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Developing an attitude of inquiry toward one’s practice

Several researchers have identified teacher reflection on their practice and student learning as critical to the success of school mathematics reform. Darling-Hammond (1998) writes:

. . . teachers need to be able to analyze and reflect on their practice, to assess the effects of their teaching, and to refine and improve their instruction. They must continuously evaluate what students are thinking and understanding and reshape their plans to take account of what they have discovered. (p. 2)

Barnett (1998) echoes Darling-Hammond’s call for teacher reflection and inquiry:

Teacher inquiry plays a central role in many of the prevailing conceptions of teacher learning including critical reflection, reflection in and on action, personal and pedagogical theorizing, narrative inquiry, action research and teacher research. (p. 81)

Both researchers are building on the foundation laid by Schon (1983, 1987), who was one of the first to point out that teachers, just like professionals in other fields, need to become reflective practitioners. That is, they need to develop the habit of critically examining their practice to gain new insights on the teaching and learning of mathematics, which Schon calls reflection-in-action. In the complementary process called reflection-on-action, teachers learn to approach situations of uncertainty by bringing to bear all their professional knowledge, in addition to their understanding of the specific context, in order to make the best possible decisions.

Barnett (1998) also argues that teachers should engage in inquiry about their practice not only by themselves, in isolation, but also with others. This collective inquiry and critical reflection can provide teachers with opportunities to hear different perspectives. All participants benefit from public scrutiny of the hypotheses suggested by different individuals. Consequently, they collectively generate new ideas and draw more sophisticated conclusions than they might as individuals.

The ultimate goal of any professional development program supporting school mathematics reform should be to develop among teachers the mindset that they are lifelong inquirers. This means both developing the appropriate expectations and mindset, and providing teachers with strategies and skills to inquire effectively.

Summary

Our analysis so far has identified a complex set of teacher learning needs that professional development initiatives supporting school mathematics reform must consider seriously. This does not mean that any single professional development initiative should – or even could – try to address all of these needs at the same time. Rather, different needs may call for different kinds of professional development experiences, as we will discuss in more depth in Chapters 4 to 8. In the next chapter, we will show how some professional development programs have found non-traditional yet successful ways to meet this challenge.
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