Teacher Data Analysis and Assets-Based Discourses about Multilingual Youth: Exploration of Relationships
by Daniella Molle - 2020
Context: The pervasiveness of deficit-based discourses about multilingual students has long been documented in the scholarly literature. Such discourses severely erode the learning and well-being of multilingual youth. One of the spaces in which deficit-based discourses about students may be transformed is professional development.
Focus of the Study: The study connects a key practice of high-quality professional development, the analysis of classroom evidence of student learning, to student-focused discourses about multilingual youth. The research questions the study addresses are: As they make sense of data together, (a) how do teachers discursively position multilingual youth? and (b) what factors reinforce and undermine assets-based discourses about multilingual youth?
Research Design: Leveraging a case study approach, I explore how a team of three middle-school teachers positions students while analyzing classroom evidence during a one-year professional development designed for educators of multilingual youth. I rely primarily on transcripts of professional development sessions to trace student positioning by the team over time as teachers analyze dissimilar types of classroom evidence.
Findings: The findings reveal complex mediational relationships among teachers’ data use, student positioning, and shared theories of student engagement. These co-constructed theories reinforce deficit views of students when student reasoning and participation in learning are obscured by the data teachers are exploring. When the data make the process of student engagement available for reflection, however, teachers shift toward assets-based discourses. In addition, the findings shed light on relationships between type of evidence and implications for classroom practice. The teachers in the study shift their focus from teacher-centered instruction to the scaffolding of student interaction when the data make visible student participation in learning.
Conclusions: The study contributes to a nascent knowledge base about the complex relationships between teacher analysis of classroom evidence and assets-based discourses about all students and multilingual students in particular. The findings expand current conceptualizations of teacher data use by foregrounding student positioning over time as a key element of teacher sensemaking, and revealing the significant mediational role that shared theories of student engagement play in teachers’ data use. In terms of practical implications, the study offers insights into the mechanisms through which assets-based discourses about multilingual youth can be fostered across learning contexts.
The pervasiveness of deficit-based discourses about multilingual learners1 is well documented in the scholarly literature (e.g., Gutiérrez et al., 2009). These discourses position culturally and linguistically diverse students not only as different but as culturally deprived, deficient, and less capable (Lee, 2017). Deficit-based notions severely erode the learning and well-being of multilingual youth in myriad ways, including through cultural hostility and identity threats (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001), low expectations for student performance (e.g., Pettit, 2011), and fixed notions of student ability and intelligence (e.g., Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). The need to shift deficit-based discourses is thus great and urgent. One of the spaces in which such transformation may take place is professional development2 (e.g., Hynds et al., 2011).
A key feature of high-quality professional development is a focus on student learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). A promising practice for introducing and sustaining such a focus is teacher reflection on classroom-based evidence of student learning (Coburn & Turner, 2011a). This study connects teachers work with student data to the social positioning of multilingual students. The questions the research addresses are: As they make sense of data together in a professional development context, (a) how do teachers discursively position multilingual youth? and (b) what factors reinforce and undermine assets-based discourses about multilingual youth? The analysis contributes to an understudied area of research that explores the process of teacher sensemaking around student data (Evans et al., 2019; Park, 2018). Leveraging discourse analysis, the findings connect teacher sensemaking of student data to teacher theories of student engagement. The study contributes to a nascent knowledge base about the complex relationships between teacher analysis of classroom evidence and assets-based discourses about all students (Wilson et al., 2017) and multilingual students in particular (Bertrand & Marsh, 2015).
LITERATURE REVIEW: TEACHER ANALYSIS OF CLASSROOM EVIDENCE AND INSTRUCTIONAL EQUITY
The analysis of classroom evidence of student learning is considered a key component of teacher professional development. Indeed, a recent literature review of effective professional learning recommends that states and districts incorporate the use of student data to inform instruction in the professional development they provide (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017, p. vii). The exploration of classroom evidence is also a key component of inquiry-based professional learning designs (e.g., Timperley, 2011), which have emerged as a dominant structure for professional development in many countries (DeLuca et al., 2015).
The promise of collaborative exploration of classroom evidence to contribute toward equitable instruction for multilingual students rests on several assumptions supported by the literature. These assumptions link reflection on classroom evidence to new insights about student learning and accompanying positive changes in teacher practice (e.g., Heller et al., 2012). Data use can also contribute to the construction of shared understandings of desired student performance, common student misconceptions, and powerful instructional strategies that support student learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017).
At the same time as the knowledge base about the promise of evidence-informed decision-making has grown, so has the scholarship showing that the analysis of classroom evidence is a social practice fraught with uncertainties and contradictions. Studies have illustrated that teachers sensemaking around evidence of student learning is mediated by dominant discourses and the perceptions of student abilities that these discourses encourage (Bertrand & Marsh, 2015). Teachers interpretation of evidence involves power relations and politics (Park & Datnow, 2017), and individuals of authority at the school and district levels can shape what data teachers interact with and how they engage with it (Goertz et al., 2009). Moreover, teachers do not always interpret data rationally based on objective criteria and multiple sources; instead, their interpretations of classroom evidence of student learning can be shaped by data collected intuitively (such as spontaneous observations of daily classroom activities) and personal criteria (Vanlommel & Schildkamp, 2019). Depending on context, the analysis of student data may become a way of confirming pre-existing beliefs about students rather than of challenging and expanding teachers understanding of student learning (Young & Kim, 2010).
