“Apprenticeship by Observation” and the Role of Reflection

It’s okay to not be sure what to do. It helps us to remain learners.

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Lortie’s Schoolteacher, a Sociological Study, published in 1975, was one of the first explorations of what teachers did during their day. Among the many insights provided by Lortie was the observation that the act of teaching was often seen as being much easier than it actually was because almost everyone had watched what a teacher does when teaching. Lortie coined this “Apprenticeship by Observation” (p. 62).

In fact, many people who want to become teachers believe they know what teachers do because they have watched them work for approximately 13 years. Having spent approximately 14,000 hours in classrooms as students watching teachers and the work they do (Good & Lavigne, 2018), most adults believe that teaching is not that difficult and have the idea that they understand what teachers do each day. Oftentimes people see teachers at work much more than they see other occupational groups, which leads many to see the act of teaching as simplistic, basing it on individual teacher personalities or particular teacher moods. Most people lack an understanding of the pedagogical decisions and the necessary content knowledge that is required by a teacher, and they rarely understand the number of decisions that a teacher has to make each day.

“Teaching is one of the few professions where newcomers feel the force of their own history of learning as it telegraphs relevancy to their work” (Britzman, 2003, p. 1).

Students have witnessed, from their own perspective, what the teacher in the classroom does each day, unaware of what takes place in preparing to teach or after teaching is completed. Nor do they fully understand what is involved in the act of teaching. In fact, many new teachers will often discuss how they were not prepared for the daily work involved in teaching despite what they believed before they started.

Witnessing what a teacher does throughout any given day does not provide enough information to fully understand the complexities of what teachers do. Teachers seldom expose the work they do outside of the teaching day and keep hidden the pedagogical and content knowledge they draw on, the innovations they undertake to meet student needs and the struggles they encounter trying to balance their vision of learning with curricular demands, the needs of students, and the desires of parents. Teaching, although difficult and complex, is often not described as being such. For most people, including those entering teacher education, teaching does not look that difficult.

Reflection for Growth

Convincing people that teaching is difficult isn’t easy. Sometimes it cannot be done. And that’s not what this is about.

Instead, this is about how teachers can go about making changes to what they do. It can be difficult for teachers themselves to make changes to what they are doing given the ever-growing number of things they are being asked to do and contend with.

However, whatever stage a teacher is at in their career, one of the key factors that has been shown to help teachers make changes to their teaching is reflection. Often, reflection is mentioned as being important but is glossed over in favor of looking at strategies for teaching, classroom management, assessment, organization, and other aspects of teaching. All of these areas are important, but reflection is a key factor in helping teachers to examine their current practices and beliefs and then make changes to what they are doing in the classroom.

Research has demonstrated that reflection is a key factor for teachers changing their teaching practices. This is especially important as teachers explore strategies for teaching about oppression and LGBTQ issues (Kumashiro, 2004), integrating technology and developing an awareness of multiple literacies and ways to incorporate them in the classroom (Cervetti, Damico, & Pearson, 2006), and developing learner-centred teaching models (Seo, Templeton, & Pellegrion, 2008). Teachers need to take the time to examine their personal beliefs about teaching, learning, students, culture, race, gender, technology, and other societal issues as part of their approaches to teaching.

This is true for pre-service and new teachers as well as teachers who have been teaching for some time. Through reflection, pre-service and beginning teachers begin to develop a personal teaching voice that is distinct from their experiences as students (Friesen & Cunning, 2018). Many pre-service and beginning teachers make decisions about curriculum, teaching practices, and assessment based on their experience as students instead of making decisions based on an understanding of learning tied to appropriate skills for the learning objective. This often continues well into their careers until they are faced with a moment when their experience is unable to meet the challenge they are facing in the classroom.

What does Reflection Look Like?

Reflection can be as simple as “Why do I believe this is the best strategy to use?” and delving into where this strategy came from and why it is being used, the origin of the strategy and why is it being used here.

This can be done in many ways, such as journaling, discussions with another teacher, long reflective walks, or some quiet time just to think. The key part is looking critically at why the strategy is being used and how it meets the needs of the learner in reaching the learning outcome.

Many teachers continue to use the strategies they saw as children and witnessed in their own student-teaching without taking the time to ask “Is this really the best strategy to use? What are other strategies that could be used? Is this culturally appropriate? Are there biases that need to be addressed? Does this meet the needs of students or am I using it because it is familiar to me? It’s important to be honest with oneself.

And it’s okay to not be sure what to do. It helps us to remain learners which is so important as a teacher.

Over time, a teacher can expand their reflection to include exploring beliefs about teaching gender, race, culture, assessment, inclusive education, technology integration, knowledge and sources of knowledge, and the use of research and inquiry to inform their teaching practices.

It’s an evolution over time that ebbs and flows. It’s not a one-and-done. Sometimes there is a greater need to make change in order to meet a need but there are other times when making changes is part of exploring learning with students.

