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Research Domain: Group Five - Informal Learning in Different Workplaces

Title of Project: Informal Learning in School Community Partnerships: Teachers' Learning about Education Restructuring

Start Date: April 1, 1997
Academic Investigator: Dr. Kari Dehli

The research is a small-scale exploratory study of teachers' informal learning processes during a period of educational change and 'restructuring.' The research is part of a larger ethnographic study (funded by SSHRC, April 1996 to March 31, 1999, grant number 410-96-0848) of how four Toronto elementary schools implement policies of parental and community involvement in school governance by establishing School Advisory Councils. Such advisory councils are now mandated by law in Ontario, through Bill 160. The main study traces school-community-parent interactions in the formal setting of meetings and through interviews with parents, community representatives, principals and teachers. This small research project focuses on how teachers learn about and understand educational change, and how they learn to incorporate specific curriculum and evaluation innovations into their daily work. A small number of open-ended interviews have been conducted with elementary school teachers as part of the larger project. Fewer interviews than expected were conducted in 1998-99, and we would like to move the main research activity for this project to the 1999-2000 funding year, in order to carry out a larger number of interviews with teachers in the Spring of 1999.

What are we looking for? In these interviews we explore whether and how teachers in the four schools of our ethnographic study adjust their work with children and reporting to parents. Although the research is preliminary, this is what is emerging thus far. While teachers see few direct effects of School Advisory Councils as such on their classroom work, they describe in great detail how new reporting procedures have altered their teaching practices, their understanding of curriculum and their relationships with children, parents and colleagues. New report cards, yearly tests of Grade 3 students, growing use of homework and the introduction of a more standardized curriculum are especially important in this regard.

How and what are teachers learning? While they describe professional development workshops offered by school boards or the Ministry of Education as useful but insufficient, they learn how to use the new reporting mechanisms through self-initiated and informal means, and/or by colleagues and principals. Beyond learning the mechanics of how to use the new report-cards, however, we are interested in how teachers describe the many ways in which they 'adjust' their teaching strategies, curriculum thinking and interaction with children in order to generate good performance by students on tests and to demonstrate improved achievement in reports to parents. This, more subtle aspect of teachers' learning is, we would hypothesize, far more consequential for their work and the school experiences of children. Very briefly, together the new curriculum, testing and reporting mechanisms insert an outcomes or performance-based (termed 'expected') framework for teacher thinking and children learning. For some teachers this framework confirms their view of teaching and learning, for others it represents a shift ­for some, we suspect, a major shift­from process-oriented, experiential, holistic and/or child-centred teaching and learning, to one that is concerned mainly (though not completely) with achievement and performance, and particularly those kinds of achievements that are rendered visible, measurable and countable in tests and report cards. It could be argued that this preliminary research demonstrates that a standardize curriculum and regular testing will lead teachers to 'teach to test.' While this may be the case, such statements do not tell us much about how this process occurs, nor do they allow for space for teachers' potential and actual agency. In the preliminary interviews with teachers we can see that their thinking and pedagogical strategies are quite complex, creative and varied, and at times surprising.

We would like to continue our exploration of how teachers understand, explain and account for these shifts which, in our view, are at the heart of contemporary educational reform. The proposed research activity, carried over from 1998-99, will consist of ten to fifteen open-ended interviews with elementary school teachers, beginning with teachers in the four schools where we are conducting the larger study. Towards the end of the school year (May-June 1999), we will bring together a small group of elementary teachers (4-6) to discuss their experiences with grade 3 tests, new reporting procedures and curriculum.
 

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