Pedagogy, Knowledge and Learning

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Columns, Research in Education
By Dara Soljaga, Simeon Stumme & Amanda Mulcahy

As part of the Pathways to Excellence for Teachers project with the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation and their schools, our team of faculty, instructional coaches and consultants facilitated focus-group meetings and reviewed existing school data in order to determine project priorities. Initial data indicated an opportunity to support writing instruction in the partner schools. In order to further refine our work, the team determined that a survey administered to teachers would provide additional clarity regarding specific areas. Teachers were invited to participate in a study to determine the instructional writing practices, programs, and strategies currently being used in Chicago’s Lutheran schools. This article will establish our theoretical underpinnings, share our study’s methods, present our preliminary results, and offer a concluding discussion.

Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of pedagogy in general, is framed within a sociocultural context which values teachers’ experience, situated communities of practice, and knowledge as a negotiated process (Vygotsky, 1931/1997; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Cole & Engestrom, 1994; Lee, 2007). Central to our work is the guided, yet collaborative, development of an intellectual, theoretical and practical understanding of learning that encourages particular practices designed to re-contextualize language and literacy instruction inclusive of writing (Soljaga & Stumme, 2015). As such, the dissemination of certain fundamental knowledge and skills are needed for effective instruction in general, and for writing specifically, as well as the ability to sustain and support this growth.

Theoretical Framework

Here, we present our sociocultural framework for teaching and learning as one that delimits our work and guides all decisions regarding the value and appropriateness of classroom practices (Vygotsky, 1997; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Cole & Engestrom, 1994; Lee, 2007). This theoretical stance is useful only when connected to classroom practices. It must be viewed as a complete and complex basis for offering learning opportunities to all students. The framework encourages and requires teachers to critically reflect on their practice, and privileges pedagogy over curricular products. It is grounded in an asset-based perspective, instead of deficit-based, and positions teachers as necessary content and pedagogical experts who appreciate students as valuable cultural and social-capital owners.

The following sociocultural principles guide our work:

Learning is social. This principle speaks to the idea that learning and teaching are active processes that occur in the social world and depend on interaction among learners. Teaching requires activities that offer meaningful and purposeful interactions.

Communities of practice are necessary. Learning is the process of becoming a full member of a community of practice. Learning the norms, culture and “ways of being” of community happens through practice. Practice implies approximation to the behaviors and knowledge of the community. Learning becomes the process of identity formation – learning means becoming an active member of a community. The unity and interdependence of learning as an act of enculturation is valued.

Engagement with more expert others is required. Teaching and learning depend on the interaction of novice learners with more expert learners. Traditionally, this has been understood as the students interacting with the “more expert” teacher. While this type of interaction is necessary and valuable, our sociocultural framework broadens the possibilities of who is considered an expert to include the students. Classroom practice requires activities that position different students in the role of the expert at opportune times.

Knowledge is negotiated. All learners bring their own unique and valuable perspective to different topics. Within our framework, teaching demands recognition that each of these perspectives has value in the construction of new knowledge. Teaching and learning are defined as the creating of new ways of understanding the world, achieved through the active interaction, compromise, and assimilation of new and old information.

Regarding teaching and learning, the classroom environment and atmosphere created by the teacher and students transacting with each another and with their environment, grows to include the whole institutional, social, and cultural context (Cobb & Kallus, 2011). As such, when teachers employ a variety of tools and strategies that ensure students can develop agency by guiding learning, supporting metacognition, and nurturing collaboration, learning happens. In this case, students’ writing will reflect a corresponding ability to communicate coherent, well-developed arguments as authentic vocabulary instruction and clear purposes for reading and talking assist students in structuring and presenting their thinking as writing. These goals are further augmented with the legitimization of different notions of text as teachers–students, and students–students engage in discourse about academic content and co-create knowledge.

Within our framework, discernible knowledge and skills include teachers having the ability to be responsive to student understanding and misunderstanding. “…We have learned that our brains are hardwired to learn oral language from infancy, but that written language must be taught.” (Krashen, 1981, as cited in Cobb & Kallus, 2011, p. 202). Teachers’ deep content knowledge will lead to greater confidence in their students to deepen analytical, communication, and writing skills. Through our work, students and teachers will be able to confidently and critically facilitate discourse, both oral and written, grounded in a variety of content areas.

In order to support and sustain the benefits of the project with Chicago’s Lutheran schools, the need to determine existing instructional writing practices, programs, and strategies was identified. In valuing teaching as a profession and privilege, the time, space and structures for reflection and growth suited the administration of a survey. This quantitative study of parochial school teachers’ pedagogy informed by writing instruction practices was guided by the following research questions:

1.  How often do teachers at Lutheran schools have their students engage
            in writing activities? Which activities are most common? Which are
            least common?