But it begins with taking the time to inquire into the reasons for using particular strategies, curricular materials, assessments, routines — basically the totality of what happens in the classroom and the needs of the students in the classroom.

This is where continuous professional learning is important as each day students are changing and growing.

“Every day is a PD day”

Begin.

Really.

Begin.

Okay, before I discuss some ideas for beginning, whatever you do, remember that it needs to be a consistent effort. Much like exercise or diet or other healthy habits that tend to get pushed aside when we get “busy” until they become urgent because we’ve neglected them for too long, developing a routine is so important.

Being busy is why these different parts of our lives are important. Making them as important a priority as whatever is keeping us “busy” is critical to our overall well being, mental and physical health, growth, and longevity.

I’ve found that there is no one best way but, in fact, many best ways. Some teachers like to journal while others like to go for long walks or runs and then record their ideas/insights while still others engage in deep conversations with a trusted colleague/mentor.

So ….

Set a specific time that you can engage in whatever you choose to do. I find that I have been able to find time in my morning. I’m not a morning person but getting up 30 minutes earlier has allowed me to add reflection as a consistent part of my day.

As a parent of 8 children, days are packed full and by the time I am winding down the last thing I want to do is think about teaching, professional learning, or my teaching practices.

To help me stay focused and be productive, I’ll select a topic on the weekend to explore during the week. Sometimes it originates from something I am reading but other times it is something I see on social media or a comment I hear or just something that pops into my head while doing yard work.

I found selecting a specific topic helps me to be more consciously focused. It guides how I use my time when online, looking for people who can help me, teach me, and push me to see things differently. You might pick a book, article, or a really good Twitter thread. Whatever you do, spend some time reflecting on your practice through this particular lens.

Adopt a method you are comfortable with and then work at developing a ‘fit’.

When I began, I really couldn’t find anything that “fit”.

I tried morning pages — freehand writing about whatever I was thinking about but that didn’t help me focus. I tried sketch noting ideas but it didn’t seem to do what I wanted (btw if you are looking for a great introduction to this and visual learning check out Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution — awesome book!).

After some experimenting, I development my own combination of reading with journaling. I use my iPad and add images and links. I read for about 15 minutes and then write about my teaching practice through that lens. Because it syncs with my phone, I can drop a link in and then can quickly browse it when I’m doing my journaling.

For my sources, I started with different educational books but soon shifted to journals and material outside of education because it pushed me to think about what I was doing in different ways and helped me to view learning through different lenses.

So What do I Reflect About?

For me, the important part is to answer questions about

  • Why do I teach the way I do? What are the inherent biases in what I am teaching? What voices are being heard? What voices are silenced?
  • Why do I use this teaching strategy? What is the purpose of using this strategy? Is there another strategy I could use? How could I find another strategy? How might it change what I do?
  • Why do I use this resource? Are there any other resources I could use? How would I find them? Who could help me?
  • How does this help students meet the learning outcome? What are other options for meeting this outcome?

And at the end …

Remember, this is a process and a journey.

It will take time.

Be kind to yourself.

Eventually, you may want to join in other discussions or share your learning.

I encourage you to check out on Twitter for ideas and inspiration for reflection.

Until next time remember -

Every day is a PD day!

Britzman, D. P. (2003). Practice makes practice: a critical study of learning to teach, revised edition.Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.

Cervetti, G., Damico, J., & Pearson, P. D. (2006). Multiple literacies, new literacies, and teacher education. Theory Into Practice, 45(4), 378–386. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4504_12

Friesen, D. C., & Cunning, D. (2018). Making explicit pre-service teachers’ implicit beliefs about inclusive education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2018.1543730

Good, T. L., & Lavigne, A. L. (2018). Looking inclassrooms(Eleventh Edition). New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Kumashiro, K. K. (2004). Uncertain beginnings: Learning to teach paradoxically. Theory Into Practice, 43(2), 111–115. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4302_3

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Seo, K. K., Templeton, R., & Pellegrino, D. (2008).Creating a ripple effect: Incorporating multimedia-assisted project-based learning in teacher education. Theory Into Practice, 47(3), 259–265. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405840802154062

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Kelly Christopherson

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husband, father, PhD candidate U of R, educational consultant, educator, technology and Design Thinking enthusiast, Wii player, Star Wars & McFarlane collector

Teachers on Fire Magazine 🔥

The Teachers on Fire Magazine features articles written by agents of growth and transformative change in K-12 education today. If you write about education, reach out to @TeachersOnFire to become a writer for this publication. Writers keep full ownership of content.

Kelly Christopherson

Written by

husband, father, PhD candidate U of R, educational consultant, educator, technology and Design Thinking enthusiast, Wii player, Star Wars & McFarlane collector

Teachers on Fire Magazine 🔥

The Teachers on Fire Magazine features articles written by agents of growth and transformative change in K-12 education today. If you write about education, reach out to @TeachersOnFire to become a writer for this publication. Writers keep full ownership of content.

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