The SHIFT Project

Welcome to the SHIFT Project, a design-based research project that looks at the use of simulations to shift the pedagogical horizons of future teachers. The SHIFT Project focus on the use of simulated encounters, within a cycle of instructional activities, to support preservice teachers learning.

Simulated encounters for teaching are a form of enactment in which pre-service teachers interact with a live actor who plays the role of a student, parent, or coworker. The encounters focus on common problems of practice in which cultural or linguistic diversity is salient in identifying, exploring, or solving the focal problem. Actors are trained using a standardized interaction protocol so that they portray the role in a similar way. Each one-on-one interaction between teacher and actor is video recorded and then uploaded to a secure server where the individual teacher and course instructor can view it. These individual encounters and the shared experience within a course can then be leveraged to support teachers’ sensemaking towards a stance of professional judgment and pedagogical responsibility.

Why use simulated encounters?
Simulations support many long-term goals for our pre-service teachers. For example:

  • To surface teachers’ beliefs and assumptions about the work of teaching and their role in it as teachers;
  • To give teachers a view back on themselves through the eyes of the students, families, and coworkers they will eventually work with;
  • To interrupt teachers’ deficit model thinking about culturally and linguistically diverse students, families, and communities;
  • To disrupt teachers’ “commonsensical” approaches to teaching and unthinking habits that both result from and may further contribute to the presentism, individualism, and conservatism of teaching, often a result of pre-service teachers’ own “apprenticeship of observation”;
  • To contextualize teachers’ understanding of teaching with the particulars of a complex but realistic problem of practice, both general and content-specific;
  • To put teachers’ understanding of theory into practice, with the opportunity for rich discourse as a result of the collective experience among teachers;
  • To develop teachers’ vision of teaching that necessitates a centering of equity and inclusiveness within “good teaching”;
  • To provide teachers with a self-assessment of their current level of knowledge and skills necessary to meet the needs of a range of students and families; and
  • To provide instructors with formative assessment data to shape future instruction with particular groups of teachers.

How does a simulation work?
Simulation encounters are one part of the simulation cycle.


  • Prior to the encounter (the class session prior), teachers receive written materials that give them background on the situation they will encounter. These materials include information about the person they will interact with (student/parent/coworker), the context, and relevant events leading up to the encounter. The materials sometimes include artifacts, like student work, the rubric being used to assess student work, or standardized test scores. The complete materials are referred to as the Teacher Interaction Protocol (TIP).
  • Based on the TIP, teachers respond to 3-5 pre-reading questions. In these questions, teachers are asked to describe what they think the simulation is about, what they think will happen, and what in the TIP makes them think this. Additional questions ask teachers to describe a course reading, a personal experience, or a social issue they think connects to the TIP. The same pre-reading questions are usually used for all encounters.
  • Immediately following the encounter, teachers do a “raw” debrief in which they respond to simple questions about what happened in their encounter and thoughts and feelings about it. In some cases, teachers do this individually by recording themselves talking on an audio recorder or iPad. In other cases, teachers debrief in small groups but without an instructor.
  • Following the encounter (before the next class session), teachers respond to 3-5 re-reading questions. In these questions, teachers are asked to reflect on their experience after watching their video-recorded encounter. These questions are usually not finalized until after teachers have had their encounters so that the instructor can build on teachers’ collective experiences and raw debrief reflections. One or two of the questions will repeat from the pre-reading questions in order to provide a more direct before-and-after comparison of how teachers framed the simulation. The remaining questions generally ask teachers to do three things, further specified based on the particular encounter:
    • Analyze their own data – Teachers watch their videorecorded encounters and analyze some aspect of it. For example, teachers might look at the time they spent talking versus the student/parent, make lists of questions they asked and think about why they asked them, or even transcribe parts of the encounter. This analysis may be tied to a larger question in the re-reading questions or the group debrief.
    • Make connections to the course – Teachers reflect on what they did in the simulation encounter through viewpoints provided by previous or new course readings, a personal experience, or a social issue that the instructor specifies. These connections are further explored in the group debrief.
    • Identify next steps – Teachers provide some direction to the instructor by identifying what they most want to talk about the in the group debrief.
  • After teachers submit their re-reading questions, the instructor leads a group debrief that builds on teachers’ experiences and reflections. Like the re-reading questions, the structure of the group debrief is determined after the encounter is complete and re-rereading questions are submitted so that the instructor can build on those responses. (For simulations that have been run before, instructors can pre-plan some portion based on previous responses and then revise as needed for particular groups.) Group debriefs are ideally structured to use teachers’ collective experiences as a resource in supporting teachers’ sensemaking. The group debrief should lead to a shared vision of some productive approaches to the simulated encounter.

What else is important to know?
Key design principles guide our use of simulated encounters, but here are two key ones:

  • We do not directly pre-teach issues related to the simulation. For example, if a simulation involves interacting with an immigrant parent who is still becoming comfortable with conversational English, we do not pre-teach ways to support communication with a parent who is an English language learner. We do this because it reinforces the idea that this is not an assessment, which helps keep teachers’ defensiveness low when reflecting on and learning from the simulation encounter. In addition, by not pre-teaching skills and knowledge related to the simulation, we are more likely to surface teachers’ beliefs and assumptions and provide a level of self-assessment that lets them recognize the additional learning they need to feel prepared to meet the needs of a range of students and families. Groups may consider doing a “replay” of a simulation at the end of a group debrief to provide teachers with an opportunity to apply what they have learned.
  • We do not provide a single version of “how to do” the case the “right” way, which is often what teachers are looking for in the group debrief. Instead, we attempt to share a vision of productive ways of approaching the situation, including particular skills that may be helpful in similar encounters, but we do not lay out a model for how to handle the situation. We do this because we do not want teachers to feel like they are now “competent” at managing the situation, but rather that they have some new skills and ways of thinking about the situation that would guide them if they were to do the encounter again. This is especially important with diverse groups of teachers because the teacher’s own identity is often key in what makes a particular approach to the situation more or less productive.