2.  How do Lutheran school teachers who teach different subjects
            approach the frequency of writing instruction?

3.  How do Lutheran school teachers who teach different grade levels
            approach writing instruction differently?

The survey was constructed, by a doctoral student under Dr. Stumme’s supervision, with carefully selected items from an instrument created by Mike Ronen, from Southwest Plains Regional Service Center. His written permission was obtained on September 17, 2017. The questions were organized into subcategories including Paragraphs and Essays; Creating Effective Writing Prompts; Read, Score and Justify; Revision Strategies; Teacher Involvement; Reader as Writer; and Goal and Monitoring of Progress. It is comprised of 28 items, such as “Students in my classroom actively employ a writing process to develop their writing.” Teachers were instructed to reflect on writing instruction in their classroom and rate the frequency of application. A rating scale of 0 for Never, 1 for Once or Twice a Year, 2 for Once or Twice a Semester, 3 for Once or Twice a Month, 4 for Once or Twice a Week and 5 for Daily or Almost Daily was used to gauge frequency. Two open-ended questions, inquiring about resource use and perceived obstacles completed the survey.

Method

Our research study utilized a quantitative, survey-research design to investigate Lutheran teachers’ pedagogy through writing instruction. According to Creswell, “Survey researchers often correlate variables, but their focus is directed more toward learning about a population…” (Creswell, 2015, p. 379). As such, the survey was used to identify areas of writing instruction occurring in the classroom so as to better understand pedagogy. In considering the reported information, our team would then be better positioned to support teaching and learning.

In our quantitative study, as in most surveys, the dependent variable is viewed as the teachers or respondents themselves, represented by the demographic information collected on the instrument. The independent variables are the descriptive survey question items. The survey requests grade-level, subject, and number of years taught and contains no other demographic information, making it virtually blind. An accompanying letter informed teachers of their voluntary, confidential participation.

Prior to the start of the study, we secured proper authorization through the CUC Institutional Review Board. Following IRB approval, our population of interest was identified as all teachers in attendance at the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Fund’s annual August Networking Conference. Attendance records indicate that 135 teachers were present. Each teacher was individually handed a copy of the survey as they were exiting the keynote speech and as they were transitioning to breakout sessions. Teachers were given oral instructions to complete the survey at their leisure or during the lunch period and to return the completed anonymous survey packet by the end of the day to a box placed on the registration table. The data in this study are not sensitive and accidental disclosure would not result in harm to the participants. There is no risk to the participants, and their participation was optional. For the administration of the surveys, there was no time limit; it was expected that the surveys took approximately 15 minutes to complete.

Our sampling method is considered nonprobability and stratified because only teachers in attendance at CLEF’s Networking Conference were considered for participation. Nonprobability, convenience sampling may be used based on reality constraints with securing institutional permission and access to other teachers. According to Mertens, “Reality constraints, such as access and cost, must be considered in all sampling decisions” (Mertens, 2015, p. 325).

A total of 76 participants responded (N=76). Of those respondents, 12 reported teaching in grade pre-Kindergarten, 17 in grades Kindergarten-2nd, 17 in grades 3-5 and 21 in grades 5-8, with nine leaving the grade-level(s) taught section blank. 13 left the subject(s) taught item blank and 14 did not respond to the number of years of teaching experience item.

Results

Three major findings on the writing pedagogical practices of Lutheran school teachers were identified from the survey data. First, teachers, as a group, organize writing activities for students in Lutheran schools on a once or twice monthly basis. Second, there is significant difference between ELA (English/Language Arts) and non-ELA teacher pedagogical practices around writing. Finally, the data indicate that teachers that serve different grade levels engage in several significantly different pedagogical approaches to writing instruction.

Specifically, for Question #1: How often do teachers at Lutheran schools have their students engage in writing activities? Which activities are most common? Which are least common?

As a group, teachers at Lutheran schools organize writing activities for their students between twice a month and once a week. With mean scores ranging from 4.13 (in response to giving students opportunities to practice writing for a variety of purposes) to 1.78 (in response to creating opportunities for students to peer review their writing work), Lutheran teachers reported varying degrees of frequency based on different writing activities.