Given that a focus on student data is insufficient in and of itself to disrupt negative discourses about culturally and linguistically diverse youth, it is important to consider how teachers exploration of these data can be harnessed to foster an appreciation for student learning and engagement. Collaborative sensemaking of student data can be particularly powerful in fostering assets-based discourses about marginalized youth if it foregrounds student participation in learning and encourages reflection on student reasoning (Garner et al., 2017; Gutiérrez et al., 2009). Documenting and exploring student participation in learning stands in contrast to using student outcome data (such as standardized test scores) as the main measure of student learning (e.g., Braaten et al., 2017). A focus exclusively on student outcomes reinforces deficit-based discourses about students because it locates explanations of learning (or lack thereof) within the individual student (Anderson, 2015; Gutiérrez, 2009). Conversely, observing students participation in learning across tasks shifts the unit of analysis from supposedly stable student characteristics (Bertrand & Marsh, 2015, p. 881) to the interaction between the student and their learning environment. Such a shift can reveal skills, identities, and competencies that would otherwise remain invisible (e.g., Trueba, 1990) and highlight how effective students can be at navigating the emotional, linguistic, social, personal, cognitive, and other demands of instructional tasks (e.g., Lee, 2017).
A related mechanism for disrupting deficit-based discourses about culturally and linguistically diverse students is the exploration of student reasoning (e.g., Park, 2018). A focus on student sensemaking during professional learning has been shown to contribute to more robust instruction for all students (Eylon et al., 2008) and multilingual students in particular (Heller et al., 2012). Evidence-informed discussions of student reasoning during professional learning can lay bare contradictions between deficit- and assets-based views of students (Bragg et al., 2016) and foster positive positioning of students learning and abilities (Pella, 2015). Like the focus on student participation in instructional practices, discussions of student reasoning shift the discourse from individual student characteristics to patters of interaction between the student, the task, the learning environment, and available resources (e.g., Rose, 1985). This situated analysis of student learning has the potential to reveal student capabilities and learning processes that would otherwise remain inaccessible to educators (Gutiérrez et al., 2009).
This brief discussion of teacher sensemaking of student data illustrates the situated and negotiated nature of the practice. As Datnow and Park (2018) pointed out, the practice can both foster and constrain equitable opportunities for student learning. The research reported here showcases this contradiction with respect to assets-based discourses about students, and illustrates how classroom evidence that illuminates the process of student learning can contribute to positive positioning of multilingual youth.
I adopt a theoretical perspective rooted in sociocultural theory and ethnographic discourse analysis, and investigate the intersection between social practices and situated meanings. More specifically, I explore the relationships between the social practice of teacher data use on one hand, and cultural models and student-focused discourses on the other.
Cultural models are resource[s] that an individual may call on to guide his or her actions (p. 123). They are theories we use to try to simplify complex reality in order to better understand and deal with it (Gee, 2008, p. 9). Cultural models are not stored in any ones individual mind but are instead distributed across the different sorts of expertise and viewpoints found in a group (Gee & Green, 1998, p. 123). Cultural models are also not fixed but are open to modification, expansions, and revision by members as they interact across time and events (p. 124). The situated, dynamic, and incomplete nature of cultural models, however, does not make them less powerful in privileging and normalizing ways of being and doing. Cultural models matter because they make certain actions, identities, and interpretations appear natural and valued within a group (Gee, 2008).
The discourses relevant to this study are student-focused discourses. These types of discourses are a construction of some aspect of reality from a particular point of view, a particular angle, in terms of particular interests (New London Group, 1996, p. 75). The discourses consist of practical, social, and cultural acts accomplished through language in social interaction (Van Dijk, 1997, p. 2). Of particular interest here is the function of these acts to socially position individual students or student subgroups. Students are often positioned in multiple ways, and social positionings that accumulate across time and space can be viewed as a collage that constitutes who [students] are within the social institution (Bloome et al., 2005, p. 156). Discourses about students that become dominant are consequential because they make particular judgements and actions with respect to students appear natural, unavoidable, and logical despite evidence to the contrary (Gutiérrez et al., 2009). In the case of historically marginalized student subgroups, deficit-based discourses tend to foster both views of students as deficient and remedial practices that exacerbate educational inequality (Braaten et al., 2017; Garner et al., 2017).
Student-focused discourses and cultural models constitute each other in-the-moment and over time (Bloome et al., 2005). Cultural models shape the social context in which groups interact in a reflexive (or two-way) relationship: they both guide how members position themselves and others, and are in turn constructed and modified by the members (Erickson & Shultz, 1981 as cited in Gee & Green, 1998). Cultural models thus mediate the discourses that the group draws upon, sustains, and revises through social interaction over time. The groups discourses, in turn, also have the potential to reaffirm, push against, and change situated constructions of cultural models (Gee, 2008).
Both cultural models and discourses shape social activity (Gee & Green, 1998). The social practice at the center of this paper is teachers exploration of student data during professional learning. I use Coburn and Turners (2011a) framework for data use as a heuristic to explore this social practice. The framework is coherent with the theoretical underpinnings of sociocultural theory and discourse analysis as it locates the process of teacher sensemaking within a social and political context. As the authors point out, data interpretation implicates social and organizational conditions, since the data use unfolds in the context of a multileveled organizational system called public schools, which enable and constrain the dynamics of interpretation and action (p. 174). The Coburn and Turner framework is intended to support research on relationships between professional learning contexts, situated interpretive process, and desired outcomes. This aim corresponds closely to the focus of this study.
SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS
The data for this study come from a two-year professional learning opportunity that took place in a middle school in a mid-sized town in the Midwestern region of the United States from 2013 to 2015. During the study, the school served approximately 420 students in grades 69, of whom about 70% were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and over 30% were designated as English language learners (ELLs). The school was recommended to us as a research site by a district staff member because of the strong commitment of the principal to the academic success of multilingual youth.
