Teacher Community and Professional Learning

One of the things I study is how teachers learn with colleagues. I focus primarily on urban secondary math teachers. I basically film people working together and analyze it to death. I am interested in this because teacher collaboration is repeatedly shown to support both teacher learning and student achievement, so I am curious about why.

First things first. Strong collaboration is very rare. Very few high school teachers report even simply sharing ideas with colleagues. Productive collaboration goes beyond just sharing ideas or resources into what I have called collaborative pedagogical problem solving. This is really unusual but super cool when I get to see it.

I want to make two points about what I have observed, and then pose some questions to the #MTBoS .

Observation 1: Effective collaboration is hard.

There are a number of challenges to effective collaboration. First of all, it takes an investment of time, energy, and emotional commitment. These are scarce resources, particularly in high turnover schools. Teachers face a lot of structural obstacles to collaborative learning. The typical 50 minutes of daily planning time, for instance, is already overfull with the demands of grading, planning, and home communication.

Second, it’s hard to talk about instruction with colleagues. When teachers talk about instruction, this is almost always asynchronous from the active work of instruction. Unlike scientists, who have standardized ways of representing what happened in the laboratory, teachers do not have standardized ways of representing what happened in a lesson. We can use things like student work, but then we do not have standard ways of interpreting these. Some teachers will look at student work with a right/wrong lens, while others will want to understand a students’ thinking.

At the same time, one of the advantages of working in a school-based teacher community is that your colleagues are close by: they know your administrators, they know your community, they know your students. You don’t have to explain those things to them, which makes the description part of sharing a little easier.

Observation 2: Typical teacher collaborative talk does not support deep professional learning. When I have analyzed the learning opportunities in teachers’ conversations, I have looked at two things:

(1) what conceptual resources are being developed as teachers talk about instructional problems, and

(2) how are these connected to their future work.

Most teacher collaborative talk does not offer much in the way of professional learning.

For example, most teachers plan together by organizing a pacing calendar. They will say things like, “The book says 7.1 will take 1 day, but with our kids we’ll need 2.”

In this case, the opportunities to learn are thin. We don’t know what the math content is, we don’t know why we need two days, and we don’t know how that extra time will be used.

In contrast, if teachers plan by building on students’ thinking, their talk may sound different. They will say things like, “Our kids freeze when we do fractions. Let’s just focus on these problems as rates of change. We can show them on the graph how this is change over time, like, “for every 5 seconds, the car moves 10 feet.'”

In this case, concepts are developed about who the students are, what their experiences of math are, and what instruction might look like to keep them engaged and develop their mathematical understanding. These concepts are directly linked to what the teachers will do next in their classrooms.

MTBoS Challenges:

Regarding Observation 1: In some ways, the bloggy/tweety teachers have overcome some of the limitations of school-based teacher community by finding like-minded folks online. They have found their kindred spirits to share with. This is awesome and overcomes some of the limitations of traditional collaboration. Also, the MTBoS are typically tech savvy. I have been impressed with the ways they manage to represent their classrooms through samples of student work, lesson plans, photos of their classrooms with kids doing things. But, other details of our teaching situations –– the tetchy administrator, the new curriculum policy –– are not as readily available.

Is this an issue? How much does this limit what teachers can learn together online?

Regarding Observation 2: I have seen so many impressive exchanges among teachers in the MTBoS. Most of these have focused on dissecting mathematical content, sharing rich activities, and refining instructional language. It seems harder to share about the particulars of students and their thinking because those are so much more specific to people’s schools.

Is it possible to hit the sweet spot of professional learning –– to develop concepts about the interrelationships among students, teaching, and mathematics  –– through online interactions?

Advertisements

“What do you think and why?”

Today I got to virtually meet up with the amazing math teachers at the Park City Mathematics Institute. In addition to doing beautiful math problems, they have been involved in daily sessions called “Reflections on Practice.”

Image

21st Century PD. I am beamed into the room. Photo: Suzanne Alejandre.

I knew that they had been talking a lot about the 5 Practices, so I decided to spend my time talking about how hard it was for most students to answer the question:

What do you think and why?

Persuading children to answer this question is a big obstacle to getting rich mathematical discourse off the ground in any classroom.

But think about it. That is a really tricky question to answer, both socially and intellectually.

