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Interruptions: Thinking-in-Action in Teacher Education

by Cara Furman & Shannon Larsen - 2020

Background/Context: This paper is a part of the special issue “Reimagining Research and Practice at the crossroads of Philosophy, Teaching, and Teacher Education." We center what follows on a practice used in undergraduate methods courses that we have termed Interruptions. Interruptions are a form of inter-class visitation in which faculty plan together, visit one another’s classes, and publicly interrupt the teaching of the other with a variety of both pre-planned and spontaneous questions relating to the day’s lesson.

Research Design: We weave together a conceptual analysis and qualitative research, drawing from a larger qualitative study conducted in one early childhood and one elementary undergraduate math methods course in Spring 2016. For the study, we co-planned eight lessons together (four in each course), and observed one another teach each of those lessons, while taking notes and purposely interrupting instruction. We collected survey data from students at the end of each classroom observation and interviewed two students from each class at the end of the term. We also kept reflective journals of our work. In this paper we deploy a narrative format to document teacher inquiry drawing upon our reflective journals and classroom observation to describe the development, enactment, and our response to Interruptions.

Outcomes: Our use of Interruptions pushed us to examine our own philosophical beliefs and how they were, or were not, enacted in our teaching practice. We highlight that the connections that emerged between philosophy and teacher education provided us with the necessary time to care for our ethical selves both in and out of the classroom. Specifically, we share how this exercise allowed us each to become more deliberately reflective about the work that we do and why and how we do it.

Conclusions/Recommendations: In addition to giving us time to slow down our teaching in order to think carefully about our choices while in the midst of teaching, we found that we also considered instructional implications long after the Interruptions were complete. Interruptions helped us think more deliberately about the ethical choices we made as educators and in the service of our students. Interruptions proved to have deep and long-lasting effects on our practice as teacher educators. Other practitioners who ground themselves in both philosophy and methods may benefit from similarly systematic approaches for examining their own practice with an eye towards improvements in teaching and understanding of the self.

In this article, we are concerned with the relationship between thinking and action for teachers (Buchmann, 1989; Korthagen, 2001; Schön, 1983). We argue that ethical and effective practice depends on the ability to think-in-action. By ethics, we refer to the ancient Greek notion of self-cultivation for the sake of living in accordance with ones values (Aristotle, 1999; Foucault, 1997; Hadot, 1995; Hansen, 2011; Higgins, 2001, 2011). Taking an Aristotelean (1999) approach, our work is premised on the notion that acting well requires that one act in accordance with ones values in a manner that is responsive to the context and individual people to whom one is relating (Higgins, 2001, 2011; Nussbaum, 1992; Schwartz & Sharpe, 2010). As with Aristotle, we define values as a set of worked through understandings of the right way to act. Values might be arrived at from a variety of sources including philosophical inquiry, lessons from ones family or community, laws, or religious instruction. When applied to teaching, acting well demands that we know what our teaching values are, have methods that will support those values, and can bring both to bear in relation to the particular students with whom we work (Buchmann, 1989; Korthagen, 2001; Furman, 2016, 2018).


In Platos (1997) Symposium (composed around 2400 B.C.E), Alcibiades, a Greek nobleman, is describing the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates during a military campaign. Alcibiades first quotes Homer stating, The exploit our strong hearted hero dared to do before launching into a description of Socrates. In modifying Socrates with a quotation composed to describe Odysseus, Alcibiades draws a comparison between Socrates and the hero known for his shrewdly intelligent military prowess and leadership. Then Alcibiades proceeds to relate the following scene:

But you should hear what else he did during the same campaign,

One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other;

he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldnt resolve it,

but he wouldnt give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot.

By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and quite mystified, they told

everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about

something. He was still there when evening, and after dinner some

Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable

(all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if

Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he

stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning,
When the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day. (LI. 220c-d)

Alcibiades life

In sharing this depiction of Socrates, we first want to highlight that Socrates is known primarily as a thinker and a talker and yet Alcibiades reveals that Socrates was also a skilled warrior. In starting with a comparison to Odysseusknown for his quick-thinking and brilliant action, then describing Socrates thinking, and finally highlighting Socrates excellence in battle, Alcibiades draws a link between the ability to think and military prowess, which might be more broadly understood as a link between thinking and concrete action in the world.


Moving from the battlefield, in a very different time and place Donald Schön (1983) coined the phrase reflection-in-action to make a claim that to be effective, a practitioner must pause in the midst of acting to consider and determine the best way forward. Other contemporary thinkers similarly argue that success in action requires that we are able to stop and think (Arendt, 1971; Buchmann, 1989; Korthagen, 2001; Schön, 1983, Schön, 1987).

Where Schön calls for reflection-in-action, we substitute reflection with the more encompassing word thinking. We do so for two reasons. The first is thinking incorporates a wider range of mental activity. We use thinking to include more open-ended and meditative thought processes such as contemplation (Arendt, 1971; Buchmann, 1989); reflection as a mode of considering ones actions and their efficacy towards a goal (Birmingham, 2004; Dewey, 1997; Rodgers, 2002; Schön, 1983, 1988); and deliberating as one decides how to act (Dunne, 2005; Levinson & Fay, 2016; Pendlebury, 1990).

Our second intention with thinking is to move away from Schöns focus on efficacy and his lack of attention to ethics (Higgins, 2001). We believe that the efficacy of an action must always be considered within an ethical framework. As ethical teachers, we consider not only what works, but also what we ultimately seek to achieve, for whom, and in what manner? Where Schöns practitioner measures success based on whether predetermined goals are met, in focusing on ethics, we are concerned not only with meeting goals but also examining what goals ought to be met. Specifically, we frame our pedagogical actions with consideration for whether these acts contribute to our pre-service teachers goals, sense of well-being, and whether what they learn from us as teacher educators will help them in turn care for the children they will ultimately teach.  

