Studying Teachers' Sensemaking to Investigate Teachers' Responses to Professional Development Focused on New Standards

By Allen, Carrie D.; Penuel, William R. | Journal of Teacher Education, March-April 2015 | Go to article overview

Studying Teachers' Sensemaking to Investigate Teachers' Responses to Professional Development Focused on New Standards


Allen, Carrie D., Penuel, William R., Journal of Teacher Education


Teachers' prior knowledge shapes what and how they learn from professional development (PD). Of particular importance is teachers' practical knowledge, that is, the knowledge they draw on daily to plan and organize their instruction (van Driel, Beijaard, & Verloop, 2001). Sometimes, teachers' practical knowledge helps them to interpret ideas and resources from PD, but just as easily, such knowledge can interfere with teachers making changes intended by leaders of professional developers (Kazemi & Hubbard, 2008).

Analyzing how teachers' practical knowledge shapes their response to PD requires a focus on how such knowledge develops within the larger ecology of teachers' work (Connelly, Clandin, & He, 1997; Doyle & Ponder, 1977). There is evidence that teachers' own interpretations of their contexts vary widely and diverge from policy makers' interpretations (Penuel, Fishman, Gallagher, Korbak, & Lopez-Prado, 2009). In turn, these interpretations shape outcomes of PD, particularly teachers' judgments about how well the goals and strategies of the PD cohere with local standards, curriculum, and assessments (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007).

To date, few studies of teacher PD have examined the ways that organizational aspects of teachers' work shape what they take away from PD. All too often, studies explain differences in teacher change in terms of individual learning styles, beliefs, or concerns, even when scholars take a situated perspective on teacher learning (e.g., Beijaard, Van Driel, & Verloop, 1999). In fact, within the PD literature, there is very little focus on the organizational and institutional contexts where PD occurs and how these shape teacher practice (Cobb, McClain, Laumberg, & Dean, 2003). The limited focus on these broader contexts is problematic because contemporary large-scale reforms demand coordination and coherence across multiple components of complex educational systems, including components related to PD (Jackson & Cobb, 2013; Linn, Kali, Davis, & Horwitz, 2008). In addition, teachers' knowledge of educational contexts in which they work is an integral part of their knowledge for teaching (Shulman, 1987).

In this article, we draw on the idea of sensemaking from organizational studies to interpret teachers' response to PD linked to new science education reforms in the United States. Sensemaking, we argue, provides a useful framework for analyzing teachers' responses to PD because PD activities create new and foreground existing sources of ambiguity and uncertainty for teachers in their organizational environment. Using evidence from a study of teacher PD focused on the Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; National Research Council, 2013), we illustrate how focusing on teachers' attempts to resolve ambiguity and uncertainty provide us with a powerful lens for explaining when and how teachers' participation in PD can influence teachers' decisions about implementing reforms.

Policy Context for the PD

The PD that is the focus of the current study took place within the United States, in a time when many states had just adopted ambitious new standards in English/language arts, mathematics, and science. The reforms embody perspectives on teaching and learning developed over many years of interdisciplinary research on student learning from sociocognitive and sociocultural perspectives (National Research Council, 2005, 2007). They share with other reforms being undertaken by countries in Europe and North America over the past decade that emphasize focusing instruction around a few core ideas of disciplines and promoting student engagement with disciplinary forms of reasoning (De Jong, 2007).

The PD discussed in this study aimed to develop teachers' understanding of the NGSS (National Research Council, 2013). …

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