I asked the teachers to spend some time thinking about why students might be reluctant to participate.
Slide05

They brainstormed a great list:

  • Sometimes students are not able to articulate their thoughts.
  • Students might fear the judgment of their classmates.
  • Students have incomplete thoughts.
  • They are not always sure whether a question is a “right or wrong” question or a “share your thinking” question.
  • There may be social norms that communicate that being smart is bad.
  • They can be in crisis in their outside lives, making the question besides the point.
  • They may not see sharing their thinking as a part of their role as students.
  • They may have a very individual, internal process that makes “sharing” difficult.
  • They may try to share their ideas but find that they are not listened to or valued.
  • Sometimes students would rather not risk trying and failing, so it is safer to just not try.
  • Language barriers can make it difficult to share.

I have seen all of these things as a teacher and an observer of mathematics classrooms. It is really hard to get kids to share their thinking.

I told the teachers about two concepts that I found to help teachers address these challenges and successfully establish rich classroom discourse with their students.

The first one is classroom norms. The second is addressing social status, which I have written about here and here.

I shared a list of norms that I have found to help encourage participation.

Slide08

Then I talked a little bit about status problems and how they can get in the way of productive mathematical conversation. First I defined status…

Slide09

Then I talked about how status problems play out in classroom conversations.

Slide10

My goal was to help teachers think about the things they can actually do to support productive participation in mathematical discussions. I gave the teachers some more time to think about these ideas and brainstorm ways of developing norms that help alleviate status problems.

Another great list was generated. I am adding my commentary to the teachers’ ideas.

  • Frequently vary groupings so people can be exposed to other people. This is important. A lot of times teachers want let students choose groups, which can especially aggravate status problems around social desirability. Other times, teachers use a “high, mid, low” achievement scheme. Students quickly size that up and know where they stand in the pecking order, which reinforces academic status problems.
  • Use “round-robins”: everybody gets 1 minute to speak, whether or not you use all of it. This is not one that I have used, but the teacher who introduced this idea talked about how they let the clock roll for the full minute, even when students only spoke for 15 seconds. The quiet time was usually good thinking time for his students.
  • Randomly call on kids. The teacher who introduced this one explained that she had playing cards taped on students’ desk, with the number representing their group (“the kings”, “the 12s”) and the suit representing an individual student. She could then pull out a card from her deck and call on “the 2 of diamonds.” I asked her what she did when a student didn’t know. She told me that she would sometimes get others to help them or move on then come back to them later, even if only for a summary statement. I added that I think it is really important to have a clear understanding in the class that partial answers count (see the “right and wrong” answer problem above) to successfully use random calling on kids. Otherwise students might shut down and feel on the spot.
  • Making an initiative to make norms school-wide.This was an insight close to my heart. As the teacher who contributed this idea said, it will be much more powerful for students to get the same message about how to participate from more adults in the school.
  • Tension: having students value ideas without getting stuck on ideas. This referred to the way kids can get wedded to particular ideas, even when they are wrong. I talked about how important it was to emphasize the value of changing your mind when you are convinced, not based on who is arguing with you. This is the heart of productive mathematical conversations.
  • Tension: shifting from right/wrong to reasoning. Need to be transparent. The teacher who talked about this saw that emphasizing reasoning can be a game-changer for students who are good at seeing patterns and memorizing methods. They may know how to do things but have no idea why they do things: they suddenly go from “good at math” to “challenged.” I suggested addressing the concerns of these students from the perspective of advocacy: “I love your enthusiasm for math! I know what happens as you go up the curriculum, and you will really need to understand why things work, so I am giving you a chance to build those skills now.”
  • Normalizing conflict through “sentence starters.” Conflict and arguing are usually seen as bad things to students, yet we want to create situations that allow for mathematical disagreements. By using sentence frames  –– and even posting them on the classroom walls –– we can help students learn to civilly disagree. For example, “I disagree because ____” or “How do you know that _____?” This also helps students press each other for justification.
  •  “Everyone listening, everyone speaking, everyone responsible for understanding.”
    This was a norm that could really help encourage participation.
  • Role playing & discussion as a way of (re)establishing norms. This teacher pointed out that norms sometimes need to be talked about explicitly –– and they often need to be revisited over the course of a school year. I added that I notice that certain curriculum topics (e.g., fractions) can bring up status issues, requiring certain norms to be revisited.
  • Celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn. How is that for normalizing confusion? Normalizing mistakes as a way for everybody to think harder about a topic or idea. I asked for some specific language for this, and the teacher suggested something like, “Thank you for bringing that up. We will all understand this better by discussing this.” (Sorry! This is from memory!)
  • High social status kids as “summarizers,” give them math status. Sometimes students with high social status do not have high academic status. By giving them a mathematical role, we can marshal the fact that others listen to them and help build their understanding by giving them a particular role.
  • Valuing different ways of contributing. Another one close to my heart! There are many ways to be smart at mathematics, and by valuing different ways kids can contribute, we can increase participation.