Examples of thinking-in-action to facilitate acting well as a teacher include but are not limited to pausing to consider what a student has just said and then choosing whether to follow the comment when it seems to diverge from the lesson at hand (Ballenger, 2009); noticing when the students are not using a particular material, such as blocks, safely and stopping to quickly determine whether a lesson on how to use the materials safely must be re-taught (Charney, 1992); letting the plans for an entire day come full stop after a tragedy has occurred to allow the children to play or talk through what has happened (Bentley, 2015); listening when students express concerns about a class discussion, even when those concerns undermine the teachers sense of efficacy (Kerdeman, 2017); pausing to consider how to respond to a student comment or taking time to assess if the next planned part of the lesson is logical given what has already occurred (Lampert, 2001).

Concerned with how we might support teachers as they think-in-action, we focus on one challengethat to be able to think-in-action demands that the actor, albeit sometimes very briefly and nearly imperceptibly, interrupts the flow of the action. To make this claim, we turn to Magdalene Lamperts (2001) extremely detailed description of a math lesson. Lampert describes posing a math problem to a group of fifth graders. Faced with raised hands, Lampert could simply go with the hand that went up first or the person who first caught her eye. She could rely on a class list, simply calling on whoevers turn is next. She could pull names out of a jar (making her choice random). Each one of those methods might have its merits but would not involve thinking-in-action. Instead, interrupting the immediate flow of question to immediate response and, in doing so, slowing down the pace of her lesson, Lampert waits for more hands to go up and as she is waiting, she thinks about the potential effects of a particular choice. She considers gender, students confidence as mathematicians, the likelihood the child has the right answer, a childs typical participation frequency, how calling on a particular person could yield the correct answer which could be helpful or might silence other voices, and how another person might have the wrong answer but a more useful method for solving the problem. While there is much to be taken from this scene. Our concern here as teachers and teacher-educators is what enabled Lamperts ability to interrupt her own instruction to think in this moment? Put differently, how might we teach others to interrupt themselves as well?

We ground this paper in the actions of the Ancient Western thinker Socrates as we seek to showcase that the Western philosophical tradition has long grappled with the need to stop and think-in-action and the difficulty of this task. We argue that we have been struggling with what it means to think-in-action for millennia because it is both necessary and counter-intuitive (Arendt, 1971). In fact, interrupting action to think is awkward, unusual, and challenging (see Arendt, 1998; Taminiaux, 1997 for detailed discussion of this).

It is this challenge that most intrigues us as teacher educators committed to the ethical need for thinking-in-action. To address the challenge of thinking-in-action, we begin with a closer look at the concept of interruption. We then turn to writing on the care of the self to argue that the ability to interrupt and think-in-action can be supported with what are called exercises of the self (Foucault, 1997, 2001; Hadot, 1995). We then showcase how a practice we developed and named Interruptions serves as an exercise, helping teachers prepare to think-in-action. Where we have previously showcased some of the ways in which Interruptions supported our students to better understand the kinds of decisions teachers make while teaching (Furman & Larsen, 2019), in this paper, we look at how engaging in Interruptions improved our ability to think-in-action for the sake of teaching in accordance with our ethics.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines interruption first as the Breaking in upon some action, process, or condition (esp. speech or discourse), so as to cause it (usually temporarily) to cease; hindrance of the course or continuance of something; a breach of continuity. Using this definition, we seek to highlight the temporary pause, the breach of continuity, and that the phrase breaking in upon implies exteriority.

Turning to how interrupting is approached in teaching, we find that interruptions are often the subject of concern in discussions of management and the flow of lessons. Teachers are in fact urged to develop strategies that keep lessons, questions-and-answers, and materials moving without interruption (Lemov, 2010; Leafgren, 2009). The typical North American school day balances long periods of uninterrupted activity with regular, timed, and controlled interruptions (Wood & Wrenn, 1999; Wurm, 2005). Particular activities are intended for particular time-slots and confined to specific areas (Leafgren, 2009). For example, in the average high school there is a delegated time for everyone to go the bathroom (between periods) (Wood & Wrenn, 1999). Going during class is an interruption. Children are often punished for interrupting when they call out answers or are engaging in activities or comments deemed off-task (Leafgren, 2009, 2018). The value of interruption is often weighed when discussing the merits (Ballenger, 2009; Cazden, 2001; Leafgren, 2009; Shalaby, 2017) or detriments (Lemov, 2010; Schickedanz & Collins, 2013) of students comments that do not smoothly flow in response to a particular question or topic.

The word interruption is most regularly invoked in teacher research within the field of critical pedagogy (Apple, 2010; DePalma, 2010; Gaztambide-Fernández, 2010). Interruptions are primarily targeted around disrupting pre-established norms, cultural assumptions, and behaviors. The intention is both to stop particular approaches as well as to unearth assumptions that may not be on the surface. Interruptive practices include reading and discussing narratives that challenge assumptions (Sumara & Davis, 1999) and having students reflect on their opinions and experiences related to a topic such as gender or race. The goal seems not simply to interrupt, which might allow one to go forward along a similar track, but actually to disrupt and reimagine alternative perspectives. Though she does not emphasize the word interruption, the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1971) argues that the act of thinking involves interruption of prior assumptions, habits, and calcified ideas. In thinking, one considers alternate perspectives and, in doing so, troubles pre-determined norms.  

