Teacher learning needs addressed
When presented as a purposeful, active and social process of meaning-making, gathering and learning from information has the potential to address many of the teacher learning needs we identified in Chapter 1. Of course, the content and source of the information, and even more importantly, how it is used, determine the extent to which specific teacher learning needs can be addressed in any implementation of this kind of professional development experience:
Developing a vision and commitment to school mathematics reform. Developing a vision and commitment to school mathematics reform requires an understanding and appreciation of what such reform calls for and its rationale. Therefore, readings and presentations that explain each recommendation for mathematics reform and that review research supporting these recommendations can address this teacher learning need. When teachers also have concrete opportunities to draw implications from this information for their own practice, the benefit is even greater. Videos and stories of reform-oriented mathematics classrooms can also provide images of what reform is really about. Hearing the success stories of more experienced teachers may also motivate some teachers to attempt instructional innovation in their own classes.
Strengthening one’s knowledge of mathematics. While reading mathematics texts should not be the primary vehicle for teachers to learn new mathematics, this mode of learning has valuable potential if approached correctly. It should, for example, occurs in combination with, not as an alternative to, other experiences. For example, videos or multi-media materials that take advantage of computer animation can help teachers visualize and thus grasp specific mathematical concepts more clearly. Also, by reading mathematical essays on key mathematical ideas (as those used in the inquiry on the geometry curriculum reported in Illustration 9) or on the history and philosophy of mathematics, teachers can learn not only new mathematical content, but perhaps more importantly, begin to rethink their beliefs about the discipline of mathematics.
Understanding the pedagogical theories that underlie school mathematics reform. To understand the theories of learning and teaching that inform school mathematics reform, teachers need readings and presentations that explain and critically examine these theories. The effectiveness of this kind of information, however, depends to a great extent on the experiences organized to help teachers make sense of this information. For example, teachers are likely to perceive the information as more relevant if it is connected to experiences-as-learners or videos of mathematics lessons that exemplify some of the same or principles of learning and teaching.
Understanding students’ mathematical thinking. Reading research on students’ thinking about specific mathematical topics can aid teachers in making sense of their own students’ work. Again, however, these readings are most effective when they are explicitly connected to other professional development activities, such as analyzing student work around the same mathematical topics addressed in the readings. In addition, by conducting their own action research studies, teachers can enhance their understanding of the results in other studies, or they can even contribute new results in less-researched topics. Conducting such studies also helps teachers develop their skills in listening to students and interpreting their work.
Learning to use effective teaching and assessment strategies. Readings and presentations alone are not likely to help teachers teach more effectively. However, watching video excerpts of other teachers modeling innovative practices can be quite powerful in helping teachers understand what they need to do. Action research in which teachers monitor and evaluate their own practice can also help teachers as they begin to try out new teaching and assessment practices in their classrooms.
Becoming familiar with exemplary instructional materials and resources. Exemplary instructional materials have the potential to greatly support teachers in implementing high quality instructional innovation in their classes, but only if teachers know what is in them and how they can find that information. Because most of these resources provide much more information than traditional textbooks and have a non-linear structure, teachers need guidance in using the materials effectively at the beginning. Presentations about the origin and structure of the exemplary materials, followed by modeling of how to navigate them, may be very helpful for teachers as they are first introduced to these materials. Reading from and about the exemplary materials is essential for becoming acquainted with these resources. In addition, to understand what the materials require of students, teachers often have to do the mathematical tasks themselves first.
Understanding equity issues and their implications for the classroom. Readings and presentations about issues of diversity and equity can be valuable catalysts for discussing what it means to teach all students equally. Action research may be an even better way to meet this teaching learning need, as Illustration 10 shows. By researching their own practice, teachers can become aware of their own biases and prejudices, investigate the impact and implications of equity issues in their own classrooms and schools, and monitor their efforts toward more equitable teaching.
Coping with the emotional aspects of engaging in instructional innovation. Stories of other teachers engaged in reform may help teachers headed in that direction to recognize in advance emotions they are also likely to experience. This kind of information can help teachers set realistic expectations and perhaps even suggest strategies to deal with the inevitable “emotional roller-coaster” that accompanies most first attempts at instructional innovation. An even more powerful variation on this type of professional development activity is hearing directly from teachers they know and being able to converse with them.
Developing an attitude of inquiry toward one’s practice. Engaging in any form of action research can contribute very effectively to addressing this teacher learning need. By definition, action research means that teachers systematically inquire about specific aspects of the teaching and learning of mathematics in their own classrooms.
Our analysis of information gathering and interpretation as a type of professional development activity confirms the value of more “traditional” professional development experiences, such as reading articles and hearing presentations, for teachers involved in school mathematics reform. As we stress in this chapter, however, these experiences need to be purposeful, engage teachers actively, and provide opportunities to share and discuss information with others. They should be combined with other activities that encourage teachers to use information to draw personal implications for their own beliefs and practices. Various forms of data collection and analysis, and action research in particular, can also enable teachers to gain valuable and relevant knowledge and skills that help them become reflective practitioners and life-long learners.
Suggested follow-up resources
With a notable exception in the case of action-research, there are few published materials to support teacher educators in designing and orchestrating professional development experiences within this category – perhaps because gathering and making sense of information is often not even considered as a professional development strategy for which materials, or even guidance, is needed. For teacher educators interested in promoting and supporting action research we recommend the following resources, which describe methods and approaches to conduct sound action research in educational settings:
Calhoun, E.F. (1993). Action research: Three approaches. Educational Leadership 51 (2), 62-65.
Sagor, R. (1992). How to conduct collaborative action research. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Loucks-Horsley, S., Harding, C.K., Arbuckle, M.A., Murray, L.B., Dubea, C., and Williams, M.K. (1987). Continuing to learn: A guidebook for teacher development. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.