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It's Not All or Nothing!

by Gail Burrill
May / June 2001

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One characteristic of education in the United States is the speed and certainty with which decisions are made about what works and what does not. Everything is either black or white. Consider professional development: "The only effective professional development is long-term and is tied to what teachers teach." "One-shot professional development experiences are not useful." "All professional development for K–12 teachers should be designed by K–12 teachers." In my opinion, such statements are misleading, take a very narrow view of professional development, and if followed, can lead to unwelcome and unintended consequences.

The ultimate goal of professional development is to improve what takes place in classrooms, and that improvement will, in turn, lead to improved student understanding and ability to do mathematics. To achieve those goals, professional development needs a framework that identifies such characteristics of effective professional development as the following:

Effective professional development should—

  • focus on content that is related to what teachers teach,
  • help teachers reflect on what is important in teaching,
  • engage teachers in working with others,
  • have strong leadership for change,
  • have outside stimuli to provoke and prod, and
  • build on teachers' desire to improve.

And in the bigger picture to bring about change, professional development should furnish opportunities for teachers to—

  • be introduced to new ideas and ways to think about teaching,
  • be exposed to new materials and resources for teaching,
  • renew their excitement about teaching,
  • build a support network that extends beyond their own environment,
  • be supported in their efforts to teach a new curriculum or become familiar with a new program,
  • learn such new mathematical content as discrete mathematics or statistics or deepen their understanding of such traditional topics as division of fractions or linear combinations,
  • understand how students come to learn a mathematical concept, and
  • learn what it means to teach and how to do so to enable students to learn.

Within this framework, both short-term and long-term experiences have important roles. Such short-term experiences as national, regional, and state conferences or one- or two-day workshops can provide stimuli for new thinking and can suggest places or people who could offer guidance in local professional development efforts. Conferences can provide a venue for examining new materials and textbooks and for discussing their value with colleagues, can serve as a network for teachers to interact with one another about what they teach, and can renew or reaffirm teachers in their practice. Sessions may focus on common implementation issues that occur when teachers and their school systems try to change, as well as focus on framing new ways to think about teaching and learning. Long-term school- or university-based experiences are needed to help teachers become comfortable teaching a new program and support them in its implementation. Formal courses allow teachers to learn mathematical content and to learn about teaching and learning. Longer-term experiences are clearly necessary if teachers are to learn about such elements of teaching as assessment strategies or dealing with students' work and to reflect on what this knowledge should mean in their own practice.

We should not be too quick to eliminate potential venues for professional development but should instead examine how each might contribute to the overall goal. Professional development should be a teacher's lifeline; we should not cut it off because we have only one view of what works.

 

Gail Burrill is director of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and a former Wisconsin high school mathematics teacher. She directs the Figure This! campaign for NCTM and has been involved in major curriculum-writing projects.
 

 

 

 

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