Table #1

Means and standard deviations

Survey Item  M (n) SD
Paragraphs and Essays 
Students in my classroom actively employ a writing process to develop their writing. 3.70 (71) 1.224
Students practice writing for a variety of purposes in my classroom. 4.13 (75) 1.166
I model for my students how to revise various pieces
of writing.
3.53 (72) 1.233
As a teacher I focus my instruction on correct grammar, punctuation, spelling. 3.66 (70) 1.623
Creating Effective Writing Prompts
When I give writing assignments to students, I suggest prompts but encourage students to identify the audience and purpose for their writing. 3.38 (71) 1.377
In my classroom, students are asked to write for a wide variety of different audiences (e.g. other students, newspaper readers, people from other cultures). 2.82 (67) 1.291
I give my students opportunities to select what forms of writing they wish to work on (e.g. essays, posters, presentations, brochures). 2.57 (68) 1.317
I give students writing assignments that require them to write for a variety of purposes (e.g. explanation, persuasion, storytelling). 3.16 (71) 1.356
Students in my classroom must practice writing in many different forms (e.g. essays, posters, presentations, brochures). 2.99 (64) 1.545
Read, Score, and Justify 
I demonstrate scoring with students, using example papers to highlight and explain the scoring criteria. 2.23 (71) 1.664
Students in my classroom evaluate a variety of writing forms (e.g. posters, leaflets, letters, essays). 2.10 (70) 1.652
Students in my classroom get actively involved in self-assessment, scoring their own papers to understand their own strengths and weaknesses as writers. 2.34 (70) 1.541
Students in my classroom score the papers of fellow students as part of learning how to think about and discuss writing. 1.78 (69) 1.561
Revision Strategies
In my classroom, students spend time revising their writing, as a separate conscious step in the writing process after reflecting on their initial draft writing. 2.77 (69) 1.526
As part of my writing instruction, I teach specific strategies for how to revise initial drafts into more polished final versions. 2.63 (68) 1.455
Revision strategies for writing are posted in my classroom. 2.00 (67) 1.688
Teacher Involvement
I talk with students about my own writing experiences, using trait concepts and language. 2.94 (71) 1.611
In my classroom, I use examples of my own writing when teaching students about writing. 3.22 (73) 1.702
To demonstrate how to think about writing, I reflect aloud on strengths and weaknesses of my own writing. 2.97 (71) 1.715
I model for students how to receive and reflect on feedback about my own writing. 2.75 (69) 1.777
Read as a Writer
In my classroom, we read and discuss the quality of many kinds of printed materials, (e.g. posters, leaflets, letters, articles, essays, books). 3.30 (73) 1.478
In my classroom, we read and discuss the quality of many kinds of writing (e.g. explanation, persuasion, storytelling). 3.30 (70) 1.438
Goal and Monitoring of Progress
Students in my classroom participate in real publishing opportunities (e.g. writing competitions, commercial publications, school-wide newsletters). 1.89 (71) 1.626
Assessments are used to evaluate student writing
(e.g. rubrics, checklist).
3.27 (71) 1.576

Further, teachers reported regularly using some type of “writing process” in their writing instruction (M 3.70), from modeling how to engage in writing revisions (M 3.53), to providing prompts to motivate students to write (M 3.38), to using rubrics to and checklist to evaluating writing (M 3.27) and to focus their instruction on correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling (M 3.66). All of these activities are done on an at-least weekly basis. Finally, teachers reported that they frequently have students systematically organize and store their writing (M 3.00).

Lutheran teachers report not engaging as frequently in some writing activities. For example, teachers reported to not having their students engage in publication of work that is part of a writing competition, commercial publication, or school-wide newsletter (M 1.89); they reported to not posting revision strategies in the classroom (M 2.00); and, they did not often have students evaluate a wide variety of written forms, like posters, letters, leaflets and essays (M 2.00).

Regarding Question #2: How do Lutheran school teachers who teach different subjects approach the frequency of writing instruction?

Our data reveal that Lutheran teachers who teach different subjects engage in writing practices with different frequency. One significant distinction regarding the frequency of engagement in different writing activities by teachers evident in the data relates to all teachers who teach English Language Arts (ELA) and non-English Language Arts Teachers. As explained above, not all Lutheran teachers in the sample were ELA teachers. Several teachers surveyed reported to teach math, science, social studies or physical education and not ELA. Further, some teachers reported teaching self-contained classes where they taught all subjects, including ELA. Here, we grouped all teachers who reported to teach any ELA and compared them to teachers that did not report to teach any ELA. On several responses, this distinction proved to be significant in how often different writing practices were organized.

