Middle Grades Students as Teacher Educators: Study Summary
American Educational Research Association
Annual Conference, Philadelphia, PA April 4, 2014
John Downes, University of Vermont, John.Downes@uvm.edu
James Nagle, Saint Michal’s College, firstname.lastname@example.org
Penny Bishop, University of Vermont, Penny.Bishop@uvm.edu
Although many middle schools have embraced collaborative teacher learning, and student voice often is heralded as critical to successful middle grades programs, young adolescents are rarely provided a role in teacher education. This study examined middle grades teachers’ responses to students serving as consultants at a summer professional development institute. The case study design, involving interviews and focus groups with 70 teachers and 20 students, explored teachers’ and students’ perceptions of student consultations, their response to the shift in authority, and the practices that were productive in student consultations for teacher learning. Most teachers and students perceived the consultations as contributing to their learning, willingly embraced shifts in authority, and noted the benefits of a variety of strategies employed to support the culture and practices of student consultations.
Our Context: Middle Grades Institute
Our study examined middle grades teachers’ experience with student consultation at a statewide, weeklong, credit-bearing, and primarily residential institute hosted on a college campus by the Middle Grades Collaborative (MGC). Seventy pre-service and in-service teachers participated in courses in adolescent development; teaming; curriculum; literacy; and technology. Faculty consisted of university professors, veteran middle school teachers and 20 students from different schools who spent two or three hours each afternoon consulting with teacher participants across the courses. The consultations took the form of student panels or focus groups about student needs, interests and perceptions; small group teacher-student collaborations on curriculum projects and teacher teaming; and co-experimentation with new teaching methods.
While there were eight graduate courses occurring simultaneously at the Institute, this research focused on three courses: Middle Grades Organization, Middle Grades Curriculum and Literacy in the Content Areas. Participants in Organization spent the week in a simulated teaching team, (or an authentic team if a team of teachers attended the Institute together), and were tasked with designing key components of highly effective teams, including a team name, shared mission statement, family involvement plan, service learning agenda, scheduling and grouping strategies, and transition plans. They drew on periodic consultations with students to hone their work. Consultations took the form of direct consultations with the team, posing questions to a student panel, and collaboratively creating a presentation for a simulated school board meeting. In Curriculum instructors simulated a negotiated curriculum development process that grounded integrated, thematic learning in students’ questions about themselves and the world (Beane, 1997). Accordingly, in that course consultations between teachers and students unfolded day by day over the entire week, when students co-created a unit of study with the teachers. Finally, in Literacy, students acted as learners and consultants as teachers tried out literacy lessons based on systemic functional linguistics (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008).
The concept of students as teacher educators emerges from studies of students acting as consultants on teaching and school change (Fielding, 2001; Rudduck, 2007). But systematic involvement of students as participants in teacher professional development is rare (Cook-Sather, 2011). This limited research base does, however, reveal several useful findings. First, Rudduck (2007) found that teachers who consulted with students about teaching and learning, rethought students’ capabilities, gained new perspectives, and developed practical agendas for improvement. Additionally, Cook-Sather & Alter (2011) suggest that consultations can reposition students, redefine their roles, and transform traditional teacher-student hierarchies. Finally, Downes, Nagle & Bishop (2010) have described a range of effective strategies to cultivate successful consultations, including inviting students to co-create curriculum, referring to students as experts and advisors, and requiring student involvement in the design, implementation and evaluation of teacher action research projects.
Our Inquiry & Method
The purpose of this research was to examine middle grades teachers’ response to students serving as teacher educators. We posed three research questions:
1) What do teachers perceive as outcomes of student consultation?
2) How do teachers respond to the shift in voice and authority?
3) What practices are productive in student consultations for teacher learning?
Our method of inquiry was a case study design, primarily used to explain, describe or explore phenomena or events in the contexts in which they occur (Yin, 2009). Seventy teachers and twenty students attending the Institute comprised the sample. The teachers represented rural, suburban and urban geographic regions and their teaching experience ranged from zero years (pre-service) to over thirty years. They were predominantly White and approximately 70% were female, fairly representative of the national teacher labor market.
The students were from five mostly rural schools in Vermont and were selected as part of a GEAR-UP program to promote postsecondary access and success for students whose families have yet to attend college. As a research team, we applied four primary research methods in this study. We conducted focus groups with teachers and students using a common and open-ended protocol. We interviewed teachers individually. We observed numerous sessions in which students served as teacher educators, including consultations, panels, mini-lessons, and large group interactions. We administered a survey to all teachers comprised of selected response and open-ended questions. All interviews, focus groups and observations were recorded and fully transcribed.
Overall, students and teachers expressed appreciation for the genuinely collaborative and productive nature of the consultation. Most teachers and students perceived the consultations as contributing to their learning, embraced shifts in authority during consultations, and noted benefits of a variety of strategies employed to support the culture and practices of student consultations.
Outcomes from Consultation.Teachers and students described a range of outcomes from their consultation experiences, including hearing about students’ lives in school; direct benefits to their Institute project work; a new appreciation for student voice to improve teaching and learning; and enhanced prospects for consulting with students in their schools. One often cited outcome of these consultations was that teachers were allowed to pilot test ideas and strategies with students and immediately receive feedback so to allow them to revise their practice before entering the classroom.
Shift in Voice and Authority.A shift in voice and authority was central to the consultation experiences at the Institute. Students and teachers acquired a new appreciation for the role students can play as pedagogues. The students saw teachers as people who are willing to listen and care for the opinions that students voiced; teachers became more human. Students particularly appreciated the shift from being listeners in teacher-student dynamics to the teachers’ conscientious listening. Some participants, however, struggled with the concept of voice and others sought clearer parameters to guide the shifts.
Productive Practices. Teachers and students described an immersive experience that portrayed students as experts and pedagogues through the Institute design and how faculty represented students and consultations. Participants also referenced the benefits of students consulting with teachers whom they had not previously known. And they identified the advantages of various student-to-teacher ratios and consulting arrangements.
This study raises the possibility that a summer institute model can successfully incorporate student consultations for teacher learning. The study suggested that interviewing teachers and students about their consultation experience can help to hone collaborative professional development practices. Possible improvements include training teachers on collaborative consultation skills such as active listening and making more transparent for teachers the value that students placed on being embraced as pedagogues.