Illustration 8: Creating a study group to support a new curriculum
This second illustration occurred during the third and final year of the MMRR project. It involved a group of teachers who had been participating in teacher enhancement experiences for 2 to 5 years. At the end of the previous school year, the mathematics department in their school had decided to adopt the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) series. All the teachers of the seventh-grade mathematics courses had agreed to implement several CMP units in their classes the following year. Since several of these units were new to the teachers, they decided to create a study group to become familiar with the units and prepare to implement them.
The study group met weekly after school. The teachers worked independently, but they followed a format that had been modeled the previous year by a mathematics teacher educator assigned to support instructional innovation at that school site.
To prepare for teaching each new CMP unit, the teachers first read the introductory information at the beginning of the teacher’s guide and then worked through the mathematical investigations comprising the unit on their own, doing the same tasks they would ask their students to do. Then they met a few times to share their results and discuss the mathematics covered in the unit. They devoted the remaining sessions to planning how to introduce and pace each investigation. They read the relevant “Teaching the Investigation” sections of the materials to glean valuable tips for orchestrating classroom activities. During the group planning sessions, teachers divided up the tasks of preparing the necessary materials, such as handouts, manipulatives, assignment sheets, tests and so on, in order to accomplish them in the most efficient way.
As they implemented lessons, the teachers also sought opportunities in and even outside their regular weekly meetings to share what was happening in their classes. This sharing focused primarily on how specific activities developed. Occasionally, however, the teachers also discussed students’ responses that had puzzled them.
Overall, the teachers found this experience extremely beneficial and decided to continue it the following year. They continued to add new CMP units to their repertoires and to refine the implementation of units they had already done.
Main elements and variations
Variations in scaffolded field experiences are many and substantial, but most successful implementations of this type of professional development experience have the following elements in common:
Some scaffolding occurs at BOTH the planning and implementation stages of the innovative teaching experience. Both stages present unique challenges for teachers engaging in instructional innovation and call for different kinds of support.
Teachers are provided opportunities to reflect on their field experience and share these reflections with others. Not only do teachers learn from reflecting on their experiences, but sharing is one way to address the emotional challenges of taking on instructional innovation.
Within these parameters, scaffolded field experiences can vary a great deal, depending on the nature of the innovative teaching experiences and the kind of support that is provided.
With respect to the first point, the nature of the innovative teaching experience is affected both by the duration/extent of the field experience requirement and by the teacher’s role in its design. For example, teachers may be expected to do the following:
Design and implement one or more isolated lessons consistent with a proposed innovation.
Design an innovative unit independently and implement it.
Implement a replacement unit (i.e., a unit that experts have designed and field-tested and for which supporting instructional materials are available) adapted appropriately to the setting.
Gradually implement an entire “reform curriculum,” that is, a comprehensive curriculum informed by the NCTM Standards, which experts have designed and field-tested to ensure appropriate student learning outcomes.
While it is certainly a valuable learning experience for any teacher to design his or her own lesson or unit, there are limitations to this practice. First, it is unlikely that the first efforts of a teacher new to reform will incorporate fully the desired mathematical content or pedagogical practices. Second, shortcomings in the design of the instructional experience are likely to produce negative outcomes, and the teacher might feel unimpressed or even discouraged by what the students gain from the experience. Finally, the time and effort required to design an innovative instructional experience may take precious resources away from other aspects of implementing that experience, such as attending to the introduction of new teaching strategies or analyzing students’ responses. On the other hand, when teachers experience the complexity and challenges of designing quality instructional units, they may appreciate more fully the value of pre-made exemplary instructional materials and may develop more effective ways to use such materials.
Professional development projects that incorporate scaffolded field experiences may also differ widely according to the kind of support provided to teachers. As projects struggle to meet their participants’ needs in cost-effective ways, many kinds of support strategies have been developed. We report the most commonly used ones here, organizing them according to the four different stages at which support can be offered.