Table #2

Comparing ELA+ALL teachers to Non-ELA teachers

Grade Level          
Variable   ELA+ALL (n=49) Non-ELA (n=14) t-value (df) prob
Students practice writing for a variety of purposes in my classroom. M 4.51 3.50 3.691 .000
SD (0.767) (1.286) (61)  
In my classroom, I use examples of my own writing when teaching students about writing. M 3.60 2.31 2.691 .015
SD (1.512) (1.548) (59)  
In my classroom, we read and discuss the quality of many kinds of writing (e.g. explanation, persuasion, story-telling). M 3.62 2.77 2.221 .037
SD (1.392) (1.166) (58)  

For example, in ELA classrooms, teachers report to use examples of their own writing in order to model different forms of writing for students; teachers who describe themselves as non-ELA teachers do not engage in the practice as often t(59) = 2.691, p < .05. Similarly, ELA teachers have students engage in significantly greater variety of writing purposes t(61) = 3.691, p < .001. Non-ELA teachers have students read and discuss different writing genres less often t(58) = 2.221, p < .05.

The distinction between ELA and non-ELA teachers is statistically significant in several areas of Lutheran teacher writing instruction.

Table #3

Comparing ELA+ALL teachers to Non-ELA teachers

Grade Level          
Variable   ELA+ (n=12) Non-ELA (n=14) t-value (df) prob
Students practice writing for a variety of purposes in my classroom. M 4.58 3.50 2.625 .015
SD (0.669) (1.286) (24)  
In my classroom I have a systematic way for students to store and organize their writing. M 3.82 2.50 2.147 .015
SD (1.250) (1.679) (21)  

When comparing all teachers who teach ELA to non-ELA, there was a significant difference in offering writing practice for a variety of purposes, as well as regarding the systemization and organization of student writing.

For Question #3: How do Lutheran school teachers who teach different grade levels approach writing instruction differently?

Our data found a second important distinction within the group of Lutheran teachers surveyed regarding the grade-level each taught. While many reported teaching several grade levels, a distinction here was made between Pre-Kindergarten through 2nd grade (early childhood) and 3rd through 8th grade teachers (elementary). The grade-level distinction proved to be statistically significant in several areas of writing instruction, while in other areas no significant difference existed.

Table #4

Comparing PK-2 teachers to grade 3-8 teachers

Grade Level          
Variable   PK-2 (n=29) 3-8 (n=38) t-value (df) prob
I give students writing assignments that require them to write for a variety of purposes (e.g. explanation, persuasion, story-telling). M 2.61 3.43 -2.186 .036
SD (1.588) (1.094) (58)  
Students in my classroom must practice writing in many different forms (e.g. essays, posters, presentations, brochures). M 2.32 3.43 -2.913 .005
SD (1.842) (1.168) (60)  
I demonstrate scoring
with students, using example papers to highlight and explain the scoring criteria.
M 1.52 2.68 -2.705 .010
SD (1.755) (1.334) (58)  
Students in my classroom evaluate a variety of writing forms (e.g. posters, leaflets, letters, essays). M 1.29 2.57 -3.130 .003
SD (1.601) (1.482) (59)  
Students in my classroom get actively involved in self-assessment, scoring their own papers to understand their own strengths and weaknesses as writers. M 1.46 2.84 -3.619 .001
SD (1.474) (1.424) (59)  
Students in my classroom score the papers of fellow students as part of learning how to think about and discuss writing. M 0.87 2.22 -3.711 .000
SD (1.254) (1.530) (58)  
In my classroom, students spend time revising their writing, as a separate conscious step in the writing process after reflecting on their initial draft writing. M 1.70 3.43 -4.933 .000
SD (1.579) (1.144) (58)  
As part of my writing instruction, I teach specific strategies for how to revise initial drafts into more polished final versions. M 1.70 3.05 -3.703 .001
SD (1.460) (1.246) (58)  
Revision strategies for writing are posted in my classroom. M 1.22 2.53 -3.311 .002
SD (1.313) (1.715) (57)  

In all questions that showed some level of statistical significance, elementary school teachers reported to engage in the activity more frequently. The early childhood education teachers reported to engage in the activities less often. For example, several questions regarding peer and self-editing and revising strategies showed statistically significant differences. When teachers were asked “In my classroom, students spend time revising their writing, as a separate conscious step in the writing process after reflecting on their initial draft writing” teachers in the upper grades answered that they engaged in the practice much more often t(58)=-4.933, p < 0.001.

Discussion

Three major findings on the writing pedagogical practices of Lutheran school teachers were identified from the survey data. First, as a group, teachers organize writing activities for students in Lutheran schools on a once- or twice-monthly basis. Second, overall teacher response rate indicates low levels of certain pedagogical practices; there is significant difference between ELA- and non-ELA-teacher pedagogical practices. Finally, the data indicate that teachers who serve different grade levels engage in significantly different pedagogical approaches to writing instruction.