The professional learning consisted of six 90-minute sessions per semester (a total of 12 sessions or 18 hours per academic year) and lasted for two years. The sessions took place after school. Educators participated in the professional development in teams. Each team consisted of teachers who taught different content areas but shared the same students and often the same classroom. This study focuses on the second year of the project, when 11 teachers and four teams took part in the professional learning.
There were two co-facilitators of the professional development: an insider (a content-area and English as a second language teacher who was also the chair of the ESL department) and an outsider (a university researcher and the author of the present paper). I was responsible for the conceptual design of the professional learning. My co-facilitator, Shauna3, strengthened the coherence of the professional learning by connecting its design with district and school initiatives and practices. She brought with her ten years of experience teaching multilingual students at the school. We co-planned and co-facilitated the sessions.
This study focuses on a single three-person team of educators. I selected the team because of the wide range of student-focused discourses used by its members. (The selection process is explained further in the Data Collection and Analysis section.) The team included three White women teachers: Ms. Johansen, Ms. Ross, and Ms. Schwartz (see Table 1). Ms. Johansen had taught at the school for ten years. She had formal preparation in elementary and science education, and had been teaching science and mathematics for the past four years. Ms. Ross had formal preparation in elementary education and Spanish, and held an ESL license. The year of the professional learning was Ms. Rosss first year teaching middle school, but she had five years experience teaching Spanish at the elementary level. Ms. Schwartz had thirty years of experience working as a special education teacher, which included thirteen years as a support teacher elsewhere and seventeen years as a support and classroom teacher at the focus middle school.
Table 1. Case Study Teachers
The Professional Development Program
The professional development that is the focus of this study had two main aims: to expand teachers capacity to meet the needs of multilingual youth and to promote collaboration within and across teacher teams. The professional development embodied most of the key features of high-quality professional learning identified in the literature (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017): it emphasized a focus on student learning, active teacher participation, collaborative meaning-making over time, expert support, and opportunities for feedback and reflection. The participation of educators from a range of disciplines made it impractical to focus on one content area. Thus, the content focus that the literature recommends as a foundation for professional learning became language development, and in particular instructional practices that foster it. The professional development did not include coaching or peer observation.
Our approach to supporting both teacher learning and collaboration was inquiry-based professional learning (DeLuca et al., 2015). Distinguishing features of inquiry-based professional learning are dialogic sharing, taking action, and reflecting. We used Timperleys (2011) knowledge-building cycle as a foundation for our professional learning model. The cycle engages teachers in investigating what students need to know and do, identifying areas of growth for teachers to support student learning, and planning and reflecting on new learning experiences for students. For each professional learning session, we prepared guiding questions that reflected these phases (see Appendix A). We encouraged teams to select shared priorities for student learning and language use, revise planned instructional activities or design new ones in light of these priorities, and then bring and analyze classroom evidence of student learning to explore how students were engaging in the new learning opportunities. As facilitators, we offered expert support related to language development, fostered teacher reflection, and encouraged equitable participation of all team members.
Data Collection and Analysis
There were two researchers involved in data collection: myself and a graduate student. We collected audio recordings of the professional development sessions, classroom observations, learning artifacts, and teacher interviews. We recorded all professional development sessions (18 in the second year, each lasting approximately 90 minutes). Participants classrooms were observed five times a year for two to three consecutive days, and generated field notes and write-ups (Miles et al., 2013). We collected artifacts the participants produced during the professional development sessions and teacher handouts used on the days we observed. Teachers were interviewed at the end of every semester.
Student-focused discourses and the focus teacher team emerged as areas of interest in the course of a larger study. The study encompassed several teams and explored relationships between the professional development and teacher learning. For the larger study, I summarized all professional development sessions and wrote memos to document initial reflections and conjectures (Gibbs, 2007) on what the participants were learning and how they were engaging with each other. I also used the qualitative software NVivo to code the data. I engaged in open coding and generated a codebook using the constant comparison method (Bryant & Charmaz, 2007) to create new codes and refine existing ones in an iterative manner as I worked across data sources and teacher teams. The focus of the coding was the discursive and instructional practices that characterized each team. Examples of codes for discursive practices include co-constructing meaning and praising each other; examples of codes for instructional practices are showcasing student work and providing language scaffolding. During these initial analyses, I noticed stark differences in student-focused discourses among teams. This seemed an important line of inquiry to pursue given the significance of student-focused discourses for the educational opportunities available to multilingual youth (see the Introduction section). The team that is the focus of this paper drew upon deficit-based discourses more than other teams. The teams discursive practices were thus reflective of dominant discourses and offered a fertile ground for investigating how deficit-based discourses could be reinforced and disrupted over time.
The analysis that led to the findings reported here occurred in three stages. The first stage involved open coding of the codes related to student positioning in the codebook for the larger study. These codes were positive student positioning and negative student positioning. The codes included references from session transcripts, classroom observations, and teacher interviews (see Appendix B). The purpose of the open coding was to shed light on any patterns that may explain why and when team members drew on each type of student-focused discourse. This stage of the analysis led to two key insights. It revealed that teachers positioning of student behavior, performance, and learning was patterned and grounded in cultural models or frozen theories (Gee, 2008, p. 97) (see Figure 1). The emergence of this mediating factor helped guide the second and third stages of the analysis process for this paper. In addition, I noticed that the highest density of references for student positioning occurred when teachers were discussing student work. This finding determined the selection of teachers data analysis as a context for the further investigation of student positioning within the team. Examples of raw data coded in the first stage of the analysis are included in Appendix B.
