Beyond understanding: revisiting Hammerness et al (2002)

Dr Karen Hammerness

It’s been interesting to revisit the Hammerness article. Our own secondary teaching program has been strongly influenced by the approach described here. I love the approach.

But, as I re-read the article, I found myself thinking particularly about two issues:

Face-to-face time with students

First was the way in the Standford course, face-to-face student-staff time was central.

  • At Stanford, they met face to face with their students (lectures, tutorials, workshops) for double the time we meet with our students;
  • Students were required to share with staff two drafts. “On each draft they received extensive feedback from an instructor and a peer, based on a publicly shared and edited rubric.” (223)
  • The evolution of the students’ thinking ‘showed substantial growth and exhibited increasingly professional thinking about practice’ (226), and this was explained largely as a result of the amount and quality of feedback from peers and staff (239) Without this feedback there was ‘a persistence of naïve formulations’ (236)

Professor Linda Darling-Hammond

The spirit of Vygotsky’s ZPD hovered over the these descriptions of staff-student interactions. We learn most powerfully within the zone of proximal development, where social interactions and specific ways of using language help cognitive development, help make the the shift from naïve formulations based on untested assumptions to more sophisticated and tested ways of teaching effectively. While personally I find that submitting multiple drafts encourages in some students an over-dependence on staff guidance, at least two conversations with a staff member (with one-on-one or with peers present) would be ideal in helping students see how theory might illuminate practice.

The purpose of case study writing

Hammerness et al are clear about the purpose of writing case studies: they help students to build a bridge between theory and practice. The bridge metaphor permeates the article. The students have had an experience; theory helps them to understand that experience. Theory travels over the bridge in order to illuminate past experience. The purpose of case study writing is understanding of what has already occurred.

… case writing as an opportunity to better appreciate the relationship between theory and practice, helping them to recognize the value of using theory to explain and evaluate their classroom work. (224)

they had developed richer explanations that seemed to account for the more complex, layered nature of the case.(225)

Students were able to build on the theoretical connections and links seeded by instructors, in turn, pushing their cases beyond mere personal exploration towards more powerful explanations. (239)

Emeritus Professor Lee Shulman

There’s a focus on ‘what has happened’ rather than ‘what might happen now that the theory has been seen to be relevant’. The focus is on the past, rather than on the future.

Is this nit-picking? Of course there’s an implicit (and sometimes explicit) acknowledgement in the article (and no doubt in the Standord course) that case studies help preservice teachers to prepare their future actions:

This very articulation [says one of the students] has given me principles that I might in the future utilize in order to become an independent and effective practitioner in a community of educators. 238)

When prompted, students were able to generalize from their cases, moving beyond their specifi￿c, immediate experience to consider how these experiences might inform their teaching in the future, to draw broad lessons about student learning and teaching, and to link their particular experiences to those other teachers might encounter. (239)

But I’m trying to understand better the resistance of some of our students to seeing theory as being useful.

When we imply that it’s useful in order to understand what has happened, theory is placed in the realm of thought, of analysis; and this makes it vulnerable to some students’ intuitive sense (backed up by cynical staff room chatter) that theory tells you nothing of practical value, that it’s an intellectual wank, and that you learn to teach by teaching.

However, when we explicitly switch theory’s target from the past to the future, and from understanding to action, then we can more easily and convincingly talk about theory’s practical usefulness. Theory is not ultimately about understanding. Understanding is a stepping stone on the way to more effective action.

The Stanford project seems to be asking: Given what you now know, do you understand better what happened?

I think our project needs to ask: Given what you now know, what might you do differently?


[1] Hammerness, K., L. Darling-Hammond, et al. (2002). “Toward Expert Thinking: How curriculum case writing prompts the development of theory-based professional knowledge in student teachers, .” Teaching Education 13(2): 219-243.


5 thoughts on “Beyond understanding: revisiting Hammerness et al (2002)

  1. Personally I do not believe in theory but I do believe in theories. I think sometimes we embrace a theoretical model that has been very useful to us in our experience. But I think not all of our (individual teachers) classroom experiences are the same as that of others and not all of our individual classrooms are the same from year to year. I think the more I know about different theoretical approaches the better able I am to find one that works especially well in my current circumstance. It seems to me my students (or even any individual student) are more complex than most theories.

