to introduce a lesson on points of intersection of a plane. Debbie described the lesson: “It was a lesson on spheres. . . I brought in a soccer ball to demonstrate and I used a big piece of cardboard as a plane. We were discussing points of intersection of a sphere and a plane, and actually showing it to them instead of having them imagine it” (Y2). In contrast to transmitting mathematical knowledge or presenting mathematical applications, Debbie made different choices for her students in her more basic, consumer math classes. In these classes, which she taught for two years, Debbie wanted to “prepare her students for the real world” (Y2). She found that her initial review, lecture, and practice pattern left her students restless, if not openly rebellious. In response to this resistance, Debbie had her students play a more hands-on role in their own learning. She contextualized this curriculum for her students in real-world applications. For example, in one lesson, she had her students use their own tax forms. In the consumer class, her students were engaged in work on thematic units related to doing taxes and the practical applications of math. In her more advanced classes, in contrast, her students took more formulaic and rule-based approaches to doing math.

Toward the end of her third year, her algebra classes started to become more like the consumer or real-life course in her second year, when she and her students started examining and discussing graphs found in newspapers related to real-life situations. At this time, she also started to discuss in class students’ hypotheses about their solutions in order to encourage their visualization of patterns in their thinking. Debbie raised many questions in her first couple of years that foreshadowed subsequent changes in her practice. After her first full-time year, she started to wonder about how to create student projects and have students make “real-life” applications. She also began to question her previously unexamined stance toward the use of “mandated curricular materials” and wondered how to include more innovative approaches, maybe related to art, “even if it’s not in the curriculum” (Y2).

From her third through six year of teaching, she began to integrate students’ hypotheses and graphs into the curriculum and encourage their visualization of patterns, marking a shift in her students’ level of engagement from singular and receptive to active and cooperative. For example, she tried well-defined activities, such as differentiated cooperative grouping. She then adapted these more formally defined lessons to “see what works for me or what works for a certain class or for a certain student” (Y6). Here she had the students, rather than herself, make the demonstrations and applications. In her third or fourth year of teaching, she was encouraging students to construct math hypotheses in groups and use technology and computers in active ways. In her sixth year, she started to have some of her students use graphic calculators and computers as a means of generating applications and seeing real-life connections to their work. This approach expanded when she paired students and had them compare answers. At this time, she began to wonder about teaching more thematically but continued to teach with a more specific focus on lessons rather than units. Debbie indicated that by her sixth year of teaching, her students were often engaged in projects or demonstrations.

From her seventh to ninth year in the classroom, Debbie continued to contextualize mathematics and allowed students to create and present creative projects about math outside of school. Starting in her sixth year, Debbie’s curriculum deliberations focused on questioning and eventually constructing differentiated and integrated thematic units. At this time, she became more of a facilitator as she began a more explicit use of multiple approaches, the integration of students’ work into the curriculum, and the promotion of student interactive and collaborative learning.

One increasing source of tension for Debbie was the lack of alignment between her innovative approaches to teaching and the district-mandated midterm and final exams. Instead of becoming discouraged, though, Debbie decided to change her school’s assessment system. She and a teacher from a neighboring school formed a district-sponsored committee to plan an alternate assessment program to use as their district’s mandated geometry midterm. She and Bill, her co-collaborator, took a systematic approach to devising the alternate assessment midterm project. The process allowed them to explicitly review their practice through the examination of tests and other classroom artifacts they had used. They examined this work in relation to the new emphasis to promote students’ critical and conceptual thinking in mathematics. As Debbie explained, it became “more how you got your answer, instead of a plain multiple-choice midterm” (Y8). They then devised a project midterm exam that students might find meaningful yet not intimidating. They agreed that their new midterm assessment would also be a pilot program. In this midterm, students could select one of five choices, each applying geometry to a different authentic context. Furthermore, Debbie mentioned that at this time, the New Jersey HSPT changed to become more critical, focusing on higher order thinking. As preparation for their exams, Debbie had her students work in groups to write problem-solving strategies for the more conceptual and open-ended test questions.

Debbie’s teaching questions also changed at this time. For example, she began to consider how the new, more open-ended curriculum requirements for critical and verbal skills may have frustrated students with writing problems. She also considered how students’ projects, applications, and even work on the critical thinking aspects of the new standardized tests, being possibly more authentic examples of career and life tasks, prepared them for college and future careers. And in her ninth year, she began to examine a problem-of-practice focused on student homework habits.


Clear examples of how teachers can begin to teach “in a new key” can be found in the cases of Gwen and Debbie. These case studies give us the opportunity to examine more closely the choices two teachers made in the first 11 years of their careers and the connections between those choices and their evolving conceptions of curriculum.