Figure 1. Relationships Between Student-Focused Discourse, Teacher Data Use, And Cultural Models
The second and third stages of the analysis involved axial coding (Miles et al., 2014). I analyzed the open codes generated in the first stage of the analysis to arrive at a more refined set of cultural models relevant to the teams discourse (Van Dijk, 1997). The process of refinement is illustrated in Appendix B. I also drew on reflection memos written during the initial, larger study of teams discursive practices (see Appendix B for a sample memo). This second stage of the analysis yielded the teacher theories about student behavior, performance, and learning reported at the beginning of the Findings section.
During the third stage of analysis, I explored all three episodes during which the team discussed evidence of student learning. I developed codes based on Coburn and Turners (2011a) framework for research on data use. Following the framework, I distinguished among teachers noticing, interpreting, and constructing implications from data. Coburn and Turner (2011a) defined noticing as the first step in educators data use. It involves attending to data or patterns in the data. The second step, interpreting, encompasses constructing an understanding of what the data mean (p. 178). The authors underscore that the process of interpretation is always shaped by pre-existing beliefs or cognitive frameworks (ibid.). The third step in data analysis is constructing implications for action. This step consists of connecting the data with a response and link[ing] together a series of premises into an argument for a particular direction to pursue (ibid.). My analysis of teachers explorations of student work combined the three discursive actions identified by Coburn and Turner (2011a) with a focus on cultural models and student positioning. As I worked with the data, I divided the second discursive step of interpreting data into the subcategories explaining, evaluating, and wondering about data. These subcodes enabled me to better capture the nuances of how the team members were engaging with the data, and to document when they were explaining what they were seeing, forming a judgement, and raising questions (see Appendix B for an example). The results of this analysis make up the three cases in the Findings section.
I have striven to ensure the trustworthiness of the research in a number of ways (Gibbs, 2007; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). First, I recognize the subjectivity of the research at all stages of analysis, including manuscript preparation. My analysis is shaped by my experiences as a language learner and language teacher, positioning as a professional development facilitator at the school, role as a researcher with access to participants classrooms, and social identity as an advocate for the education of multilingual youth. Second, I engaged in triangulation whenever possible. As discussed previously, the student-focused discourses I identified were not limited to session transcripts but were also evident in interviews and classroom observations of the team members. Third, the constant comparison method I used at all stages of analysis helped ensure that the codes I was defining and refining were as consistent and relevant as possible. The iterative nature of the analysis corroborated the relevance of the codes to the data. For instance, the analysis of teacher talk about student data confirmed that the cultural models I had identified in the prior stage of analysis were indeed the most prevalent ones in the sample. Finally, the quality of any analysis hinges on the quality of the data themselves. The two researchers who conducted the data collection spent several months repeatedly cleaning the transcripts after they had been generated by external transcribers, and ensuring that the text captured as accurately as possible what each participant had said.
The findings illustrate a relationship between teachers data use, student positioning over time, and the theories (or cultural models) of student engagement that teachers draw upon to interpret data. These theories shine through as patterns of explanation4 in the data. As the findings illustrate, the theories are shaped not only by the discourse within the team but also by school discourses and discourses in other professional settings.
Within the focus team, teachers tended to discuss student behavior, performance, and learning by referring to (a) fixed characteristics of students or groups of students (e.g., they are so mean) and (b) outcomes of student activity (e.g., everyones doing the work). For the sake of brevity, I refer to these patterns of explanation as theories of student engagement. The theories fit the definition of cultural models in Gee and Green (1998) and Gee (2008). The theories offered stable ways of simplifying the complex reality of teaching, and were invoked by all team members across time and discussion topic. They were leveraged but not critically examined within the team. Like cultural models, the theories of student engagement that the teachers drew upon were mediated and collectively constructed, and do not represent attributes of individual teachers (such as beliefs or ways of thinking about students).
Table 2 illustrates the two patterns of explanation in the teams discourse through representative quotes from team members. The first category consists of references to student personality, ability, competence, or motivation. The teams reliance on this category corroborates prior research, which has documented educators tendency to explain student performance through student characteristics with assumed stability (Bertrand & Marsh, 2015; Evans et al., 2019; Oláh et al., 2010). The second category, focus on outcome, is to the best of my knowledge new to the literature on teachers work with data and contributes to our understanding of the factors that influence teacher explanations of student performance.
Table 2. Theories of Student Engagement
The teams theories of student engagement shaped teachers data use and the teams discourses about students. I explore this relationship in greater depth through the three cases presented below. These cases represent all instances in which the teachers discussed student work as a team during the professional development. Case 1 demonstrates the co-existence of positive and negative student-focused discourses during teachers analysis of student work. The case is an example of the way in which assets-based discourses from other professional settings interact with but do not determine the teams discourse. Case 2 illustrates how deficit-based discourses about students become dominant in the team when student reasoning is not easily accessible in the data. Case 3 shows the positive positioning of students when the data makes the process of student engagement accessible to teachers and available for reflection. Taken together, the case analyses suggest that making student reasoning visible and foregrounding the process of student learning are two key ways in which teachers engagement with student data can foster assets-based discourses about the learning, performance, and behavior of multilingual youth.
