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When Teaching Decisions Collide with Organizational Norms
Professionals in social marketing, public health, and applied anthropology frequently base behavior-change initiatives in a solid understanding of local practice.
This approach can be used by school administrators, policymakers, and faculty developers so that teaching improvement efforts are well aligned with the existing constraints and practices of teacher in specific situations.
Matthew Hora, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, studies instructional policies and practices at institutions of higher education. He is especially interested in those who teach in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). He recently studied how faculty make decisions about course curriculum, time allocation, and classroom instruction at a midwestern research university.
Hora’s model of faculty decision-making draws on research from teacher cognition theory and naturalistic decision-making theory. Many factors influence course planning and instruction, yet Hora focused on how faculty perceptions of their organizational and socio-cultural environments shape instructional decision-making.
In academic environments some particularly influential factors include students, instructional tasks, role expectations, and organizational characteristics. Over time, teachers repeatedly encounter certain features of their environment and become attuned to which behaviors are feasible and desirable within their departments and institutions.
Hora carefully traced individual faculty members’ decision-making processes to fully capture the situated nature of instructional decision-making. He interviewed staff participating in a National Science Foundation (NSF) math and science education project that attempted to revise how mathematics and science courses were designed and taught for pre-service K-12 teachers. Faculty from math, life sciences, and education collaborated in interdisciplinary planning teams to redesign these courses
To trace pathways of educators’ instructional thinking, Hora interviewed them about what organizational factors they noticed, how they interpreted these factors as constraints or affordances to their teaching, and how these interpretations influenced their decision-making. Hora determined that both organizational and individual factors shaped faculty decision-making.
Respondents interpreted organizational factors in a variety of ways. They felt that the type of institution and its personnel policies created normative standards for desirable professional behavior. Their particular university’s governance system encouraged individual decisions and freedom regarding instructional practices.
Many respondents considered structural factors as particularly influential. For example, the structural aspects of undergraduate courses posed logistical constraints on teaching practices. Furthermore, structural features of this particular university shaped faculty decision-making by constraining what was deemed possible or desirable behavior according to their peers, particularly in how they allocated their time. The organizational environment contained clear assumptions that faculty should devote the bulk of their time and intellectual resources to research. This assumption was particularly true for untenured faculty. Some departments actively protected junior scholars from teaching and service responsibilities, which were seen as distractions from establishing a research program.
Respondents observed that the expectations for research productivity are enshrined in departmental recruitment, tenure, and promotion policies, which set standards and criteria for what is admissible as evidence of productivity and what will be valued and rewarded when hiring and promoting.
Decision-making Unfolds in Local Situations
Importantly, decision-making is an idiosyncratic and localized phenomenon, where each instructor brings their own experiences and pre-existing belief systems to unique departmental contexts. Because his or her account of the organizational context is decidedly local, Hora says, it’s important to understand how an individual’s decision-making process unfolds in specific situations.
One biology instructor, for example, described her teaching as strongly influenced by a math and science education project at her institution and by her doctoral training, which emphasized teaching. Combined with her strong personal initiative to use innovative teaching practices, she wanted to “mix things up” by implementing specific teaching techniques, such as small-group work.
However, her course coordinator denied such efforts, reasoning in part that additional labor would be required to change desks and tables for small-group work. As a result the respondent was forced to use a primarily lecture-based approach. She managed to use some whole-class discussions and multi-media techniques to engage the students’ interest. In this way, organizational factors constrained her range of possible teaching decisions, and yet left her the possibility of exerting a small degree of creativity and autonomy.
Hora recommends that future researchers dispense with the notion that a single, unitary mental representation guides faculty thinking and behavior, and instead take a more nuanced view. Future studies should focus on the constituent parts and processes that comprise decision-making in specific contexts, including the role of mental representations known to be related to educational practice, such as self-efficacy.
Hora hopes that this kind of analysis will be replicated at different types of institutions of higher education, including community colleges and teaching colleges, to determine the universality or idiosyncratic nature of faculty decision-making pathways.
Adapted from “Organizational Factors and Instructional Decision-Making: A Cognitive Perspective,” in The Review of Higher Education, Winter 2012, Vol 33, No. 2, pp. 207–235.