A New Understanding of our Confusion: Insights from a Year-Long STEM Fellowship Program

A New Understanding of our Confusion: Insights from a Year-Long STEM Fellowship Program

Christopher Seals (Michigan State University, USA), Akesha Horton (Michigan State University, USA), Inese Berzina-Pitcher (Michigan State University, USA) and Punya Mishra (Arizona State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1067-3.ch032
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Abstract

This chapter discusses the philosophies and practices that drive the MSUrbanSTEM Leadership & Teaching Fellowship Program. This multi-year project offers a professional development program to a selected cohort of K-12 STEM educators from Chicago Public Schools, one of the largest urban districts in the U.S. This chapter provides a holistic view of the program, shares the fellow selection process, and focuses on the strategically developed curriculum and the theoretical bases for the chosen pedagogy. This allows the authors to explore the psychological and philosophical principles, based on the idea of accepting confusion, and embracing failure in beliefs about pedagogy and STEM instruction, which are used to expand the skills and abilities of these selected urban school teachers. Finally, we provide some initial findings about the teachers' growth and development both in their efficacy and leadership abilities.
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‘Understanding’ The Program

How one frames a complex issue or problem has a significant influence on how they seek to understand or resolve it. Framing helps people interpret the world around them and helps them communicate these interpretations and understandings to others. It helps individuals to organize complex phenomena in somewhat coherent, understandable categories, helping persons to separate relevant aspects of a given phenomenon from irrelevant. Framing helps provide meaning.

The importance of framing becomes even more significant when looking at teacher education and teacher professional development. One approach to teacher professional development (PD) (which can be called the hedgehog approach) emphasizes the value of clarity and order; seeking to organize activities and plans. This approach emphasizes that teachers in training should know what teacher educators value. This hedgehog approach is clear in idea and is driven by theory, which becomes a lens for interpreting facts, and is ready for application. For instance, in the case of PD for science educators, the hedgehog approach may offer a singular focus on removing student misconceptions, or on modeling as being a critical component of learning science.

A contrasting frame towards teacher PD (which can be called the approach of the fox) assumes messiness, focuses on multiple theoretical perspectives, is tentative in application, comes with a belief in deconstructing and questioning what one thinks is fact, and is driven more by bottom-up notions of the richness of practice and the world within which it functions. This chapter is an attempt to describe a project that utilizes such a frame.

These contrasting frames (that of the fox or the hedgehog) can lead to different forms of PD with different goals and expectations, that vary from traditional formats of PD and hence different outcomes. The authors attempt to capture these contrasts within the title of this piece, an excerpt from Robert Graves’ poem “In Broken Images,” as well as with the quote from Archilochus with which the authors begin the article. The authors deliberately adopt the culminating lines of Robert Graves’ poem as the title of the chapter, since this poem became representative of what the researchers were engaged in as a part of a year-long professional development program designed to help teachers grow their pedagogical and leadership skills to facilitate innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) instruction. To be clear, this idea (of getting a better understanding of our confusion) was not something that was imposed on the teachers who were part of the program, but, rather, was an emergent idea that grew organically as the participating teachers and program instructors worked together over a year.

Emphasizing the inherent messiness in teaching and professional development is not to suggest that the designers of the program were not deliberate or thoughtful in their approach, but rather, that in their planning they were sensitive to the disturbances and disruptions that could open up spaces for conversation and learning. In some ways, the poem argues that the ultimate goal that educators can aspire to, over time, when engaged with the wicked problems of teaching and learning, is “a new understanding of our confusion.” This is not a pessimistic goal but rather a realistic one, respecting both the complexity of the task that this program is facing, and respectful of the ongoing effort to understand the complexity.

The program, described in great detail below, aimed to embrace an attitude of questioning and wonder, where failure and confusion were not only accepted, but expected; and where technology was not perceived as a solution, but rather as a context and tool for inquiry. In brief, the goal of this PD program was not to lead fellow teachers into a single solution, (in Robert Grave’s words, to be “quick and dull” in “clear images,”), but rather to embrace ambiguity as well as the inherent messiness of the process and through that, accept the contingent and temporary nature of any understanding that is reached at any given moment. It was about becoming “sharp, mistrusting our broken images.” This chapter is an attempt to capture some of the richness and messiness of the one year of this three-year program.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Fellowship: An earned reward or amount of money designated to a scholar for their educational work.

Teacher Professional Development: Teacher instruction programs that help teachers to grow and learn as educators.

Technology Integration: The incorporation of everyday tools into classroom practices to enhance the teaching and learning process.

MSUrbanSTEM: A yearlong teacher leadership fellowship program that uses an innovative approach to teacher professional development in order to create multimodal classrooms.

Experience: A concept endorsed by John Dewey, which encourages teaching and learning is most effective when the learner/student is able to partake in the phenomena being taught, as opposed to only reading about or hearing about the phenomena.

Creative Pedagogies: Teaching and classroom practices that require an unorthodox and/or innovative approach to scaffolding students in their learning process.

TPACK: The creative integration of technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge into everyday teaching practices.

Dewey: John Dewey is an educational reformer whose work emphasized the importance of teachers psychologizing subject matter, learning best by doing the work instead of simply reading about it, and teachers valuing the knowledge that each student brings to the classroom.

STEM Instruction: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math teacher pedagogies and practices.

Teacher Leadership: Teacher and administrator’s ability to collaborate with colleagues, parents, and students in school related projects at the school or district level. Also teachers’ habits in sharing their classroom results, practices, and experiences with their community in various ways.

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