Case 1: Coexistence Of Positive And Negative Discourses About Students
This case is a 17-minute discussion of one students writing and took place during the fifth professional learning session in the fall semester. The student, Luis, is designated as an English language learner and attends the ESL class taught by Ms. Ross. The writing sample Ms. Ross shares with the team is a narrative that Luis has written. His unconventional spelling makes the text incomprehensible unless read aloud (Figure 2). Ms. Ross shares the writing sample with her team because this type of writing is highly unusual for a seventh grader and she does not know how to support her student in improving his spelling. She has just learned in a university course that this type of spelling can be used by younger multilingual children and some of the patterns evident in Luiss letter substitutions are common among Spanish-language learners of English.
Figure 2. Sample of Luiss Text
Excerpt 1 reflects the flow of the conversation. For purposes of space, the conversation is abridged and includes key moments in a longer episode of talk. Within each key moment, I have omitted (i.e., marked with ellipsis) repetitions, re-phrasings, or more detailed elaborations on ideas already included in the excerpt. The commentary uses the categories by Coburn and Turner (2011a) of noticing the data, interpreting the data, and constructing implications as well as the subcodes I created for interpreting data (explaining, evaluating, and wondering about data) to more precisely capture the participants engagement with the students work.
Excerpt 1. Analyzing Luiss story
The analysis showcases the simultaneous positioning of Luiss writing as substandard academic-wise and strong content-wise. While the team evaluates Luiss work positively in terms of ideas (lines 4, 1719, and 73), his work is co-constructed in deficit terms with respect to writing features such as conventions (lines 5051) and structure (lines 6062). The connection the team makes between television, street smarts, and ideas (lines 7274) suggests that the assets-based positioning extends primarily to aspects of writing unrelated to schooling (such as the content of his narrative). As a writer, Luis is positioned as lacking.
The positioning of Luis as a weak writer is bolstered by the theories of student engagement leveraged in the discussion. The teams tendency to privilege outcome over process seems to obscure the complexity of Luiss thinking and the logical sequencing of his ideas and privilege the surface features of writing (such as punctuation and sentence structure), by whose measure his work is substandard for his grade level (lines 5354). The theory of fixed student characteristics locates some of the features of the students writing within the student rather than the work itself, as in he has street smarts and he has the ideas (lines 7677), but he has no periods [and] . . . no structure (lines 5962). This discursive framing positions the teachers evaluation of the work as a general statement about who the student is and what he can do.
The deficit-based discourse about Luis contradicts both the assets-based discourse from Ms. Rosss university course and the facilitators evaluation. Shauna highlights Luiss strengths as a writer with respect to word choice, coherence, and organization (lines 12 and 7577), but her evaluation is not picked up by the team and appropriated as shared knowledge. Also, despite Ms. Rosss direct reference to the assets-based discourses in her university course (lines 416), the team does not give Luis credit for word choice, complexity of the concept, and relevance to the topic. The contradiction between the teams positioning of Luis and the assets-based discourses from the facilitator and the university course remains unnoticed and unexplored, which deprives it of transformative potential (e.g., Christman et al., 2016).
Contradictions are evident in this episode in terms of implications for action as well. Both Ms. Ross and Ms. Johansen identify actions they can perform to support the students language development (such as marking the words Luis stumbles on or rewriting Luiss story with correct spelling, lines 5658 and 7072, respectively). None of these actions, however, prioritizes student sensemaking and metacognitive awareness-building as clearly as the implications Shauna proposes (lines 6269 and 8384). Indeed, during the following professional development session, Ms. Ross shares a video recording in which she asks Luis to read his story, and then directs his attention to words she has chosen beforehand that he uses frequently and misspells. The teacher-directed approach Ms. Ross takes is consistent with instructional practices we observed in the team, which tended to privilege teacher guidance and support over productive struggle.
In sum, this case illustrates the co-existence of positive and negative discourses about students during teachers work with data, as well as the prevalence of deficit-based discourses with respect to students academic performance. The analysis illustrates that contradictions between the negative student positioning and other assets-based discourses available to the team remain unnoticed. Teachers implications for action show a preference for teacher-directed instruction over tasks that foster student reasoning and metacognitive development.
Case 2: Coexistence Of Positive And Negative Discourses About Students, Cont.
This case is a 19-minute discussion of the work of one student, Yessica. The episode took place during the last session of the fall semester. Yessica is designated as an English language learner with a specific learning disability. The participants in the discussion are Ms. Johansen and Ms. Schwartz, along with the facilitator, Shauna. (Ms. Ross is absent that day.)
The discussion of Yessicas work takes place during a stretch of talk in which Ms. Johansen examines her students performance on a recent math test. Ms. Johansen looks briefly at the work of several students designated as ELLs before discussing Yessicas work at length. In the episode, Ms. Johansens reflections are based on a range of data produced by Yessica: her most recent test, a video-recorded session of Yessica solving problems (which Ms. Johansen conducted for a class in math education offered by the district), and work completed by Yessica in prior years (available to Ms. Johansen in Yessicas cumulative folder).
As was the case with the exploration of Luiss narrative, the discussion of Yessicas work is too long to include in full. I provide excerpts from the discussion that illustrate its flow, with some omissions (marked by ellipsis) for reasons of space.
Excerpt 2. Analyzing Yessicas work
Explanations of Yessicas math performance
Yessicas performance over time
The discussion of Yessicas performance on the last test and over time positions her negatively as a student who knows math facts (lines 7 and 46) and has developed coping strategies (lines 6163) but who does not have the capacity to articulate her thinking or solve word problems correctly (lines 1419 and 4448, respectively). The positive comments the team makes about Yessicas abilities encompass more basic math skills (such as memorizing math facts and being able to perform mathematical operations) and do not extend to more complex cognitive tasks (including interpreting word problems and explaining ones reasoning). While the team members comment positively on Yessicas behavior (regularly turning in homework and asking for individual help when she needs it) and personal characteristics (an increase in confidence), the teams discourse about her performance and learning remains deficit-based and foregrounds what the student does not have in order to excel in math.