A key element of an interruption is that it generally comes from the outside, lodged by a person or thing (Gaztambide-Fernández, 2010). For this reason, dialoguetalk that emphasizes two perspectivescan be an interruptive form of engagement (DePalma, 2010). Though a speaker may literally wait for the other to finish, ideas are interrupted as the speakers share different perspectives. Arendt (1971) argues that when we speak to others, our perspectives bump into theirs. This meeting is a necessary precursor for thinking because thinking is the continuation of actual conversations in our head. Arendt explains that when we think, we consider the words in discussions that we have in person and replay them, taking on different roles. Arendt (2006) also argues that, in order to be able to imagine the perspective of others, we need to hear other perspectives actually aired.

Arendt (2006) also showcases the power of interruptive dialogues in her study of countries where the citizens publicly and vocally resisted Nazi ideology. By interrupting the Nazi discourse with counter perspectives, these resistors actually led Nazi occupiers to change their stance and behavior in some instances. Arendt (1971) also explains how interruptive thinking can be internalized. Specifically, she argues that the perspective of others stays in our head after that person has left. We thus continue to have our thoughts interrupted by others even when alone.

Finally, as Gaztambide-Fernández (2010) writes, the exhausting task, of constantly interrupting what seems natural and common sense is not simple or straightforward (p. 412). A primary challenge is inertia. As basic physics tells us, it is simply easier to let a moving object continue on its path. Interruptions are also fraught with challenges, among them, slowing things down, leading to discomfort, and the risk of unsettling what was settled (DePalma, 2010; Gaztambide-Fernández, 2010).

When we generated associations with the word interruption with our colleagues for this special issue, we were struck that almost all of the associations held negative connotations. In fact, one participant even shared that she wrote, Why cant I think of anything positive? In the previous section, we argued that thinking-in-action is a profoundly difficult task. In arguing that to think requires interrupting and that interrupting is inherently difficult we begin to unpack why thinking-in-action might be so hard.


As noted, interruptions tend to carry with them challenge and some discomfort (DePalma, 2010; Gaztambide-Fernández, 2010). In a teaching climate that encourages near relentless speed, efficiency, and constant response (Lemov, 2010; Wood & Wrenn, 1999; Wurm, 2005), interruptions to think-in-action can feel especially counter-intuitive if not outright unpleasant and wrong. In an era where teachers are sometimes measured by how well they follow a script (Santoro, 2018) and stick to a time-table (Leafgren, 2018), asking teachers to interrupt themselves to think is not only mentally challenging but literally puts them at odds with norms.

Given these challenges, we turn to assistance to the ancient Greek concept of the care of the self as articulated and interpreted by contemporary philosophers Michel Foucault (1997) and Pierre Hadot (1995). A few elements of the care of the self particularly appeal to us. Foremost, the care of the self is premised on the claim that daily life is extremely complex and challenging and sticking to ones ethic in the face of daily decisions is hard (Foucault, 1997; Hadot, 1995). To act ethically one must engage in a set of exercises that bolster a persons ability to stay true to his or her values. Ever concerned with the ways in which culture and habit influence our actions (Foucault, 1990, 1995), Foucault (1997) argues that such exercises help us to attend to what we are doing and regularly recalibrate. Just as the warrior must engage in physical training for battle, all of us must engage in vigorous exercise to prepare ourselves to act in accordance with our values in daily life.

There is no formula for exercises nor does the word refer to any particular practice. Instead, Foucault (1997) draws on a range of ancient practices, such as systematically reviewing ones thoughts at the end of the day, to illustrate what an exercise could be. His purpose in sharing examples is to highlight that what makes something an exercise in this sense is that it is a carefully constructed set of activities or rituals developed in accordance with values, so that engaging in the exercise will support ones actions to be in alignment with those values. Exercises are challenging, demand regular practice, and just as with exercising our muscles, are a lifelong endeavor. Finally, exercises are typically practiced with and aided by others. As we will argue in the next section, we see our Interruptions as serving as such an exercise to support thinking-in-action.

We join an enthusiastic but small group of contemporary scholars making the connection between the care of the self and education. Particularly, enthusiastic about the connection between ethics and actions, philosophers in education have provided a detailed exegesis and historical grounding of the care of the self in depth and considered how the concept might be applied to contemporary education (De Marzio 2007a, 2007b; Gunzenhauser, 2008; Hansen 2011; Infinito, 2003). We see our project as adding to this work in a few key ways. First, while we have found compelling arguments for the need to care for the self and the role of thinking in teaching, we have not found an explicit connection between the two. Further, we find that arguments for the care of the self in most cases have fallen short of practical and detailed examples of what this might look like (for a notable exception see Infinito, 2003). We, therefore, seek to add to the literature connecting care of the self to education by providing an example of a contemporary exercise.


We place our work within the field of teacher-inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Hubbard & Power, 1993; Lytle, 2008). As an inquiry, our writing not only focuses on results, but also documents our process. We developed and implemented the following method for our study. The Interruptions took place in our respective pre-service math methods courses in Early Childhood and Elementary Education at the public liberal arts college where we both teach. Over the course of one semester in May 2016, we met to co-plan and discuss four lessons for each of our math methods classes. First, the person who was teaching the lesson planned it and then shared those plans during the meeting. During our pre-lesson meetings, we sometimes asked questions or solicited advice about a given lesson or topic and then identified areas where an Interruption may be important for raising an idea with the class. We observed one another teaching each of those lessons, while taking notes and deliberately Interrupting the teaching. We sometimes Interrupted in places that we had planned and sometimes Interrupted spontaneously in response to what was occurring in class. We also invited our students to Interrupt us while we were teaching to ask questions. On average, each 100-minute class had between three and four Interruptions. At the end of each classroom visit we collected survey data from our students and recorded our own reflections in a journal. Finally, at the end of the term we interviewed four randomly selected students, two from each of our classes. For this paper, we are drawing on the data from our journal reflections and our classroom observations.


