What is recomposition and how can it support teacher professional development?

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Date published 08 May 2024

Jennifer Curran introduces the concept of recomposition and how it can support teacher professional development.

Having watched a section of a lesson, it can be tough to provide feedback and modelling to a novice teacher. When I was a mentor for a trainee teacher in a primary school, I felt this. Where do you start? How do you make sure feedback is manageable?

This is a question which I know that many others involved in teacher professional development face too. Our new research aimed to find out whether decomposition and recomposition could help answer it.

What is decomposition in teacher professional development?

Decomposition is when a coach or mentor breaks down sequences of teaching. It helps teacher educators to zoom in on key practices in the lesson. They can then break these down to help novices see what makes them effective.

Grain size matters. Different people need practices broken down to different degrees. This will vary for each person and for each technique. Decomposition allows a coach or mentor to make choices about how granular to be when naming separate practices.

For example, the mentor might have observed a teacher addressing a misconception and named the practices: asking a whole class question, getting feedback, whole class exposition and one-to-one support. This helps draw novice teachers’ attention to specific aspects of practice that may have gone unnoticed in the wider sequence.

Photo of a teacher being coached by another member of staff

The challenge with decomposition alone

School leaders have suggested that a risk of decomposition is that it can decontextualise teaching practices. This can leave teachers unclear about when and why they should draw on a given practice. They want to apply what they’ve been told, but might do so at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons. Some teacher educators have therefore proposed that decomposition should always be combined with recomposition (Janssen et al., 2015).

As a trainee teacher, I remember seeing colleagues employing particular practices and being keen to try them myself. I also remember being explicitly taught practices by my training provider and then going back into school and wondering why they didn’t seem to work. Recomposition was missing here: the opportunity for me to consider the application of the practices to different contexts and think about why and when I should use them.

"Recomposition was missing here: the opportunity for me to consider the application of the practices to different contexts and think about why and when I should use them."

Introducing recomposition to teacher professional development

Recomposition is when a teacher educator prompts a teacher to put the decomposed practices back together. They use a new, meaningful sequence of teaching. Many of the things teachers do, such as behaviour management, would be applied differently depending on the context. Recomposition supports teachers to know:

  • When to use a practice
  • Why is appropriate at that point
  • The specifics of the individual practice (via the decomposition)
  • They can apply practices in a different order

For example, a mentor could give feedback on the behaviour management they saw during an observation, explain the practices and use modelling and practice. When discussing behaviour management, the practices might be sanctions and praise. The mentor could then recompose these practices into a different order by considering a different sequence of teaching. Consider that in the example observation, the teacher was responding to answering back using sanctions, then later praising pupils for good answers. The recomposition might focus on a time when praise would be used first, such as when all pupils are on task, but later sanctions were needed for mobile phone use. Providing a new sequence would allow the teacher to consider why and when to use the practices.

There is real nuance here. By recomposing teaching practices into new, meaningful sequences, teacher educators are better able to explain why it would be appropriate for the teacher to use those practices at that point in the sequence. Our research showed that trainee teachers who experienced decomposition and recomposition did better than those in our control group.

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Using decomposition and recomposition

Decomposition and recomposition are useful for providing novice teachers with feedback and input. There are lots of other times when school leaders might need to provide their staff with training, such as implementing a new programme in school. Decomposition and recomposition could also be applied here. Many schools are using a model of coaching, such as instructional coaching, for groups of staff and I think these findings are applicable to coaching. Our research was conducted with trainee teachers, but I suspect that recomposition would support teachers at all stages of their career.

Recomposition is the “necessary complement” to decomposition (Janssen et al., 2015, p. 139) as it reconnects the practices which have been decomposed. Our research showed that trainee teachers who experienced decomposition and recomposition did better than those who didn’t, suggesting that they are complementary. If you want to try using recomposition in your own teacher professional development, consider where you already break down practices in your feedback and modelling. Continue using this decomposition, but then add a new sequence. Can you take the decomposed practices and show your coachee how they might be applied in a new, novel sequence?

Janssen, F., Grossman, P., & Westbroek, H. (2015). Facilitating decomposition and recomposition in practice-based teacher education: The power of modularity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 51, 137–146.

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Jennifer Curran
Research Scientist

Jennifer Curran is a Research Scientist in Ambition’s research team and was previously a teacher.

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