Thank you to the teachers of PCMI for the great conversation! Please add anything that I forgot to the comments section, and stay in touch!

The Calm of Experience

This is a story of my own learning as a teacher.

During my student teaching, I particularly struggled with a boy I will call Aidan. He was a gloomy 7th grader, a social isolate with no particular sense of humor who regularly antagonized other students.

One day, when I was patrolling the hallways between classes, Aidan rolled by a row of lockers on his Heely’s, elbowing several girls along the way. Because I did not have much empathy for the child to begin with, this incident angered me, perhaps more than it should have.

I brought him to the Head of School’s office, ready for him to get his just desserts. After I relayed what I had witnessed to Teacher Celia (her real name — she deserves all the praise I am about to give her), she turned to Aidan with a calm look on her face.

“Aidan, is what Teacher Lani* said accurate?”

Aidan looked at his lap and reluctantly nodded.

“Can you see what the problems are with what you just did?”

Aidan was quiet. She waited, watching him intently.

After a pause that was longer than anything my 21 year-old self would have had the patience to endure, he looked up at her sheepishly.

“Well, yeah.”

In the remainder of the interaction, Aidan admitted to his poor judgment in both wearing Heely’s at school and elbowing the girls. He and Teacher Celia agreed to the consequences.

I no longer recall what they worked out, since I was so dazzled by her calm, accepting presence. I remember that it seemed measured and fair, giving Aidan an opportunity to repair his relationship with his peers and learn from his mistake.

Why am I writing about this now?

I have two reasons.

First, we are in an era that thinks that just because you learn so much about teaching on the job, there are those who would simply put new teachers in the classroom without much student teaching or mentoring.

Watching Teacher Celia with Aidan helped me see that I needed to move past identifying with the elbowed girls and reacting to Aidan as an annoying boy. I needed to figure out how to be his teacher too. Teacher Celia’s poise and humanity in dealing with him became my go-to image when I dealt with a child who I struggled with. I did not spend a lot of time with administrators in my own career as a student, so seeing the right way to handle misbehavior was critical to my own development.

Second, I am concerned that we are normalizing teacher turnover so that the calm presence of experience has become a rarity in many schools. Estimates of teacher turnover in the first five years range from 30% to 50%, with the rates being even higher among TFA teachers (about 80% leave after 3 years). The burdens of turnover are high, impacting everything from achievement to the cost of staffing and retraining.

I think there is another cost to turnover that involves the social well-being of children. When I see the disciplinary statistics in schools, I wonder if the calm wisdom of experience exists on the most afflicted campuses. Aidan was lucky that Teacher Celia was the go-to for the consequences of his misbehavior and that his discipline was not left to me. She was measured, whereas I surely would have been more reactive. Likewise, in the second school I taught at, we had an administrator with the same matter-of-fact calm when dealing with behavior issues; I was always grateful when children in my class had last names that fell in the first third of the alphabet so we could sort things through with her. I could trust her to preserve the student’s and my own humanity and help us arrive at a reasonable solution.

I am not trying to romanticize experience or say that all veteran teachers share this wisdom. However, I do think it is easier to muster a calm perspective when dealing with students from the vantage point of experience. This calm is certainly a rarity in barely-mentored newbies. I believe that the first year of teaching is often so difficult, in part, due to the steep learning curve and constant novelty of high stakes situations. As experience accrues, these situations become more manageable and teachers’ reactivity diminishes. But if we continuously staff our schools with minimally mentored novices, we take away an important resource from children and their development.

——

* This student teaching placement was in a Quaker school, where teachers are called “Teacher [First Name]”, showing respect and familiarity.