We come to this work with a shared background as public school teachers who both had worked in progressive elementary schools. Each of us also worked as teacher mentors in our districts. We both primarily teach courses designated as methods but also some foundations courses such as the introduction to teaching course in our respective departments. Cara situates herself as a philosopher with a terminal degree in Philosophy and Education but she has a masters degree in Elementary Education. In contrast, Shannons academic background and interests are rooted in mathematics education, but she has a masters degree in International Education with a terminal degree in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning. As such, our mutual interest but different strengths in both methods and philosophy informed our collaboration.

Interruptions developed when Shannon shared with Cara two practices in mathematics education: Rehearsals and Teacher Time Outs. In Rehearsals pre-service teachers in math education courses engage in a rehearsal around a particular routine that might be common in math teaching. For example, the quick images routine is one in which students are shown an image quickly, asked to recreate it on their own, shown the image again briefly, asked to make corrections, if necessary, and then share the way they saw and interpreted the work. As routines such as this one support a variety of mathematical ideas depending upon the grade level, it is useful for pre-service teachers to not only learn the routines but think about their implications.

The first step of a Rehearsal is therefore for the course instructor to teach the pre-service teachers the given routine. The pre-service teachers then plan a teaching segment in which they will use the routine. Then, they teach the routine to their classmates and their professor who act as though they are young children being taught the particular lesson. During instruction, the professor will pause the pre-service teacher to ask questions about decisions being made. The pre-service teacher might also pause the instruction to solicit feedback from the instructor and classmates when he or she is unsure about how to proceed. After rehearsing the routine, the pre-service teacher often refines the lesson, teaches it to children in a field placement, and then reflects on the work (Lampert et al., 2013).

Also developed to highlight teacher decision-making, the intent of the Teacher Time Out (Gibbons, Kazemi, Hintz, & Hartmann, 2017) is to stop teaching in order to publicly discuss decisions and to collaboratively determine the next steps a teacher might take in the moment of a lesson. However, unlike Rehearsals, which occur between pre-service teachers and a teacher educator, Teacher Time Outs occur live between a practicing teacher, school leaders, and (potentially) teacher educators in front of the children. Teacher Time Outs are used in response to real or authentic challenges that occur in teaching as they occur (Gibbons et al., 2017). All the educators in the room share responsibility for the lesson being taught and for being responsive to the needs expressed by the children as the lesson unfolds. In this way, Teacher Time Outs are designed to be job embedded professional learning that both supports the practice of a classroom teacher and the mathematics learning of the students in the classroom.

Using the Rehearsals and Teacher Time Out models as a framework for our own collaboration, we agreed that we could teach our students in front of one another. Our express purpose was to open up discussions about the acts of teaching and to raise awareness around teacher-decision making while in the act of teaching. As it turns out the Interruptions proved very successful at this (see Furman & Larsen, 2019 for a detailed analysis of student feedback). Yet, as we will showcase, the practice also took on an added dimension as we came to see how the process changed us as teachers.

We first describe in depth one day in Shannons classroom. We have chosen to be very detailed first because as teachers of methods, we believe in the value of tangible examples. Secondly, in his philosophical writings, Foucault (1997, 2001) describes some of the ancient exercises in detail. Therefore, following Foucaults lead, the specific details of what we did have philosophical import. We will first showcase our exercises and then explain the philosophical impact of these actions.


We now ask you to join us for part of one of Shannons classes with a small sequence from the lesson as it unfolded. Weve chosen to highlight the Pocket Day activity because student feedback in both surveys and the final interviews suggested it was a watershed moment. The students are a group of 20 mostly female, all white, undergraduate students studying to be future elementary school teachers. Many are first generation college students. The goal of the larger lesson was to consider how teachers might differentiate a lesson to meet the needs of a range of students in the teachers classroom. During this part of the class, Shannon is modeling Pocket Day, an activity from the Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (Second Edition) (TERC, 2008) series, and then using the information collected from the Pocket Day Activity to discuss data with her students. This is the lesson that the pre-service teachers will later work to differentiate.

Shannon starts the class by first telling her students that she will be teaching them a part of a second-grade lesson as if they are second-graders. She asks them to wear a child-learner hat, while also attending to the actions they are being asked to do in the lesson. Of note, she does this to help provide them some clues about language and tone with children (not to infantilize!).

Shannon [S]: Good morning everyone. It is such an exciting day today. Do you know what day it is? [Pause]. it is Pocket Day! Now, remember that you have to stick with the clothes you have on right now. You cannot add a sweatshirt, jacket, or backpack to your outfit, and you cannot take off any layers. What you have on right now is what counts. Your first job is to put a cube in every single pocket you are wearing today. Once you are certain that you have a cube in every pocket, you can take them out and count how many cubes you have to find out how many pockets you are wearing. I want you to be prepared to share the number of pockets you are wearing with the class.

{Students put cubes in each pocket, take them out, and count their cubes}.

S: OK, how many pockets do you have? Well go around and share our answers with everyone.

{The students share the number of pockets they have with the class, while Shannon records their answers on the board in the order in which they are shared}.

S: Today, we are going to use this information to make a line plot (or dot plot). Hmmm . . . what is a line plot? Turn and talk to your partner and share your ideas about what a line plot might be.