Support provided prior to planning:
Facilitators introduce teachers to the exemplary instructional materials they are going to use. The goal is to empower teachers to use these materials effectively as they start planning their experience, by becoming familiar with their overall scope, philosophy, contents and structure.
Teachers engage as learners, independently or with a group of colleagues, in the same mathematical tasks their students are going to experience. In this way, they become familiar with the mathematics covered in the unit and personally engage with the “big ideas” they are expected to incorporate.
Teachers participate in facilitated experiences-as-learners that mirror the kinds of learning experiences they will be offering their students. In this way, they can personally experience the impact of some new pedagogical practices, as well as gain an understanding of the goals, rationale and design of the experiences they are getting ready to teach.
Teachers read stories or watch videos that provide a detailed account of the kinds of experiences they are going to implement in their classes. These activities give them a sense of how the experience might play out in a classroom and help them anticipate possible student responses.
Teachers look at samples of student work for the tasks they are going to use in their classes. Looking at these artifacts can help them anticipate their own students’ responses and outcomes.
Teachers attend presentations by, and/or have conversations with, teachers who have already implemented similar experiences in their classrooms. They thus benefit from others’ experiences and insights. Hearing from other teachers can also allay some of their fears before they try their first innovative experience.
Teachers observe a colleague’s implementation of the same unit on a regular basis. This can provide a concrete image of one implementation, which can serve as a model. Teachers also get a sense of the pacing, begin to anticipate students’ possible responses and learn some useful tips.
Support provided during planning:
Teachers brainstorm ideas for their unit with a small group of colleagues interested in developing a similar unit. They get feedback on their own ideas and learn from listening to the ideas of others.
Teachers work in teams with one or two other colleagues to develop daily plans for the unit and prepare all the necessary materials to implement it. Here teachers benefit from the feedback received and from dividing up the time-consuming task of preparing instructional materials.
Teachers (or teams) capitalize on exemplary instructional materials to create their daily plans for the unit and prepare materials for the implementation. They thereby benefit from the thinking and field-testing that went into the design of these materials. They also save time in preparing the necessary handouts, assessments and so on.
Individual teachers (or teams) meet with a mathematics teacher educator to review and refine their plans. This enables them to benefit from an expert’s feedback and provides the opportunity to brainstorm more ideas.
Support provided during classroom implementation:
A mathematics teacher educator or more experienced colleague teaches (or co-teaches) a few demonstration lessons in the teacher’s classroom at the beginning of the unit. The demonstration provides a model and helps establish a supportive classroom climate.
A mathematics teacher educator or more experienced colleague observes a few classes and then meets with the teacher. These debriefing meetings provide the teacher with the opportunity to gather feedback, reflect on students’ thinking and learning and revise their lesson plans.
A mathematics teacher educator or more experienced colleague provides some in-class support, so that the classroom teacher can focus on selected aspects of an innovative instructional approach.
Members of the team that planned the unit together observe each other and debrief these observations on a regular basis. All members benefit from each other’s feedback and can use the discussions as a starting point to plan future implementations.
Support provided after the classroom implementation:
The teacher records key concerns, observations and insights in a journal that is shared and discussed with a mentor or a colleague.
The teacher collects and examines artifacts from the field experience (e.g., handouts, assignments, assessment instruments, lesson plans, student work, etc.) to create a record of the implementation that can be used in the future. The record can also be used to evaluate the outcomes of the experience.
The teacher participates in facilitated meetings with other peers in which they all share and discuss their field experiences. In these meetings, teachers can benefit from articulating their experiences and hearing other people’s experiences and insights without having to engage in any writing.
The teacher participates in an ongoing peer support group in which field experiences are shared and discussed informally. Again, these opportunities for reflection do not involve writing, yet teachers benefit from sharing and reflecting on their experience and from hearing other people’s experiences and insights. The peer support group can also provide immediate feedback and help when facing a problem, as well as on-going emotional support.