Yessicas positioning is bolstered by both theories of student engagement prevalent in the team. Ms. Johansen interprets Yessicas work in terms of outcome (what she did/didnt do), as well as fixed characteristics (what she can/cannot do, and what she knows/doesnt know) (see Table 3). These theories of student engagement reinforce deficit discourses about the student any time student performance is not up to par, and serve to obscure student sensemaking and the interaction between the student and key features of the task (such as the cognitive and linguistic demands it places on a particular student). References to the outcomes of Yessicas past work reinforce the construction of her math abilities as internal characteristics stable over time. The theories lead to general rather than contextual statements about student performance and learning, thus perpetuating a deficit view of the students mathematical competence.
The deficit-based discourse about students are interrupted primarily by the facilitator (lines 1213 and 5657). These interruptions, without fail, foreground student reasoning. While the team members acknowledge the interruptions, they do not take them up in ways that transform their discourses about students or their approach to looking at student work. The contradiction between the team and the facilitators approach to student work thus remain invisible, as was the case during Case 1.
Similar to Case 1, the implications that the team members crafted based on their analysis of student work encompass primarily teacher-centered actions, such as modeling for Yessica how she can create a visual representation based on a word problem (lines 6567). While the team begins with a suggestion that seems to foreground student reasoning (lines 6063), the focus quickly shifts to the outcome of the task (lines 6364) and teacher-directed instruction (lines 6567, 7681). The shift in the discourse of both Ms. Schultz and Ms. Johansen speaks to the shared and co-constructed nature of the theories of student engagement in the team.
This case is the second example of the coexistence of positive and negative discourses about students. The case illustrates how theories of student engagement that foreground outcomes and fixed student characteristics position students as deficient when it comes to more cognitively demanding tasks. Attempts by the facilitator to direct the teams attention to student reasoning do not result in the collaborative exploration of the interaction between student and task. The implications that the teachers construct continue to privilege teacher-directed action over tasks that foster student sensemaking.
Case 3: Positive Discourses About Students
This case is a 39-minute discussion of student work that takes place during the second session in the spring semester of the professional learning. The participants in the discussion are Ms. Johansen, Ms. Schwartz, and Shauna. (Ms. Ross is absent that day.) The evidence the team looks at was collected by Ms. Ross and consists of student reflections on a collaborative learning activity. This collaborative learning activity is new for the team, and something that the team decided they wanted to use across the content areas during the prior professional development session. Ms. Ross asked the students to list positive and negative aspects of the collaborative learning activity, and collected the students responses at the end of her English language arts class.
The discussion is lengthy and includes digressions on related topics (such as other collaborative activities the team has used in the past week). The episode begins with Ms. Johansen and Shauna looking over the students reflections. Based on Shaunas recommendation, most of the reflections that the teachers read are by students designated as ELLs. While Ms. Johansen reads the reflections aloud, Shauna keeps notes that synthesize the students comments. All interlocutors comment on the reflections from time to time, and then engage in a conversation about implications.
Shaunas role in this episode is different than her engagement in prior instances of data exploration in the team. She does not know Luis and Yessica as learners (Case 1 and Case 2, respectively), and the professional development affords her only a cursory glance at their work. In this session, however, she explores the students exit slips together with Ms. Johansen. This direct involvement with the data collected seems to position her more as a team member who can offer her own evaluation of the data than as a facilitator who guides the conversation. Shauna is the one who initially proposes the positive positioning of studentsa positioning that is later appropriated by the team. While Ms. Johansen is reading the student reflections, it is mostly Shauna who provides a positive evaluation of the data in repeated statements such as thats a step in the right direction and it sounds like they at least listened to each other. Shaunas synthesis of the data also positions the students in a positive light (Excerpt 3, lines 1319), even challenging the team members belief that the students cannot engage in respectful conversation with each other (lines 2124). Shortly after that, the positive positioning is picked up by Ms. Johansen (lines 3336 and 3842). This positioning then extends to other collaborative activities (lines 5663). The overall assets-based view of students persists even as teachers acknowledge the challenges that they face in their everyday practice (lines 7885). The positive student positioning is evident in the teams summary of their learning for the day as well, when Ms. Johansen shares the following with the other teacher teams: They were listening, which is something that I think Ms. Schwartz and I both were surprised by, that they actually thought they were listening to one another, because thats something that were not always sure they are doing.
Excerpt 3. Analyzing student reflections
Additional interpretations and implications
One of the major differences between the data in Cases 1 and 2 on one hand and the data in Case 3 on the other is that the student reflections make student participation in learning visible to the team. The assignment, by its very structure, focuses on the process of student collaborative engagement and makes it available for teacher reflection. Unlike Case 2, where the process of Yessicas mathematical thinking remains obscure to Ms. Johansen, in Case 3 the process of student work is clearly visible without any additional effort on the teachers part. The students reflections pleasantly surprise the teachers and present patterns of engagement that contradict prior observations by the team. Even as the teachers focus on outcome (lines 3336, 4146, 7073), the process of student participation in learning remains at the center of the discussion.
The findings differentiate between deficit- and assets-based discourses. The analysis may thus suggest a dichotomized view of student positioning which does not correspond to the framing of students in the flow of teacher discourse. Student positioning was unstable, emergent, and co-constructed. In many instances, teachers positioned students in conflicting ways in the same statement (e.g., Table 3). The coexistence of different student positionings illustrates that social discourse if fraught with contradictions (see Literature Review section). These contradictions are not only inherent to social interaction but, when made visible, can become an important catalyst of teacher learning (Engeström, 2001).