{As students talk to their elbow partners, Shannon walks around the room listening to the student responses and looking at the information they are recording in their notebooks}.

S: Who has an answer they would like to share with the class?

Cara [C]: Im wondering why you had the students turn and talk to one another after you asked what a line plot was?

S: Well, I was predicting that some of you (or maybe many of you) dont remember, or perhaps never learned, what a line plot is. I thought if I asked the question outright, some of you might be worried about answering it incorrectly in front of the whole class. I was hoping that by talking with just one other person you would have the chance to share ideas, ask questions, and maybe clarify your thinking. I also think that I might have more people share an answer with the whole class if you have the chance to think about it in a smaller, safer space first.

{Students share their responses to the question about a line plot. Some suggest it is like a bar graph, others suggest it is a line graph, and others still indicate it might be like a histogram}.

S: Those are certainly all ways we can use to record our data, but today we are going to use a line plot and a line plot looks like this:

{Shannon draws a line on the board and puts the numbers 0 8 across the bottom, under the line}.

S: Each of these numbers represents the number of pockets the students in our class might be wearing. So, this 2 means two pockets. What do you think the 5 means?

{Students indicate it represents five pockets}.

S: What about this 0?

{Students share that it means zero pockets}.

S: Great! To make our line plot, we look at the number of pockets you told me you are wearing, and put an X over that number of pockets. For example, our first piece of data says 4, and that means that Alexis is wearing four pockets today. I am going to put an X over the number 4. That X represents Alexisshe is one person with four pockets. The next piece of data on our list is a 3. What should we do with this?

{Students suggest putting an X over the number 3 and Shannon does this}.

S: Our next piece of data is a 0, what do we do with that?

{Students tell Shannon to put an X over the 0}.

S: OK, what does this mean? Does it mean that zero people have one pocket?

{Students respond that it actually means one person who has zero pockets. At this point, Shannon tells the class to finish the line plot individually in their notebook as she finishes recording the data on the line plot on the board. She reminds students that they can ask the people at their table for help if they have a question or get stuck. Afterwards, she reviews the data on the board with students}.

S: Your job now, is to look at the information we collected about the number of pockets we are wearing today and to work with your group to write down at least five statements about our data. Each group will need to be ready to share at least one statement about the data with the whole class.

{As the students work Shannon and Cara circulate around the room looking at what is being recorded, listening to conversations, and asking or responding to questions. After about 10 minutes, Shannon brings the class together and asks for each group to share at least one statement. As the conversation around data is wrapping up, Cara raises her hand and Shannon calls on her to share}.

C: I was just thinking that this was really interesting. I taught this lesson when I was a second grade teacher and it was complete chaos.

S: Really? Im surprised by that. Our students were always really excited by Pocket Day and the teachers seemed to love it, too. Everyone looked forward to it. What do you think you did differently that made it such chaos?

C: Well, I didnt use cubes, for example, and the whole thing was just a mess. I dont think I understood what the purpose of the lesson was and I didnt have the skills to manage it. I always dreaded it and wanted to skip it.

{Here Cara and Shannon begin a short conversation about the fact that, while the lesson comes from a math curriculum series, having a lesson in a textbook does not guarantee a well implemented or coherent lesson. Shannon then turns the lesson back to the days goals around differentiation}.

S: Our goal for today is to think about how we might provide access to all of our students so that they can be successful in a lesson. I chose this lesson because, while it certainly contains a lot of mathematics, it doesnt require a lot of computation. What I want us to do today is to think about what is required for students to be successful in this lesson, mathematically for sure, but also in other areas. For example, what might be required of a student in terms of language? In terms of social interactions? Organizational skills? Id like you to talk about this with the people at your table for a while and identify a list of things you had to be able to do in order to be successful in the Pocket Day lesson. Once that is done, we will begin to think about ways we can modify or adapt the lesson to help all of our students be successful.

C: Im wondering; do you think it is possible to really differentiate every lesson in order to meet the needs of every student all of the time? And, do you think that should always be our goal as teachers?

{Shannon is surprised by this question and doesnt feel like she has a strong answer to it. She tells Cara and the class that she thinks there are ways to make a lesson open enough to allow students access to the work without decreasing the rigor of the lesson or changing the mathematical goal, but leaves the question unanswered. She tries turning the question back on the class to ask them what they think. None of them share an idea and, even after talking in small groups, they seem uncomfortable answering in front of the whole class. Shannon asks if she can leave the question to think about it for a while, and promises to address it again with her students in the next few days (which she does)}.


In analyzing our Interruptions, we first note that unlike those mentioned earlier in the field of critical pedagogy, we were never Interrupting for the sake of disrupting a practice or ideology. In fact, we Interrupted with an eye towards revealing meaning and ability (DePalma, 2010). Where critical pedagogues tend to interrupt to challenge one belief in favor of another, we sought to Interrupt to showcase and consider intentionality, but we also did not endorse any particular educational goal. In fact, as the practice evolved, we sometimes showed in our Interruptions places where we differed in our goals and left it to the students to determine where they themselves stood on an issue.

The purpose of the first Interruption described above was to uncover. Specifically, when Shannon asked her students to turn and talk, the class quickly jumped into the math problem that was truly troubling them. Cara knew from her frequent discussions with Shannon that collaborative talk was a key method for Shannon and had been done intentionally. Embedded in this subtle action was Shannons confidence that students would learn better by hearing each other, that everyone had a right to all the information (not just the highest performers), and that her classroom should include all student voices (Dewey, 1916/1944). Observing the class, Cara suspected Shannons students had likely missed the important and ethical decision to let them discuss in partners. Cara believed that more time spent on highlighting this activity would, therefore, be important, as important as discussing the math content of that day.

