What the results of our new experiment might suggest about developing adaptive teaching expertise

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Date published 08 May 2024

Dr Sam Sims considers how our new research on decomposition and recomposition in teacher training may address some of the big questions on how to help teachers keep getting better.

Teacher educators have recently been discussing a cluster of unanswered questions about how to help teachers keep getting better:

  1. Does practice make perfect? Or does it simply make permanent and inflexible? Andy Newell recently pithily summarised the two opposing sides of this debate.
  2. How can we develop teachers’ adaptive (as opposed to routine) expertise? Evidence Based Education hosted a fascinating seminar on this thorny topic last month.
  3. How can we develop ‘know when’ (to use a certain teaching technique), in addition to ‘know that’ and ‘know how’? Sarah Cottinghatt recently discussed this undervalued type of knowledge.
  4. Does focusing on discrete techniques risk teachers misapplying them? Mary Kennedy famously posed this question and David Didau recently discussed it.

Ambition Institute’s Research Team have just finished a project on recomposition that I think starts to address this interrelated set of teacher development FAQs.

Our teacher professional development research

Recomposition is best understood alongside its partner, decomposition. The latter involves teacher educators breaking down teaching into smaller chunks to help teachers notice, rehearse and refine specific aspects of their practice. Recomposition involves putting these pieces back together again in a different meaningful sequence. Fred Janssen argues that this complements decomposition by giving teachers a deeper contextual understanding of why and when to use a particular technique.

In our research, we provided training on positive behaviour management skills to 144 new teachers. Our teacher educators explained how and why (in theory) to use the different techniques and provided feedback, modelling and opportunities for practice. For half the trainees, teacher educators provided this input around a continuous sequence of teaching (the control group). For the other half, our teacher educators provided this input while decomposing and then recomposing practice.

All the trainees then took part in a classroom simulator task, leading a class through a transition from one activity to another while minimising pupil time off task. In the first such task, pupils behaved much as they did during the training. In the second such task, we varied the scenario in that pupils (mis)behaved in novel ways, requiring the teachers to draw on the behaviour management techniques in a different sequence.

We found that the control group did better than the decomposition group in the first task, which required no transfer. However, in the task requiring transfer, the results switched: the decomposition-recomposition group did better than the control group. Janssens’ theory checked out in the data.

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What this means for adaptive expertise

What does this mean for the interrelated set of teacher educator FAQs listed above? To be clear, our experiment wasn’t designed to directly address any of these questions. But I think that our findings potentially have implications for future practice and research on all four.

  1. Does practice make perfect or permanent? Strikingly, we didn’t just find that the control group improved less than the decomposition-recomposition group in the transfer task. The control group actually got worse! This suggests that practising the same sequence multiple times may have led to some inflexibility when presented with a new scenario. Recomposition avoids overpractising one sequence which may help preserve trainee teachers’ mental flexibility.
  2. How do we develop adaptive teacher expertise? In our transfer task, which required adaptation, the decomposition-recomposition group did better than the control group that received otherwise similar training. In Janssen’s telling, breaking down and then building back up sequences of teaching allows for greater adaptation by providing additional recontextualisation compared to otherwise similar training that deals with the same sequences more holistically.
  3. How can we develop ‘know when’? Our measures of pupil time off task suggest that the control group were better able to use the appropriate technique at the appropriate time in the no-transfer task, giving the impression that they understood the ‘when’. However, the same metric in the transfer task revealed clearly that the decomposition-recomposition group had a better understanding of when to draw on a given positive behaviour management technique. Teacher educators need to be wary of this.
  4. Does focusing on discrete techniques risk teachers misapplying them? Not necessarily, so long as the initial decomposition is complemented with subsequent recomposition. Kennedy’s proposal for guarding against misapplication was to emphasise the purposes for which different technique were being used. It should be noted that all participants in our experiment were given this information. The benefits of decomposition followed by recomposition were therefore over and above any from explaining the underpinning theory.

Tying it together

I’ve attempted to bring together several related strands of the debate about teacher development. To finish tying them together, consider this comparison of two coaches who have just observed a teacher.

The first coach takes the direct route, providing feedback on what the teacher could have done differently and explaining how it would have made a difference. The second coach takes the indirect route, working on discrete practices in turn (decomposition), before putting them back together in ways that differ from the original sequence they observed (recomposition).

The direct route is intuitive, simple, and our results suggest that it may yield better short run outcomes in terms of changing practice in a similar rehearsal or role play scenario. However, our research suggests that the indirect route is more likely to support teachers flexibly transfer what they have learned, using what they have learned at the right time and for the right reason in a novel classroom scenario.

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Dr Sam Sims
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