AAPT Special: Do workshops work? With the right facilitation, yes.

Title: Pedagogical sensemaking or “doing school”: In well-designed workshop sessions, facilitation makes the difference
Authors: Alice Olmstead and Chandra Turpen
First author’s institution: Western Michigan University
Journal: Physical Review Physics Education Research 13, 020123 (2017)


With the American Association of Physics Teacher’s (AAPT) summer meeting beginning this weekend, hundreds of physics instructors will be participating in workshops. While today’s paper doesn’t look specifically at these workshops, it does focus on workshops of a similar nature at the Physics and Astronomy New Faculty workshop, which is an annual workshop designed to provide new faculty with instruction on research-based instructional strategies (RBIS). These workshops have been successful in that around three fourths of the attendees have tried implementing RBIS in their classrooms. However, these implementations have been short lived as widespread and sustained use of RBIS have not been realized in undergraduate STEM education, with around one-third of faculty who try RBIS discontinuing their use after a single semester. This suggests that faculty have not received sufficient training or support to successfully implement RBIS into their classrooms.

To analyze this problem, the researchers adopted a theoretical perspective where the faculty’s interactions in the workshops are critical to their learning. They then used Sandoval’s analytical framework of conjure mapping to view the workshop as distinct elements, where the faculty’s interactions are captured in the Mediating Processes. A visual representation of this appears in figure 1.

Workshop1
Figure 1: A visual representation of Sandoval’s conjure mapping applied to professional development workshops. Fig 1 in paper

The authors then suggest two possible mediating processes that could be occurring during the workshops: “doing school” and pedagogical sensemaking. The authors reason that many faculty members were among the “best and brightest” when they were students and they likely adapted their behaviors to match anticipated academic rewards when they were students (aka, did the what the instructor asked so they would receive a good grade). These faculty may then just try to do what the workshop facilitator asks them to do without actually considering the underlying reasons for what they are doing.

On the other hand, faculty may engage in pedagogical sensemaking, which is attempting to understand how instructional moves seems to influence students’ engagement and learning. Since new faculty tend to also be researchers, they have experience with science sensemaking and may apply those skills to their teaching during the workshop. Since the goal of the workshop is to have the faculty members implement the RBIS in their own classrooms, a pedagogical sensemaking mediating process would be much more useful than faculty just doing what the workshop facilitator asks them to do during the session. The goal of today’s paper is then to determine specific markers of faculty engaging in “doing school” or pedagogical sensemaking and which structural features of the workshops may contribute to faculty engaging in “doing school” instead of pedagogical sensemaking.

To accomplish this goal, the researchers selected two parallel sessions at the New Faculty Workshop for their analysis. The facilitators of these sessions had met beforehand to discuss the structure of the session and faculty were randomly assigned to one of the two sessions. Both sessions had faculty practicing the Think-Pair-Share strategy which they had learned earlier in the workshop. In this session, some of the faculty were supposed to act as instructors implementing Think-Pair-Share. The other faculty in the session were supposed to act as students answering the question (Think) and then discussing it with their neighbor (Pair-Share) and as “critical” friends of the faculty practicing implementing Think-Pair-Share who could “pause” the session to critique the implementation. Since the sessions were nearly identical in structure and faculty were randomly assigned to one or the other, any difference in the interactions among the faculty in the sessions could be attributed to the facilitation.

So what did the researchers find? First, they found that the session facilitators (let’s call them A and B) both framed their sessions to cue school-like norms but A did so to a greater extent. For example, A used phrases such as “welcome to class” and “doing your homework” while B made references to a limited amount of time to complete the tasks and a rubric that laid out the expectations. A’s introduction also implied that there was a single, correct way to implement Think-Pair-Share.

Throughout the actual course of the session, A continued to frame the session as a school-like setting. Only A would pause the session when specific words were not used or implementation steps were not performed instead of the faculty acting as “critical” friends. In addition, when an implementation mistake was made, A would begin to say the correct thing to do and then have the faculty who were practicing the implementation fill in the rest, making it a memorization/recall task rather than a sensemaking task. A also provided no justification of using the specific words on the rubric.

In the other session, B initially paused the session but pauses to ask if anyone noticed a problem rather than directly say what the implementation mistake was. After addressing this first mistake, other faculty in the session begin to pause the session on their own without B prompting them to do so. The faculty in the session also pause the session when the implementation is close to the rubric but not exact, which the authors suggest shows the faculty are considering the purpose of the specific words rather than just trying to get the general message across. Finally, the authors note that when the faculty start to critique the physics content of the problem in the example, B guides them back to the implementation by empathizing with the faculty’s desire to talk about the physics but reminding them that the session is focused on implementing the Think-Pair-Share strategy.

Next, the researchers compared the faculty’s actions during the sessions and found them to be similar. For example, the faculty tended to start their implementation using similar phrases and followed the script in a similar manner, including deviating from the script by excluding key phrases at certain points. The faculty acting a “critical friends” also tended to focus their critiques on what was supposed to be said or done rather than the justification for doing so. The authors take this as further evidence showing the faculty have similar behaviors and the differences in the faculty interactions and their willingness to critique their colleagues is a result of the session’s facilitation. They then conclude that both sessions feature faculty engaging in “doing school” but the session led by B also features some elements of pedagogical sensemaking. The differences observed in the sessions that led to this classification are shown in table 1.

Workshop 2
Table 1: Facilitation moves that may contribute to faculty “doing school” or engaging in Pedagogical sensemaking. (Table VII in paper)

So what can we take away from this paper? The overall message is shown in figure 2.

workshop3
Figure 2: A summary of how the design of the workshop will affect how faculty engage with the session. (Fig 2 in paper.)

Basically, if the workshop facilitator focuses on enforcing predetermined faculty behaviors, highlighting their own expertise and knowledge, and evaluating the implementation for correctness, the faculty in the workshop will engage in “doing school.” On the other hand, if the workshop facilitator navigates the faculty’s incoming expectations, treats the participants as equals, and explores the strategies and gives the reasoning behind certain actions, participants will engage in the more desirable pedagogical sensemaking that the authors hope with result in sustained use of RBIS.

Figures and tables used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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