Neither Gwen nor Debbie experienced a single, clearly identifiable epiphany that transformed her conceptions of curriculum and teaching. Instead, the changes in their practice stemmed from their decisions, determination, and agency over time (which promoted teacher collaboration and relational ways of learning). In both cases, changes to their practice unfolded slowly in ways recursive, layered, often contradictory, and dialogic. Their considerations about diverse students, subject matter, grade levels, reform contexts, and time periods in their teaching careers (to name a few contexts) all interacted and played a role in their ongoing reconceptualizations of curriculum. Their deliberations suggest that they allowed themselves the freedom to ask questions about their practice in one class and seek solutions or insights from other aspects of their (or other people’s) practice.

Foremost for each of these teachers was her genuine concern for all students as individuals and as learners. Gwen entered teaching knowing that all her students could learn every subject she taught, if she first found—and let them find—their gifts for learning. When Debbie was teaching honors English and conventionally good students most similar to herself, working with these students did not cause her to raise provocative questions that challenged her beliefs. Rather, she began to destabilize her worldview when she taught students most dissimilar to herself, leading her to ask profound questions that began the process of teaching in a new key. Furthermore, each of these teachers held a love of the process of teaching for learning. They could transcend school obstacles and limitations—often facing nearly insurmountable odds in terms of supplies, administrative support, standardized testing, and traditional teaching paradigms and cultures—to persist in asking questions and making choices that they saw as helping all their students learn.  

Gwen and Debbie developed and established for themselves and their students classroom norms that supported collaboration and socially constructed knowledge. Furthermore, both teachers tried increasingly over time to promote their students’ critical thinking skills, a process underscored by increasing the scope of choices they allowed their students to make. Also, as both teachers became more progressive and learning centered over time, they did so in layered, recursive ways. Gwen, for example, maintained multiple approaches to her subjects, combining mathematical drills with creative projects and formal editing criteria with students’ creative writing. Debbie remained relatively more closed or static in her more advanced or honors courses than in her regular classes. Finally, a nearly obsessive sense of reflection threaded through this process.


Examining the evolving curriculum decisions of 25 teachers over 11 years is a daunting task. As can be seen in our discussion of the 25 exemplars, each had a very different teaching profile. In general, many of the alternate route teachers faced classroom management issues in their first few years of teaching. Interacting with these management issues, they often held notions of their subject matter content as being defined and relatively static. These challenges tended to constrict their teaching and complicated their developing a sense of expertise in their practice.

Among alternate route elementary teachers, there was a contribution of diversity, not only in terms of the diversity that the teachers themselves brought to the classroom but also in the knowledge they brought to support their diverse students. Also, some of these teachers from diverse backgrounds promoted a social justice curriculum. But their teaching skills often lagged behind their aspirations in terms of creating curriculum to promote societal change. Furthermore, their teaching, at least initially, reflected a broad range of trial and error. Eventually, on both the elementary and secondary levels, some of these teachers valued and eventually implemented an integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum.

In addition, many of these teachers on both levels were gifted in specific disciplinary knowledge, usually mathematics or English. This expertise played out in a couple of ways. One group of these teachers with disciplinary knowledge had difficulty rising above an emphasis on content in their teaching. While this disciplinary “chauvinism” may have been less problematic on the secondary level (and this position is debatable), on the elementary, level it created a mismatch between teaching and learning in at least one classroom and reinforced rigid ways of teaching. Furthermore, some of these teachers, taking an abstract and academic approach to their teaching, had difficulty transcending personal, narcissistic ways of teaching and quickly exited the classroom. In contrast, another group of alternate route teachers who began their careers with a strong subject matter focus considered ways to adapt their curriculum to be responsive to diverse student learning. In terms of impact of the alternate route elementary teachers, it may be helpful to note again that only half of the teachers in this group remained in the classroom by the fifth year. On the secondary level, the alternate route teachers who remained in the classroom often taught their classes for understanding through authentic interdisciplinary projects. Still, among the alternate route secondary teachers, only four of an initial eight remained in the classroom by the fifth year, with only three remaining after the 11th year.

In contrast to the alternate route teachers, themes for the college-prepared teachers tended to focus less on diversity and social justice, and more on the creation of integrated learning environments on the elementary level and the adaptation of content to learning on the secondary level. Fairly consistently as a group, the college-prepared elementary teachers entered the classroom wanting and attempting to teach in more learning-centered ways. Sometimes they were tentative about trying new approaches and mixed them with more traditional approaches. Other times, they wished to do something experiential and found that the school did not have the resources (and/or possibly the culture) to support their innovation. Nevertheless, as beginning teachers, they often tried to teach in progressive ways. With a couple of exceptions, these teachers generally entered the classroom trying to adapt content in support of student learning. Those teachers who tried but had difficulty adapting their teaching were at least aware of theories of student development. This knowledge quite possibly jumpstarted their subsequent use of whole-language approaches and problem-based learning early in their teaching careers. All four of the college-prepared elementary teachers who entered teaching in this study remained in the classroom through their seventh year.