Despite confidence that Interrupting at this point would highlight a detail about pedagogy that Cara knew Shannon wanted her students to recognize, she was also very aware that Interrupting would stop the flow of the lesson. As students were just beginning a task, it had the effect of literally pulling them off-task. In this way, Caras Interruption, went against conventional management strategies that stress getting through a lesson and having students complete requisite tasks as the primary goals (Leafgren, 2009; Lemov, 2010). For this reason, Cara felt nervous raising her hand to Interrupt.

The second Interruption had been scripted and therefore posed less anxiety for Cara in the moment. The authentic moment of interruption happened in their meeting earlier that week, Cara had been surprised that Shannon was going to use Pocket Day as a model lesson. As an elementary school teacher, Cara had used this lesson and it had gone poorly. Seeing no point in the lesson, she had stopped doing it altogether. She was, thus, highly skeptical about this lesson and told Shannon how it had gone in her own classroom. As noted earlier, Arendt (1971) writes that we think when we come up against a different opinion and our preconceived notions are interrupted. When Shannon eagerly proposed that she would do this lesson, Caras assumption that the lesson was useless was interrupted. Trusting Shannon, she assumed there must be something important that she had missed when trying the lesson herself. Likewise, as Cara (at first tentatively) shared her issues with the lesson, Shannons sure confidence in the lesson was also interrupted.

Shannon and Cara intentionally set up first the experience of doing the lesson and Caras Interruption so that the students could experience both Shannons initial confidence, and the effect of Caras experience with the lesson. Both Shannon and Cara hoped that the students would be responsive to the children in front of them, able to listen when a lesson was not working for these children and revise (Phelan, 2005). In other words, by Interrupting to show when something tried and true didnt work, they wanted to give the students permission to think-in-action and recalibrate lessons if the students were not responding well to them.

Additionally, in contrast to Caras earlier attempt at the lesson, Shannons version of Pocket Day was carefully thought out and managed. Subtle moves like putting the Unifix cubes in pockets made the lesson far more tangible and less chaotic. Caras Interruption with her own experience helped Shannons students better see the careful thinking that went into how Shannon executed her own lesson.

The context of Caras third Interruption, Im wondering; do you think it is possible to really differentiate every lesson in order to meet the needs of every student all of the time? And, do you think that should always be our goal as teachers? was very different from her first two. In this case, Caras question had not been planned nor had it evolved out of a previous conversation. Instead, the question jumped forth when Cara heard Shannon say, our goal for today is to think about how we might provide access to all of our students so that they can be successful in a lesson. Asking this question, Cara had her own answer clearly worked out as this was a topic she had researched and thought about in-depth. Entrenched in her own thinking, Cara expected Shannon to have a worked out response herself. She did not anticipate Shannons surprise. Had she known the question would have caught Shannon off-guard, she probably would not have asked it for fear of embarrassing her friend.

Yet, as it turned out, this moment of confusion was extremely important. Shannon was concerned about inclusion but had not thought carefully about this component of it. In asking her question, Cara Interrupted Shannon by pushing her to think about her own educational beliefs. In this case, Shannon was pushed towards contemplation: an unravelling of assumptions and the following of a variety of considerations (Arendt, 1998; Buchmann, 1989). The Interruption and conversation that followed after class helped her to ultimately formulate her own values on the topic. Importantly though, this formulation was slow. In fact, it was a year later when Shannon asked Cara to re-ask this question in front of her class because now, she had formulated a response.


As noted, the original intent of our project was to support our students in seeing how teachers think-in-action and each of the Interruptions described above proved significant for our students (see Furman & Larsen, 2019). Yet, we found that the process ultimately supported our own comfort interrupting ourselves to think-in-action.

Interruptions: Dialogue in Support of Thinking

A key element of the Interruptions process was that we met before to discuss what we were planning to do. Noting this process, Shannon commented after the first visit, The opportunity to co-plan with someone, to ask about ideas, to get suggestions, and to hear feedback is great. It makes me feel more purposeful, careful, and directed in my teaching. Shannon links the opportunity to dialogue with more thoughtful teaching.

Of a question Cara asked during the class itself, Shannon comments:

I thought this was an interesting and thought-provoking question. I loved having the opportunity to think about it and I really appreciated that my students responded so reflectively to the prompt. I think they raised some good ideas. Cara in my class has done a good job of involving the students in the thinking.

In this way, Shannon notes that the Interruption pushed her thinking and also drew her students into the dialogic encounter. Knowing that a knowledgeable other would be in our classroom to ask us questions about our practice encouraged us to consider deeply our own purposes, goals, and reasons for engaging our students in the work we were doing even when our colleague was silent. This was evident after the very first visit, when Shannon noted the benefit of Caras visits for her own thinking:

Interestingly, I felt more attentive to my own teaching moves throughout the lesson than I normally do. Because I knew Cara was there, I was more reflective about what I was going to do before I began to do it. I think this allowed me to be more open about the decisions I was making even without Cara Interrupting.

Both Cara and Shannon found themselves Interrupting their own teaching even when their colleague wasnt there to ask the students questions or to provide additional information, imagining the kinds of questions and comments that the other might have asked.

This is a perfect illustration of Arendts (1971) argument that thinking when we are alone depends on hearing the perspective of others. In this case, Shannon discovered that when alone she was carrying out a kind of dialogue with what Cara might say. This made her more likely to Interrupt herself to think-in-action even when Cara wasnt there. Cara too found herself more likely to stop class to consider intention. She started frequently asking her students, why might a teacher do this? In this way, she played both the teacher and the Interrupter.

