Starting Closest To Home: The Importance Of Developing Teachers’ Understanding Of The Social Contexts Of Their Classrooms

Our guest author today is John Lane, a former teacher and instructional coach who is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at Michigan State University on a project that investigates the impact of social networks and mentorship on the mathematics instructional practices of beginning teachers. 

It may seem foolish now, but there was a time in this country when policymakers believed that reforms were self-executing. Legislatures and educational bureaucrats would articulate the terms of the policies and their vision for improving schools, and teachers and others close to schools would translate these visions into practice. In the meantime, over the past fifty years or so, researchers have been able to better understand the vast gulf between reformers’ ideals and teachers’ practice. In short, we have come to understand that improving teacher’s practice is more difficult than anyone imagined.

Policymakers, however, seem not to have gotten this message, or to have gotten it only partially. For the most part, they still follow a familiar script that reads that teachers either lack the skill or the will to enact reforms, or both. Consequently, reforms typically ratchet up accountability while also including some provision for teacher learning.

In what follows, I focus on the content of this learning and what it might take to achieve it. First, I discuss why teacher learning is complex and often challenging. Next, I discuss how teacher learning is typically organized, and the substance of what teachers currently learn. Specifically, I contend that in teachers’ typical learning opportunities, reforms are reduced to a set of strategies that “work” across settings, and in which the contexts of teaching become an unwanted entanglement. In this post, I argue that teachers would benefit from opportunities to learn about the social dynamics of classrooms -- it is those dynamics, after all, that affect their own reform efforts and teacher practice more broadly. I then offer some ideas about how teachers might be able to accomplish this.

Before getting into what teachers might need to know to make reform policies more effective, it is important to recognize that securing teacher learning is difficult. Teachers in the United States spend more time in face-to-face instruction than teachers in virtually any other nation (Darling-Hammond, 2010), in effect squeezing out time that teachers could be spending learning about and reflecting on practice. By most accounts, even the time set aside for “professional development” is less than desirable (e.g., large groups, teachers in passive roles, training on discrete instructional strategies that "work.")*

In my recent research I set out to understand how teachers made sense of multiple reforms (e.g., educator evaluation systems; Common Core State Standards), both individually and collectively. To this end, I observed teachers as they learned about instructional reforms in large workshops as well as in small groups. Notably, while the social organization of the teacher learning opportunities themselves differed, the focus was more or less the same. Regardless of social arrangements, teachers learned about a series of discrete (if interrelated) instructional strategies that were either: (a) presented as being proven “classroom instruction that works”; or (b) were attached to new frameworks for evaluation, against which teacher performance would be judged. Reform learning, in other words, centered around the teacher as technician, and improved teaching as the enactment of discrete instructional behaviors.

Reforms and the learning opportunities that accompany them have virtually ignored local, situated knowledge of social contexts, or treated the social dynamics of the classroom as a personal matter that must be worked out by individual teachers. Perhaps this is in deference to the superior knowledge of the local practitioner, or maybe presenting conditions on proven “research-based” strategies introduces a complication that cannot easily be resolved. In either case, teachers are left without a critical understanding of the social dynamics, common to many classrooms, that often stand in the way of reforms.

I base this claim on my experiences as a teacher and as a researcher. First, as a teacher myself I was unable—even after nearly a decade in the classroom—to induce many of the social principles that affected my teaching or to fully articulate the relationship among these principles. Several examples come to mind, but I recall the most interesting of these surrounding teachers’ ultimate dependence on student effort and good will, and the consequences of this fundamental dilemma in classroom life (Metz, 1978; 1993; Waller, 1932).  More specifically, because of this dependence, goals that indicate success are negotiated locally with groups of students (Cusick, 1983; McNeil, 1986; Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985), most often are easily attained (Lortie, 1975), and commonly involve bargaining away academic expectations in return for student attendance and compliance (Sedlak, et al., 1986). In short, holding students to high academic standards and moving them to a more central role in the success of classroom instruction is a difficult, systemic challenge, one that increases teachers’ dependence on their students (Cohen, 2011; Cuban, 1993).

When I entered graduate school I was floored by this wealth of knowledge about the social dynamics of the classroom, and felt that this body of knowledge could have shaped my teaching had I learned about it earlier. These researchers’ accounts resonated with my own experiences and helped me think about teaching in new ways.  Personally, I found reading these studies empowering. The struggles I had as a teacher were not a reflection of my personal incompetence or idiosyncratic circumstances; rather, I was wrestling with challenges endemic to the teaching occupation that warranted the attention of several decades’ worth of serious scholarship.

Second, as a researcher, I observed in the classrooms of a dozen or so teachers.  At the end of each classroom visit I would steal away and write elaborated fieldnotes, and when I finished typing the notes I sent them to the teacher whose class I had visited. While I did this for validity purposes, the conversations that teachers and I had surrounding the notes were informative. And they centered almost entirely on the social dynamics that I captured in my notes. Teachers typically responded with amusement or surprise (and sometimes chagrin) at the social worlds that remained hidden to them when they were busy teaching. Nevertheless, these conditions profoundly affected how teachers taught and how well they enacted reforms. I believe that teachers would benefit greatly from an explicit effort to make the invisible social worlds of classrooms more visible.

