Interaction, Power, and The Institution: Uncovering the Negotiations that Organize the  Planning Work of Social Studies Teachers

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Virginia Tech


With the proliferation of standards and accountability systems in education, questions about how they function and intersect with broader patterns of institutional relations await investigation. The existing literature in social studies education is replete with studies that frame teachers' expertise for managing how instruction unfolds in the classroom and how sophisticated domains of knowledge contribute to the ways that teachers manage the complexities of their work. While valuable for better understanding what makes teachers effective, this dispositional and cognitive framing makes it difficult to capture the myriad negotiations at play when teachers plan instruction. Further, relations of power are often rendered invisible.

To uncover the negotiations and interactions that shape the work of teaching and learning requires research questions and method that bring the institution into view. There are two broad questions guiding this investigation. How are instructional design and planning activities coordinated, organized, regulated, and/or standardized by broader extralocal relations of power that function beyond the daily experiences of teachers? How do discourses and activities in the institution replicate, constitute, and/or challenge those institutional relations? My study drew on tools from institutional ethnography and was embedded in everyday experiences of teachers. Four teachers partnered with me, allowing me to observe their work as they planned their lessons. However, the interactional framing of the study required a shift in gaze away from teachers and to the production of instruction. Through teachers' conversations, activities, and materials, I mapped instructional units and analyzed them for predictable patterns and threads of interaction that crossed contexts and reflected institutional relations that shaped their work. Textual analyses related to curriculum documents at the state level were paired with the everyday experiences of teachers to illuminate points of intersection and how they were discursively constituted during planning. Rather than isolate these intersections as a study of the impact of standards on teaching, I positioned them in a complex landscape of negotiation that connected the work of teaching and learning beyond the classroom walls. An intriguing glimpse into the production of the institution and the relations of power that contextualized the lived experiences of teachers was revealed.



institutional ethnography, instruction, standards, planning, teaching