On the secondary level, the college-prepared teachers entered teaching open to trying new learning-centered approaches in their classrooms. This pattern grew stronger in their classrooms over time (with one or two exceptions). These secondary teachers (as well as the alternate route teachers) found themselves teaching in a range of classrooms, some of which were more advanced than others. About one third of the college-prepared secondary teachers used or attempted to use more learning-centered approaches in all their classes from the start of their careers. However, other secondary teachers were more influenced by the classroom context (the level of the class or the subject matter) and initially were more innovative in their beginning or “basic skills” classes than in their advanced classes. Similar to the elementary teachers who found that the subject they were teaching mattered, the secondary college-prepared teachers could teach in differentiated ways in some content areas and classes, but not in all, in their first couple of years. However, fairly consistently as a group of teachers, by their third or fourth year, they had at least begun to use more learning-centered approaches in their more advanced classes as well. These teachers were also concerned with how their students made meaning in their classes, and their curriculum deliberations suggest that they grew as curriculum makers, in which the contribution of the students becomes a part of the curriculum. While the college-prepared teachers’ curriculum on both the elementary and the secondary levels may have been more differentiated than that of their alternate route counterparts, that differentiation was more culturally neutral.

It is important to note that we have found that over time, inspired and expert teachers appeared in both the alternate route and the college-prepared pathways. In the case of these expert teachers, their subject matter was important, but as their careers unfolded, what became more important was how their students inhabited and breathed life into their subjects. This process can be illustrated by the example of Debbie having an epiphany that her students, as well as she, could be the ones with their hands on the soccer ball—that they, with her, could “animate” the curriculum. Remarkably, many of these teachers became flexible and learned to be adaptable and creative in relation to workplace constraints. And, as they became flexible, creative, and engaged in their work, they created opportunities for their students to do the same. Many of them spoke about how they built on students’ imagination and creativity.

In terms of their acquisition of adaptive expertise, two broad patterns emerged. First, most of those who left teaching, especially among the alternate route teachers, had yet to begin to develop a sense of adaptive expertise. Second, and conversely, most of the teachers in both preparation groups who remained in the classroom begin to develop adaptive expertise. For both groups, there was an interplay between theory (e.g., pedagogical content knowledge) and practice. The college-prepared students entered teaching with initial theoretical knowledge, providing a context for them to develop a capacity for adaptive expertise. The alternate route teachers, in contrast, gained knowledge of theory within their practice, both from their classrooms and from additional formal ongoing professional development opportunities. For both groups, an initial practice-based problem (often related to students they found challenging) helped to promote initial teaching innovation related to adaptive expertise. Examining these problems of practice, these teachers moved outside their comfort zones and challenged their notions of teaching. The contexts of their professional development are discussed in detail in Rutter (2017); we want to note here, though, that these teachers did not develop adaptive expertise only because of personal agency (which did come into play). In every case, the emerging adaptive expertise was at least related to collaboration or relational learning.

We also found that there appeared to be a broader range in teaching approaches among the teachers who stayed in teaching as compared with those who did not. The teachers who left teaching often created classes with a rigid curriculum for students who were disconnected and bored. Finding refuge in teaching routines that were not working, one teacher, again, wished to remove the rebellious and alienated. Although this teacher could choose to leave the classroom for a new career (which he did), his students were back in class the next year, possibly with a new teacher, seeking to find themselves yet again in the classroom.


We began by asking the question, What lays claim to and seizes the imagination of teachers, presenting them with a “new key” for understanding and engaging in their work? We have explored this question by examining the choices, contributions, and development of teaching expertise of our exemplars.

Some of our teachers learned to teach in a new key, and others did not. Fortunately, some of those who did not often left teaching. On the other hand, some of our teachers who demonstrated unusual early promise in the classroom also left the classroom. Fortunately, though, many who did develop as adaptive, learning centered, imaginative, and culturally sensitive did remain. The curriculum deliberations and decisions of these exemplars suggest that their teaching became complex and layered. Their views of their increasingly diverse and differentiated curriculum reflected their growing awareness of a need for self-critique and curriculum change in relation to their students’ diversity and diverse potential to learn. Their steadfast beliefs about students as active, intelligent learners often scaffolded their choices in the classroom and the questions they raised about their practice. Their working with colleagues and their students further deepened the meaning and expanded the range of these choices.

The types of curriculum choices that our more successful exemplars made enriched their teaching and learning contexts while stimulating our teachers to make more inclusive and equitable choices about their students. These teachers chose to give their students “voice” in their classrooms. This decision in turn supported the creation of classroom structures that facilitated their and their students’ social constructivist learning (Wells, 1999). This dynamic presented these teachers with a richer context from which to draw teaching and learning questions. These questions created a path for them on their journey of thinking and teaching in a new key.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 14, 2017, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22225, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 7:14:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Sawyer
    Washington State University, Vancouver
    RICHARD SAWYER is professor of education at Washington State University Vancouver. His areas of study are curriculum theory with an emphasis on teacher epistemology and imagination, teacher leadership, duoethnography, and aesthetic curriculum. He recently published Duoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research, published by Oxford University Press, for which he received the AERA Division D Significant Contribution to Educational Measurement and Research Methodology Award, and “Tracing Dimensions of Aesthetic Currere: Critical Transactions between Person, Place, and Art” in the Currere Exchange Journal.
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