Table 3. Student Positioning and Teacher Focus on Outcome and Capacity
The visibility of the process of learning mediates in significant ways the teams construction of implications for action. There is a clear shift from the teacher-centered activities in Case 1 and Case 2 to teacher actions that can scaffold students effective participation in collaborative work. The team describes instructional scaffolding that may encourage equitable student participation, such as using talking tokens and randomly selecting a spokesperson for each peer group. Additionally, the team discusses how they can provide students with opportunities to practice working together across the content areas. Ms. Johansen commits to using the collaborative learning activity more often in science and introducing students to respectful language for agreeing and disagreeing in math.
The focus on instructional scaffolding for effective collaboration fosters positive discourse about students because it foregrounds the interaction between the student and their learning environment. The discussion of scaffolding directs teachers attention to the key mediational role of instructional supports, such as opportunities to practice and protocols for collaborative work. This shift from individual characteristics to repertoires of practice acquired over time is key to the discursive positioning of multilingual youth as capable and successful in the classroom community (e.g., Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003).
DISCUSSION, IMPLICATIONS, AND FUTURE RESEARCH
The purpose of the study was to explore interruptions of deficit-based discourses about multilingual students in the context of teachers data use during professional learning. Given the prevalence of deficit views of marginalized students in educational spaces and society at large, it is essential to better understand how these discourses are reinforced as well as disrupted. The findings of the study are consistent with insights in the relevant literature (see the Literature Review section). The cases discussed in the paper reveal contradictions in teachers interpretations and evaluations of student performance. These cases show how teachers work with data both confirms their pre-existing beliefs about students and fosters new insights into student learning. Furthermore, the analyses of teacher discourses around student data corroborate the relationship between a focus on student outcomes and deficit-based positioning of multilingual youth. The findings offer an empirical example of how this deficit-based positioning can be interrupted when teachers explore data that make students participation in learning visible.
The study makes a theoretical contribution by expanding Coburn and Turners (2011a) framework for data use (see Figure 3). First, I propose that to understand the multiple implications and consequences of teacher sensemaking around student data, we need to investigate both the process of teachers work with data and the context in which the work takes place (e.g., Bloome et al., 2005). Here I use van Dijks definition of context as those properties of a social situation that are systematically (that is, not incidentally) relevant for the interaction (emphasis in the original, 1997, p. 11). Figure 3 includes aspects of the process of data use that Coburn and Turner already recognized as playing a key role in teacher sensemaking (i.e., teacher beliefs about the data and interactional norms) and adds student positioning as another key consideration. Exploring student positioning over time is essential to understanding how social practices in one context support and challenge larger discourses about student competencies and performance.
The second theoretical contribution of the analysis is that it sheds light on the mediating role of teacher theories of student engagement in shaping teacher sensemaking (represented through the grey rectangle in Figure 3). The inclusion of cultural models complements in important ways existing analyses of the mediational role of mental models in teachers work with student data (Vanlommel & Schildkamp, 2019). The findings highlight the mechanisms through which shared theories that focus on outcomes and fixed student characteristics shape teachers data use. The analyses reported here demonstrate that a focus on outcome, particularly when the outcome is in some way non-standard, contributes to a lack of appreciation for the complexity of student thinking. This was the case with Luiss work, whose organizational sophistication remained invisible. Theories that explain student engagement through fixed student characteristics encourage teachers to find fault with the student for their performance and underappreciate the interaction between the students and the task. This was the case with Yessica, whose lack of understanding of the phrase how many more was interpreted as confirming her inability to decode word problems. An alternative explanation for Yessicas performance could be varying exposure to math problems of different types (in this case, join vs. compare problems, see Carpenter et al., 1999). The mediational role of teacher theories suggests that the task of promoting assets-based discourses about multilingual youth extends beyond the actual context in which teachers look at student data and encompasses teachers sensemaking about student behavior, performance, and learning across time and space.
Figure 3. Expanded framework for data use
Note: The inclusion of the processes of data use within the intervention to promote data use circle is a change to the original model that the authors themselves suggest as a result of feedback on their framework by Piety (2011) (see Coburn & Turner, 2011b).
The three cases presented in this paper illustrate the challenges and opportunities for promoting assets-based discourses about multilingual youth during teacher exploration of classroom evidence. The findings of Cases 1 and 2 suggest that positive discourses, when infused within negative ones, do not disturb the overall deficit-based student positioning. Positive student positioning in these cases is related either to non-academic competencies (in Luiss case) or to more basic skills (in Yessicas case). The findings of Case 3 suggest that students are positioned as capable and successful academically only when the process of student learning becomes visible to teachers and available for reflection. Future research can reveal additional mechanisms through which assets-based discourse about multilingual youth can be encouraged and sustained.
The data analysis indicates that facilitators might be unable to promote a focus on the process of student learning through discursive moves during the professional development. The nature of the data was a more effective tool for shifting teacher attention from the outcome of student work to student engagement. The data in Case 3 revealed student engagement that was ephemeral and invisible in the final product of student work. Capturing this engagement enabled teachers to gain new, positive insights about what the students could do. In this study, the data on student participation in learning consisted of student reflections on the process of collaborative work. Other researchers have used observations of demonstration lessons (e.g., Bragg et al., 2016) and video clips of instruction (Tekkumru-Kisa et al., 2018) to highlight student reasoning and participation in learning. Future research involving a wide range of classroom evidence can contribute to our understanding of the relationship between types of evidence, processes of teacher sensemaking, and assets-based discourses about multilingual youth.