Interruptions in Support of Rethinking Habituated Practice

In her first journal, Shannon also highlight the fact that the Interruptions served to clarify elements of teaching she had been wondering about (for example, whether or not to review the answer to a warm-up problem with students) and that the focus of the Interruptions seemed to elucidate the purpose of her instructional moves. Just as Shannon was focused on very specific moves, so was Cara. Cara notes in her journal after the first session, students talking to each other and you, an awareness that likely led into her question about turn and talk. Cara was also particularly interested in the structure of Shannons lesson and the ways she used PowerPoint to guide her lesson. Cara did not use PowerPoint often and preferred to write the schedule on the board so she could make changes as class developed. Cara felt her own teaching was far less orderly and she was intrigued to see similar values reflected within a very different presentation. In this case, her practice was interrupted when she was faced with an alternative mode of operating.   

In a later visit, Cara was encouraged to change a practice based on her time in Shannons class. In her journal she writes that shes, really intrigued by the note cards. These were cards on which students wrote brief responses to the reading. Shannon checked to see these were done but did not respond to students on them. Students then were instructed to use the cards to begin discussions of the readings. Both Cara and Shannon had tried a broad range of practices to get students to engage more deeply with the readings. Cara had previously heard about these cards from Shannon, but had had trouble visualizing how this worked. Seeing the students using the cards in conversation was helpful. Cara deliberates: I wonder if its too late to implement a different version of this in my class. Are note cards really different from a journal? Many students in 336 [her math class] note that they are reading but not reading well. Cara considers interrupting a routine in her own classroom based on seeing an alternative modelled by Shannon.

Shannon similarly reconsidered her practice after watching Cara teach and speaking with her. After the third visit, Shannon writes:

I want to mention something that has been floating around in my head. I think when I teach, I try to do too much. I feel like I am always rushing through and trying to get everything done. I do believe that less is more, but do I model that? Could/should I cut more from the syllabus in order to provide more depth and time to engage? Its the age-old question: How do I do K8 math, all the content domains, CCTS, teaching principles, practice standards, and important pedagogy? So, what can give? I notice this more because Caras classes always have significantly less. The pacing seems less frantic and more deliberate.

By this third classroom visit, Shannon felt that her relationship with Cara had developed into co-teaching, an outcome that was both unexpected and welcomed. Because of this, Shannon noted that working with Cara helped her to both reflect on the lesson in the planning stage (and make changes to the days plan) and to consider what she might do in the next semester to address the same topic:

I was looking through previous lessons and trying to combine three lessons and an assignment into one. It was most definitely too much and, in trying to do too much, it lost focus and clarity. It essentially seemed to become me telling the students - exactly what I am trying to teach them not to do. Anyway, Cara helped me to redesign the lesson in a better way and I think it went OK. It was still an ambitious amount of work, and in the future, I would like two days in order to do this more slowly and with depth.

Caras lessons tended to involve fewer steps and components. In watching Cara teach and through talking to her, Shannons tendency towards busier lessons was interrupted.

As noted, in an educational culture that values speed (Wood & Wrenn, 1999), the tendency is to pack lessons. Therefore, letting her practice be interrupted by Caras pacing, was no small consideration. Arendt (1971) argues that thinking helps us to unpack our habituated thoughts and responses. In both these cases, Cara and Shannon were inspired to reconsider habits by seeing each others teaching and hearing each others thoughts.

Interruption Making Space for Contemplation

While Shannon indicated that she was left thinking about a number of questions Cara had posed, and that the collaborative work also made her more reflective, more deliberate, more attentive, and more open she struggled to identify the value and types of questions she might ask when in the role of Interrupter:

I felt it was harder to be the observer then to be the teacher. I didn't know exactly when to Interrupt and felt that I often waited too long. I also think a lot of my questions were about pedagogical choices but not necessarily about best practices or the impact of one path over another.

Later, she suggests that the work may not simply be about highlighting best practices, but about thought experiments tracing what would happen if students did or did not engage in a particular practice at a particular moment. Arendt (1971) compares contemplation (what she calls thinking) to Penelopes famous weaving. Just as Penelope undid her weaving at the end of each day in order to start afresh each morning, Arendt argues that thinking leads to no direct product. Instead, it is the process of building and unravelling ideas.

In describing her Interruptive process, Shannon notes the ways in which the kind of thinking-in-action had evolved beyond simply highlighting deliberation to also including space for the definitively less utilitarian mode, contemplation. Both Shannon and Cara were creating more space for pondering without answers, a practice that they valued but which, again, felt counterintuitive in a teaching environment where having the right answer is often prized (Cazden, 2001; Lemov, 2010).

Along these lines it became clear in the journals that much of the thinking they were doing was less tidy. For example, after the second visit, Shannon noted a difference in the frequency of Interruptions and posited that this might have been due to the fact that she had taught the lesson multiple times before and had already had opportunities to reflect and refine the work. However, she noted that this difference might have also been because when she and Cara met she (Shannon) had the opportunity to talk through the lesson and identify areas where Cara might Interrupt. Knowing that the Interruptions might be coming, Shannon was deliberately more explicit with her students about her teaching practice than she had been in the past noting that she felt that, because of the conversation she and Cara had had and the time that provided to think through her choices, she was more tuned into my moves and my choices before she even has a chance to Interrupt me. Shannon also noticed that the Interruptions caused more talking in class than is typical and wonders about student engagement in this type of discourse:

I was a little concerned because it felt to me like we spent a lot of time talking yesterday and not much time engaging or doing. I think doing of the math is so critical, but it is so easy to fall into the talking about (and talking, to).

