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Perplexing Students, Prepared Teachers

Professional development centered on social perspective taking could help teachers connect with more challenging students
Teacher speaking to student in hallway

A recent field experiment set out to evaluate the effectiveness of a light-lift professional development workshop designed to address challenging teacher-student relationships through social perspective taking. The researchers — Johns Hopkins’ Hunter Gehlbach, Plymouth State University’s Bryan Mascio, and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Joseph McIntyre — asked educators to problem-solve by taking on the perspective of the students they most struggled to connect with and understand. Improvements were shown on multiple levels:

  • in teachers’ perceptions of their relationships with students,
  • in students’ perceptions of those same relationships, and
  • in students' academic competency.

The workshop is adapted from social perspective taking methods Gehlbach had been applying to sessions for school administrators when he was a faculty member at HGSE and Mascio was a doctoral student. Mascio saw potential to develop a similar workshop for teachers. “I thought that would be a phenomenal thing to do with teachers, asking them to think about the students that they’re having trouble understanding,” says Mascio. 

McIntyre, who had collaborated with Gehlbach on past projects, became involved at the study design stage. With a focus in statistical analysis, his contributions ensured that the data collection reflected the goals of the study. 

The workshop — which the researchers tested at a K–9 charter school — begins with a 90-minute training on cognitive biases. In this session, participating teachers review some common cognitive biases that could impede their ability to understand and connect with students, and lead to snap judgments. For example, a teacher might consider just one reason they assume is behind a student’s negative behavior, then only seek evidence to confirm that reason, rather than explore the conflict with an open mind.

Teachers are then invited back for another 90-minute workshop, during which they are asked to:

  1. Identify a student they are currently working with who they find “vexing and perplexing” — a student who exhibits challenging and or disruptive behaviors that the teacher does not understand.
  2. With a partner, share an incident with the student they’ve chosen to focus on.
  3. Tell the story again, but from the perspective of the student, while their partner holds them accountable to recounting the events in a way that is authentic to the spirit of social perspective taking. For example, a student isn’t likely to say, “I was being disruptive to the class.” This element, the researchers say, is what distinguishes the workshop from a role-playing exercise, because only the speaker is ever embodying someone else; the partner is only there to listen and prompt when necessary.
  4. Take turns brainstorming to come up with multiple hypotheses for the contributing factors behind the challenging behaviors. The non-sharing partner asks clarifying questions, identifies signs of cognitive biases, and holds them accountable, in line with the previous step. 
  5. Debrief and reflect. The facilitators emphasize that all theories generated by the teachers should not be treated as facts, but as theories The exercise, they say, is meant to show that their initial hypothesis for the conflict is just one of many possibilities, come up with a plan to investigate with an open mind, to truly understand and move toward healing the relationship with their focal student.
  6. Discuss next steps to explore the conflict and collaborate proactively with their students to solve it

By offering social perspective taking as an accessible strategy for addressing challenges, the workshop could counteract some of dire consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for American schools in regard to classroom dynamics, particularly the negative impacts on teacher-student relationships, say the co-authors. The philosophical stance of the research, as well as the workshop design, Mascio says, promotes teachers as professionals and experts in their field — which contributes to the overall success. 

“A lot of PD, especially one-offs, say, ‘Here's a trick or a tool. Have at it.’ Sometimes it's a little more sophisticated than that, but it's saying, ‘In this circumstance, do this,’” says Mascio. “We didn't pretend learning was mechanistic. Our basis was, ‘these are professionals, they have some sense of how to navigate the complex system.’ We're simply providing them with a new lens to think about this particular situation they were in, and then we're going to let them ... navigate it afterwards.” 

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