The findings reveal a relationship between data interpretation and the construction of implications for instruction. In the first two cases, when teachers attention was focused on the outcomes of student learning, the implications they constructed involved engaging students in direct instruction. By contrast, when the teachers focused on the process of student learning in Case 3, their attention shifted to scaffolding the process of student collaboration. This relationship implies that teachers work with data most likely does not exist in isolation from their instructional practices. Therefore, introducing complexity in teachers work with data (by focusing on the process of learning) may also introduce complexity in teachers instructional practices (e.g., Christman et al., 2016). Prioritizing student sensemaking and engagement in instruction is challenging for many teachers and teachers of multilingual youth in particular (National Academies, 2018). At the same time, refraining from simplicity and certainty when promoting and exploring student learning is essential in disrupting deficit-based discourses about students (Lee, 2017). Future research can shed more light on the relationships between teachers instructional practices and data use, and how the introduction of complexity in these spaces shapes them both.
LIMITATIONS AND CONCLUSION
Although I believe the analyses presented in this article to be robust, there are limitations to this study that should be taken into account when interpreting the findings and planning future research. The analysis represents a case study of a small group of teachers in a school that used a specific team-teaching approach to the instruction of multilingual students. The findings are specific to a particular instructional context, as well as a specific professional development program. The trustworthiness of the findings can serve as a foundation for readers own generalizations. Together with other analyses, the present exploration contributes to a more in-depth understanding of the relationship between assets-based discourses and data use.
The time that it took to analyze the data (four years after data collection ended) precluded member checking. It seemed ill-advised to assume that participants views of students and instruction would have remained the same in the intervening years or that they would remember what they thought or how they felt when the data were collected. Moreover, some of the educators moved to other districts while others have different assignments within the school.
The study explores the interactions among the members of a teacher team. While I treat the team as an open system (Erickson, 2004), the analysis focuses on the discursive practices within the team and pays attention to external discourses only as they are made relevant through the utterances of the focus participants. I do not have access to empirical data about school climate, school-wide discourses about students, other professional development initiatives, and so on. The extent to which I can pay attention to school-level social and political factors that might have influenced the discourses I documented in the team is thus limited. Regular interviews with Shauna and the principal could have enabled me to position the team interaction within a broader school, and perhaps even district, context.
The space limitations of the manuscript do not allow for a comparison of student-focused discourses during data exploration by other teacher teams participating in the professional development. A multiple-case study would have undoubtedly showcased additional factors that mediate the positive and negative positioning of students during teachers work with data. An analysis of multiple teams could have also shed light on the power of the facilitator, as well as the available data, to promote assets-based discourses about multilingual youth (e.g., Park, 2018).
The study focuses on the positioning of multilingual students. It is not my intention, however, to assert that students language background matters more in shaping their academic experiences than other categories, such as race, ethnicity, religion, or disability. As Yessicas case illustrates, many students have dual labels as students with disabilities and English language learners. The existing literature suggests that all students who are different in some way, be it in terms of language background or ability, are equally subject to deficit-based discourses (e.g., Gutiérrez et al., 2009). The available data did not enable me to address the extent to which Yessicas status as a special education student mediated the teachers interpretation of her work.
This paper addresses the urgent issue of the prevalence of deficit-based discourses about multilingual students in educational settings. Using empirical data, the research sheds light on the types of classroom evidence and theories of student engagement that can support assets-based interpretations of student engagement. The analysis highlights contradictions and interruptions in teacher discourses about students, and positions these contradictions and interruptions as possibilities for imagining social contexts that foster the enduring social construction of multilingual youth as competent, knowledgeable, and engaged.
I use the terms multilingual youth and multilingual students to refer to students officially designated as English language learners or English learners. While most of the students are bilingual, many of them use more than one language in addition to English.
I use the terms professional development and professional learning synonymously to avoid repetition.
All names are pseudonyms.
Like Evans et al. (2019), I use the term explanation rather than attribution because the team members spontaneously call[ed] out reasons or justifications for student performance rather than attempt[ed] to systematically identify root causes of student performance (pp. 67).
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INQUIRY FLOW DURING THE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Questions for Data Analysis (What questions would you like the data to answer?):
Insights from Data
What change would you like to see in the data?
This week, what will you do to:
Foster students engagement in the key disciplinary practice (commitment)?
Promote students academic literacy development?
Learning goal (What do you need to learn/educate yourself more about):
What would you like to know about what/how students are learning?
What data will you bring to answer these questions?
Student positioning codes and references
Open and axial coding of student positioning codes
Sample memo related to student positioning
Session 5, fall
View of students as lacking: Seems to stem from a habit to look at student behavior in terms of student capacity (students can do this, they cant do this) and teacher actions (when I do this, they can do this; when I do that, they can do that). There is no careful exploration of the process of interaction among students and their environment. This is, perhaps, why looking at data is so important. Only the facilitator shifts the focus from teacher and student action to student engagement in learning (e.g., Shauna: Curious how Ss will make sense of problems).
This view of students as capable or incapable dovetails with the notion of readiness, as in they cant do this yet, instead of a notion of scaffolding that would bring out the desired behavior. One of [member from a different team]s major ahas was that students will behave differently if they are academically engaged. Does the team ever have this aha as well, that student behavior is contingent on the context?
Statements of students as lacking are followed by assets-based statements. The teams view of students seems mixed, incorporating both. Does that make for an internal contradiction? Is this ultimately related to a sense of what the teachers responsibility is?
Teacher exploration of data: Use of subcodes (marked with an asterisk)
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