Regarding the robustness of practices, the data show that Lutheran teachers have their students engage in writing on a weekly basis. They report to engage in several writing activities on a regular basis. Graham et al. (2012) assert that writing instruction needs to occur on a regular and consistent basis for it to be effective. Not only should daily opportunities, of at least 30 minutes, occur; but students should write for a variety of purposes.

As previously described, our model of writing and literacy instruction relies on four sociocultural principles. These findings connect to two of those principles, that of engagement with a more expert other and of negotiating knowledge. A robust writing program requires that students are given opportunities to engage with “more expert others.” In many cases, as is here, the classroom teacher acts as the expert other. Lutheran teachers reported to model good writing by sharing examples of their own writing. This modeling provides students with examples of what their own writing could look like. Still, the “expert” can and should arise from sources other than merely the teacher. Unfortunately, teachers did not consistently report using peer examples or other texts from a variety of genres and authors as a source of examples, or of expert others, during instruction.

A robust program also requires that students have an opportunity to make sense, to negotiate meaning of what good writing looks like across a variety of genres. Lutheran teachers report less frequent activity. For example, an increase in the use of peer editing and group analysis of different types of text have the benefit of situating the students to engage in the analysis of writing with the purpose of improving their own. These two types of activities require that students interact with text, to negotiate and compromise with each other regarding what is valuable, and in this way assimilate new information.

Second, the data revealed a marked difference in the frequency of writing instructional practices of English Language Arts teachers and non-English Language Arts teachers. It is common to think of writing as an activity that should only, or most often, occur in the language arts classroom. In more recent instructional plans and standards, writing is understood as a tool of communication that needs to be present across the curriculum (Krashen, 1981, as cited in Cobb & Kallus, 2011, p. 202). Further, it has become critical that each discipline ensure students’ understanding of specific norms, styles and conventions of particular fields. Supporting students in developing proficiency for writing is a critical component of full participation in a field-specific community of practice and is the responsibility of teachers in the field.

Lutheran ELA teachers show a significant difference in many writing practices as compared to non-ELA teachers. Still, teachers in non-ELA classes, would benefit students by investing more instructional time toward providing students with specific activities allowing them to engage in writing in a discipline-specific way. Writing is not proprietary to ELA, but rather, a tool that all school disciplines can use to communicate with the outside world. Students must be given access to these experiences so they can become full participants of the community.

Finally, the data demonstrate the need for a greater emphasis in the early grades on writing as form of communication and not just the process of learning to write. Early childhood teachers and elementary teachers organize different writing activities for their students. The most significant distinction was in how often teachers organized activities that required peer interaction. We would like to contextualize our comments on these findings around the idea that learning occurs in the social world and is dependent on interactions with others.

Peer interaction is a powerful requisite for learning. Providing students with space and time, regardless of age and ability, to interact with each other around their writing is a powerful learning experience. Early childhood teachers reported much less frequent use of activities requiring peer review and interaction than elementary teachers. Creating spaces where young students have an opportunity to critically discuss text, within our model of literacy instruction, is a necessary requirement.

As part of the Pathways to Excellence for Teachers project with the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation and their schools, our initial data indicating an opportunity to support writing instruction in the partner schools was confirmed with survey findings. With a more sociocultural focus on pedagogy, knowledge and learning, teachers can develop student agency. By dedicating ample time, across disciplines, and by employing a variety of tools and strategies, student writing will demonstrate the ability to communicate coherent, well-developed arguments that structure thinking. LEJ

References

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As the Center for Literacy’s founder, Dr. Dara Soljaga believes the community has a responsibility to ensure everyone has access to the skills needed to not only tell, but also read and write, their own story in order to make a positive impact on the world. She is a professor in the Department of Literacy and Early Childhood Education at Concordia University Chicago. She hopes her lifelong love of reading infectiously inspires all aspects of work at the Center for Literacy and her partnership with CLEF.

Dr. Simeon Stumme serves as co-principal investigator on many of the Center for Literacy’s projects and was instrumental in its development. He is an associate professor in the department of Teaching, Learning and Diversity at Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Stumme grew up in a missionary family and spent most of his formative years speaking Spanish. Professionally, he spent eleven years as an elementary classroom teacher in a bilingual and dual-language setting in Evanston, IL and in Southern California.

Dr. Amanda Mulcahy is a Professor of Research at Concordia University Chicago. She is also Chair of the Institutional Review Board of Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Mulcahy teaches graduate level research courses in quantitative and mixed methodologies.