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.