How we organise our thoughts shapes how we view the world and how we act. At Ambition Institute, we have found that three papers by Mary Kennedy, professor emeritus at Michigan State University, have been incredibly useful in framing our beliefs and actions about the work of teachers and teacher educators.

1: How can we organise our thinking about teaching?

When we categorise what teachers do, we can “easily go awry and generate hundreds of things teachers strive to achieve, ranging from extremely broad goals such as ‘help students learn the curriculum’ to extremely narrow and fleeting goals like ‘Get Frederick to stop poking Julio’.”

Kennedy suggests parsing “practice into a handful of important, meaningful, and analytically distinct purposes that teachers’ actions serve”. She argues that almost all teacher behaviour can be understood as responding to “five persistent challenges” that are intrinsic to teaching and are “faced by virtually all teachers”:

  • Portraying the curriculum (planning and explaining)
  • Enlisting student participation in lessons
  • Exposing student thinking (assessing and responding)
  • Containing student behaviour
  • Addressing the preceding challenges in ways which are consistent with teachers’ personalities and needs.

Kennedy argues that focusing on the goals that teachers’ actions pursue offers “a useful framework for parsing observed behaviours, examining their purposes and evaluating their value.”

2: How can we organise our thinking about professional development?

In this paper, Kennedy reviews – and organises – evidence on CPD. She suggests that programme design features, such as duration, coaching or online elements, receive too much attention. Instead, she suggests categorising programmes by “their underlying theories of action”: the “central problem of practice that it aims to inform” and the approach it uses to help teachers “enact new ideas, translating them into the context of their own practice”.

Kennedy uses the persistent challenges defined above to examine programme purposes and finds that professional development “about any of these four persistent challenges is equally likely to increase student achievement”: curriculum, assessment, motivation or behaviour. She also identifies four forms of professional development:

  • Prescription – describing or demonstrating “the best way for teachers to address a particular teaching problem”;
  • Strategy – combining a specific goal with illustrative practices which teachers adapt to meet their needs
  • Insight – raising provocative questions which promote “self-generated “aha!” moments”
  • Presenting “a body of knowledge that may not explicitly imply any particular action”.

Kennedy finds evidence that two approaches – prescription and presenting bodies of knowledge – do not increase student learning. The other two – strategy and insight – do.

She also notes the importance of teacher motivation in professional development and questions compulsory participation.

3: What do we miss when we focus on teachers?

Finally, Kennedy argues that examining “teacher quality” leads us to focus on teacher qualifications or subject knowledge, but that this is an example of the Fundamental Attribution Error. When we try to understand others’ behaviours, we overestimate the importance of their personality and underestimate the importance of the situation.

She asks: “To what extent is the quality of teachers’ everyday practice — actual classroom behaviour — really a function of enduring personal qualities that they bring with them, and to what extent is it a function of schedules, materials, students, institutional incursions into the classroom, and the persistent clutter of reforms that teachers must accommodate?”

This makes finding “good” teachers hard; how “good” they are depends on their situation – their timetable, classes, resources and the school’s incursions on their time.

Ultimately, Kennedy encourages school leaders, teacher educators and researchers to think less about teachers’ qualities and more about their situations: perhaps the persistent challenge that matters most for teacher educators and school leaders is ‘How well are we supporting teachers and what further obstacles can we remove from their path?’