Other researchers have made similar observations (e.g., Cusick, 1973; Jackson, 1968). As Cusick (1973) once pointed out, teachers are paid to provide instruction and not to perform sociological experiments, but, as a consequence, teachers are often confused when their instructional plans go awry. I am not suggesting that providing teachers opportunities to connect with the considerable sociological literature about life in classrooms would solve all their problems, or that all teachers need to moonlight as sociologists. I am merely suggesting that access to and consideration of this knowledge might help some teachers in the difficult work of adapting reforms to their local contexts, and the particulars of their students, classrooms, and schools.

So, what can be done to address these challenges and make sure that teacher learning also focuses on social contexts rather exclusively on explicit skill acquisition? Convincing professional development providers to move away from isolated teaching strategies and toward developing a better understanding of the context of teaching is likely to be an uphill battle, particularly since teachers are not clamoring for this sort of content. I think researchers could help with these challenges. First, researchers could act locally by sharing their research with schools and helping teachers, principals, and district administrators see a productive link between professional development focusing on social contexts and improved teaching and learning in their classrooms. Researchers could also establish a website discussing and sharing resources and tools that teachers could use to understand and address the social complexities of their classrooms and of schooling. Such a site could, for example, allow teachers to select from a variety of topics like “Teachers’ Dependence of Their Students” or “Understanding Student Groups.” It is not difficult to imagine a "social context website" that teachers might use in ways similar to how they currently get a wide variety of ideas from Pinterest.


*Of course, not all teacher learning opportunities are of this type. Other opportunities organize teacher learning differently by placing teachers in small collaborative teams with close colleagues. While perhaps more promising in concept, securing teacher learning in smaller contexts has proven equally challenging in practice. Teams execute their roles quite differently, and while some small teacher teams excel, others flounder. Some small teams focus almost exclusively on reform principles and how they might be enacted, while other teams drift into peripheral school or strictly social concerns. 


Great piece. Teachers can't just focus on the passing knowledge to students anymore. Knowledge is free for all to have via the internet. Teachers need to bestow how to use knowledge and apply it to gain the results needed to meet desired goals. Teachers have to model this by utilizing networks of teachers to grow together. Education needs to be more collaborative. Teachers need time in their schedules to work together, examine students' needs and derive paths to success. Our current model is to isolating, leaving most teachers alone desperately seeking answers.

In reply to by Todd Bloch


Todd--Thanks for giving it a read. And I agree that it would be nice to think about how to use the Internet and both virtual and face-to-face networks can help teachers generate and sustain new ideas. I also agree that finding time to meet is important but it has always been a real challenge to arrange, but a challenge that we must continue to chip away at.


Great read John. Most veteran teachers, like myself, dread professional development. The ideas behind the endless trainings are usually good, but tend lack any understanding of what it's like to work in a high-diversity, low-socioeconomic classroom. I would welcome more training that focused on student relationships and how to hopefully milk them for as much engagement as possible.

Brandon--No doubt that most professional development is a grind for many teachers, especially those who have been through years of one-shot trainings that are abstracted from practice and more or less ignore the worlds that teachers actually teach in. I also remember getting some trainings on student relationships or positive reinforcement behavior modification, but these trainings presented the social dynamics of classrooms rather simply or adopted a stimulus-response orientation to working with more challenging students. I would like to see teachers get the opportunity to engage with some of the research on the sociology of classrooms and then have the opportunity to have open and prolonged conversations with peers and administrators where they can reflect on the demands of the reform, their current practices, and the social complexities and challenges of their classrooms.


Amazing article. It is important for the teachers to develop the social contexts in classrooms. As students are learning many things from technologies it is essential for teachers to learn new facts day by day and update themselves. So that we can interact with the students easily and make the interaction a meaningful one. This will motivate the students to learn more.

Edubilla - Education portal.

Thanks for posting a comment, Merryl. And I couldn't agree more that student-teacher interactions can improve if teachers are afforded the opportunity to know more about social phenomena and that an improved student experience can result and that as a consequence student would become more motivated and interested in school.


I agree. Teachers should not be contained to teaching inside the classroom. There is so much of the world to see, know about and use for learning. Like the internet. Although too much screentime is not advisable for learning, I think doing it in moderation is very beneficial. I learned about one activity from one of my homeworks from . Aside from using Skype to talk to other students from other parts of the globe, they also perform duties as home teachers . They incorporate online activities with supervision for learning. My son took the same classes and I found that he was more engaged in his studies when his teachers showed mre interest in him and used unconventional methods. Children nowadays are different.


I believe this is a good teaching concept. The classroom represents the cross-section of our society, therefore teaching should be in its social context.