    I do not see how anyone can argue though, that more time spent with students guiding and directing them cannot be effective. If the time spent with students is spent telling rather than directing I think than perhaps the time is not well spent and may in fact be harmful. But the more a teacher can point students towards self discovery and give them the tools and the “maps” to make those discoveries the better the students will do. I think human beings are naturally suspicious of what others tell them but more open to what they discover on their own. Two dangers here are that 1) students may not be skeptical enough of discoveries made on their own and may not be able to see the flaws and weaknesses in their own findings, they become “true believers” of sorts too quickly. And 2) They may take too personally attempts made by the teacher to open their minds to flaws in what they have found. The teacher is not trying to shoot the idea down but to help the student see the flaws so that the student can then develop a stronger idea. There is also an irony here. Students do not trust, often, what they are told, but (in the high school classroom anyway) they often want the teacher to tell them the answers to things because there is often a desire to get to the bottom line as quickly as possible without seeing the process that produced the bottom line. In fact the process (learning to think things through and develop sound conclusions) is most of the time more important than the bottom line. As some say, the journey is more important than the destination.

    J. D.

  2. Pingback: Review “Towards Expert Thinking: How Case-Writing Contributes to the Development of Theory-Based Professional Knowledge in Student-Teachers” Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Shulman, L. (2001). « Secondary Education Students @ UC

  3. I am only reading this now… I wish that I had read it earlier!! I agree wholeheartedly that the question should be (also) what can we do better next time, and this will (hopefully) set we newbie teachers on a path of continual improvement: becoming the lifelong learners that we hope our students to be.

    I have been thinking about your comment as to why preservice teachers are resistant to seeing theory as being useful. I think preservice teachers might see theory as more useful if the divide between practicum and university life was not so jarring. I can see a real benefit in the microteaching approach (as discussed in Wilson, G et al, “Reframing the Practicum”); rather than the all or nothing approach, where practicum is putting preservice teachers straight into the complex and time-pressured reality of teaching. Over and over again I hear people talking about “just surviving” on prac (that was me!) In that mode, there is no chance to think, make connections between the theory and practice, and to see the benefits of this. (I realise that this type of practicum is more like “real life” – my argument about something elsewhere 🙂 But I can see real value in developing this skill in a structured, simplified setting. It is one of those skills that is so fundamental to the whole process, that it warrants being drawn out of the complexity of real life and practiced specifically and deliberately).

    I also think this links to a different but related discussion in our tute group today for ELPCG2, where people discussed experiencing a pressure to teach in the same style as their practicum mentor teacher (for various reasons). And I think that this is compounded by the fact that a mentor teacher provides an example of a style that can be immediately replicated with some success when a preservice is in survival mode. This is not a bad thing, per se, but this makes it more likely that new teachers will never be the potentially transformative “new blood” that the profession relies upon to grow and develop. Wilson et al talk about microteaching offering students a space where they can “experiment with a variety of identities without the high social stakes associated with the more complex social classroom situation” (at 356). Although this was discussed in the context of developing teacher identity, I think it is equally relevant to providing a space to experiment with different ideas or strategies with different theoretical bases. Reflecting (or “unpacking”) smaller, simpler classroom experiences, I think, would more easily enable preservice teachers to make connections between theory and practice, and see the benefit of that. (Rather than, “my mentor teacher gets the kids to read out loud, it is quite successful, therefore I will do that too”, without thinking about WHY you are doing it).

    One idea I had was to make more explicit connections between planning, the activities we choose to deliver content, the decisions we make to manage our classrooms and student learning/outcomes. A discipline specific discussion (perhaps in workshops) about the theoretical bases for decisions that teachers make in these areas (in a more connected way) would be immensely useful. I acknowledge we have the content to make these connections ourselves, but having explicit instruction (modelling) and practice in this area would assist us making those connections, and more importantly, increase our confidence in linking theory and practice in a very practical and detailed way. I envisage a more authentic “planning through to assessment” experience – even perhaps to observe an “expert” take a lesson that the group had planned, and then as a group reflect on the lesson. Something for the wishlist?

  4. Pingback: Shulman’s “Those Who Understand” | Getting to the classroom

  5. Pingback: Teacher education as preparation for what is or what could be?: some thoughts after reading Grossman, Hammerness & McDonald 2009 « degrees of fiction

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