June 17th, 2008

Approaches to Teacher Growth and Development


How do faculty approach their development as teachers? Gerlese S. Akerlind has been using a qualitative research method known as phenomenographic analysis to try to answer this question. In this particular study, 28 faculty members at a research university in Australia were interviewed. The faculty hailed from different disciplines, had different cultural backgrounds and genders, and had varying levels of experiences and different kinds of academic appointments. The interviews were semistructured, with all faculty being asked what growth and development as a teacher meant to them, how they went about it, and what they hoped to achieve. Based on interviewee responses, follow-up questions were also asked. All the interviews were recorded, transcribed, and then analyzed from a phenomenological perspective.

Five different approaches to growth and development emerged from this analysis. They are highlighted here, but explained in more detail in the article. The author also talks about the implication of each approach for those who work with faculty on instructional development agendas.

  1. Teaching development as building up a better knowledge of one’s content area, in order to become more familiar with what to teach–The goal here is to know the content area better. The assumption is that with more subject-area knowledge, teacher confidence will increase and teaching will become easier and more comfortable. To build up content knowledge, these faculty consult disciplinary literature, search for more relevant materials and examples, and conduct research. Most of these teachers see further content acquisition as an ongoing process.
  2. Teaching development as building up practical experience as a teacher, in order to become more familiar with how to teach–Growth from this perspective equates with experience. With more experience comes greater confidence, ease, and comfort. These teachers believe that growth comes naturally from experience–they learn by doing. Teaching is a natural ability, and practice is what allows skill to emerge and develop.
  3. Teaching development as building up a repertoire of teaching strategies, in order to become more skillful as a teacher–In the previous category, the emphasis was on how to teach. Here, the focus is on something other than just doing teaching and having growth accrue naturally and automatically. These teachers approach growth as the process of acquiring teaching strategies. The strategies are not necessarily ones a teacher would happen on naturally. They come from outside (maybe from pedagogical reading, attending a workshop, or from observing colleagues), and they require a certain amount of effort to master and to successfully incorporate.
  4. Teaching development as finding out which teaching strategies do and don’t work for the teacher, in order to become more effective as a teacher–This approach goes beyond the previous category in that these teachers actively seek to discover which strategies work best for them. They experiment with different strategies, reflect on their results, and buttress their understanding of effectiveness with feedback from students and colleagues. These teachers are seeking new strategies even though the ones they use may already work quite well. Here success is measured by student satisfaction with the strategy and by teacher comfort with the approach.
  5. Teaching development as continually increasing one’s understanding of what works and what doesn’t work for students, in order to become more effective at facilitating student learning–As in the previous category, the objective here is to discover what does and doesn’t work. Here too student and colleague feedback is an important part of the process. The difference is the exclusive focus on student learning. Teacher concerns go beyond student satisfaction, or whether or not they liked the strategy. These teachers care about what a student will take away from a course long term. What students learn and retain is more important than their short-term satisfaction. “Category 5 represents the most complex and inclusive approach to developing as a teacher that emerged from the interview data.” (p. 31)

In the article, Akerlind cites a variety of research addressing the impact of faculty conceptions of development on student learning. Teachers who focus on students and student learning tend to have students who orient to learning as understanding. Teachers who focus on themselves and what they are doing tend to have students more likely to equate learning with memorization. The idea of faculty orientation to development having implications for students is a new idea, and one that merits thoughtful analysis.

Reference: Akerlind, G. S. (2007). Constraints on academics’ potential for developing as a teacher. Studies in Higher Education, 32 (1), 21-37.

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