Again, the Interruptions, like Penelopes weaving, slowed down the doing in class. For Cara, more talking meant that the pace of the class felt slower. This, in turn, felt out of sync with some of her assumptions about what good teaching looked like: quick moving and always actively engaging (Wood & Wrenn, 1999). Cara was actually not opposed to the slowness on principle but she still felt very self-conscious about it.

Yet, having Shannons interjections made Cara more at ease with slowing down her own pace and letting students see this. In her second visit to Caras class, Shannon noted that there were two distinct occasions where Cara deliberately stopped herself during her teaching, noting It was so clear that she was making a pedagogical decision there and doing so publicly. Exercising the muscle of admitting to not having an answer immediately during the Interruptions, Cara began building more moments into her teaching when she said, I really dont know. In this way, Cara felt more empowered to risk internalized pressure to keep classwork moving steadily (Leafgren, 2018) and to let everyone slow down to sit longer with ideas.


Interrupting each others practice during teaching allowed us to slow down our work, to take time for our thinking, to clarify ideas, to ask questions of ourselves and others, and to be deliberate, purposeful, and thoughtfulnot simply reactivein our actions. The effect was immediate and striking. Perhaps more intriguing was that, though we only Interrupted in eight classes over the course of the semester, our daily practices were heavily influenced and the influence continued in the semesters when we did not do Interruptions.

Socrates was famous for his ability to stop and think anywhere, in the midst of a battle field being perhaps the most pertinent to us. We admire this ability, while acknowledging that it is not only incongruous but also highly difficult. Interruptions provided us with exercises that facilitated our ability to pause and think while teaching more regularly and more meaningfully. A key element of this care of the self was the chance to Interrupt by engaging in dialogue (Arendt, 2006; DePalma, 2010) about our teaching while teaching. Just as Arendt (1998) theorized that in thinking we hear the voices of our interlocutors, after working together, when we were left teaching and thinking alone in our classrooms we heard the kinds of questions and comments the other had posed during the visits. In other words, our Interruptions proved to be exercises that helped us to stop, think, and sometimes change our practices so that they were better in service of our ethical beliefs.

Importantly, the impact of drawing on educational philosophy in order to inform our instruction in methods has enabled us to examine our work in deeper and more critical ways. Like Socrates, we now take the time to think-in-action. Foucault and Hadot helped us to name what we were doing as exercises in the service of our ethical selves. While we do not call upon all instructors grounded in methods to become philosophers, nor all philosophers to become grounded in methods, we suggest that situating oneself in a broader field of inquiry only serves to improve and strengthen ones own learning. Examining how our methodological practices intertwined and intersected with our own philosophical values, enabled us to find an avenue to care for our teacher-selves, and importantly, model that for our students.

The implications of this are large and small. We close with an ethical matter that feels of deep import. During the Spring 2018 semester, our work was interrupted by larger societal events. The school shootings that occurred in Parkland, Florida, resulted in multiple threats being made to local schools. Our students had field placements in schools that were locked down or closed because of these threats. Shannons students expressed fear and frustration that they were not being taught how to manage these types of situations. In response, and with thought given to the lessons learned from the Interruptions work, she stopped her planned mathematics instruction. Instead, the class spent time discussing the events and voicing their concerns. Shannon also organized a panel of teacher educators, including Cara, to engage in discussion with the class on this topic at the end of the semester. In her final journal entry in 2016, Shannon writes I think my practice is getting better because I am being forced to be more reflective. We saw evidence of that even two years later. Replacing Shannons use of the word reflective here with thinking: our practice continues to improve as we are forced to be more thoughtful.

We share this example to highlight that while stopping to think can feel like a risk, much more is at stake when we do not stop and think. As such, we hope our paper has served to first emphasize the need for thinking-in-action. Secondly, we hope that in sharing our methodology, Interruptions, we will inspire readers. Perhaps, in some cases, they will be inspired to try our methods but in others, and of equal interest for us, to determine the exercises that will ground them in their own ethical tasks.



We capitalize this word when referring directly to our pedagogical technique.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 4, 2020, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23069, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:18:32 AM

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About the Author
  • Cara Furman
    University of Maine Farmington
    E-mail Author
    CARA FURMAN, PhD, is an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine Farmington. Prior to this, she was an urban public elementary school teacher. Published in journals such as Curriculum Inquiry, Education and Culture, and Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, her research focuses on Descriptive Inquiry, inquiry, asset based inclusive teaching, and progressive practices. Having studied both philosophy and education, she integrates qualitative research on classroom practice, teacher research, and philosophy in both her teaching and research. She is the co-director of the Summer Institute on Descriptive Inquiry.
  • Shannon Larsen
    University of Maine Farmington
    E-mail Author
    SHANNON LARSEN is an Associate Professor of Elementary Education at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF). Shannon has experience working as both an elementary classroom teacher and a K-8 mathematics coach. In addition to teaching undergraduate methods courses, Shannon has helped to develop the Maine Mathematics Coaching Project at UMF. This is a series of graduate courses designed to support K-8 mathematics coaches in the state. Shannon’s research interests focus on how teachers (pre- and in-service) learn to improve their practice. Some of her recent work has been published in NCTM’s Annual Perspectives in Mathematics Education 2017, the ICME-13 Monograph Uses of Technology in Primary and Secondary Mathematics Education: Tools, Topics, and Trends, and AMTE’s Elementary Mathematics Specialists: Developing, Refining, and Examining Programs that Support Mathematics Teaching and Learning.
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