Why Meaningful Math Learning Matters

What Meaningfulness Means

Learning and schooling are not the same thing. There are children who are great learners but terrible students. These young people are full of ideas and questions, but they have not managed to connect their innate curiosity with their experiences in school. There are many possible reasons for this. Children may find school to be a hard place to inhabit, due to invisible expectations that leave them feeling alienated. Sometimes, school curriculum just seems irrelevant: their personal questions about the world do not find inroads in the work they are asked to do.
Although many parenting books extol children’s natural curiosity and emphasize its importance in their learning and development, schooling too often emphasizes compliance over curiosity. Thus, it is not surprising that children who are great learners and weak students have their antithesis: children who are great students but who are less invested in learning and sense making. Make no mistake: these students hit every mark of good organization, compliance, diligence, and timely work production, but they do not seek deep engagement with ideas. Given the freedom to develop a question or explore an idea, they balk and ask for more explicit directions. I have heard teachers refer to these children as “teacher-dependent.”
Too often, meaningfulness falls through this gap between learning and schooling. There is a fundamental contradiction at play: meaningfulness arises from and connects to children’s curiosity, yet “curious children” is not entirely synonymous with “successful students.” Meaningfulness comes about when students develop an appreciation for mathematical ideas. Rich and meaningful learning happens when students draw on prior knowledge and experiences to make sense of ideas and explore problems, invoke their own strategies, get to ask “what if…?”  In short, meaningful learning happens when students’ activity connects to their own curiosity. To make meaningfulness central to math teaching, then, teachers need to narrow the gap between being curious and being a good student.

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Meaningfulness: When students connect their own curiosity and experience to ideas, thereby developing an interest in and appreciation for mathematical content.
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Why Meaningfulness Matters

Every math teacher, at one one time or another, has been asked the question, “When are we going to use this?” While this question often gets cast as students’ resistance to learning, it can be productively reinterpreted as a plea for meaningfulness. When the hidden curriculum of math class –– the messages that are inadvertently relayed through classroom organization and activity –– consistently communicates that meaning does not matter, we end up with hordes of students who no longer reason when they are doing math. They instead focus on rituals, such as following the worked example, and cues, such as applying the last learned procedure to the current problem.
As researcher Sheila Tobias explained in her classic exploration of math anxiety, a lack of meaning exacerbates many students’ negative experiences learning mathematics. When math class emphasizes rituals and cues that rely on memorization over sense making, students’ own interpretations become worthless.

For instance, they memorize multiplication facts, and, in a search for meaning, they decide that multiplication makes things bigger. Then, they learn how to multiply numbers between 0 and 1. Their prior understanding of multiplication no longer works, so they might settle on the idea that mulitiplication intensifies numbers since it makes these fractional quantities even smaller. Finally, when they learn how to multiply negative numbers, all their ideas about multiplication become meaningless, leaving them completely at sea in their sense making. The inability to make meaning out of procedures leaves students grasping and anxious, as the procedures seem ever more arbitrary.
In contrast, when classrooms are geared toward supporting mathematical sense making, they reap multiple motivational benefits. First, students’ sense of ownership over their learning increases. Students see that multiplication can be thought of as repeated addition, the dimensions of a rectangle as related to its area, or the inverse of division. When they learn new types of multiplication, the procedures have a conceptual basis to expand on. Relatedly, their learning is more durable. Because they understand the meaning behind the mathematics they are learning, they are more likely to connect it to their own experiences. This, in turn, provides openings for their curiosity and questions. Beyond giving students opportunities for sense making, meaningful mathematics classrooms provide students chances to identify and explore their own problems. Indeed, in a systematic comparison of teacher-guided and student-driven problem solving, educational researchers Tesha Sengupta-Irving and Noel Enyedy found that the ownership, relevance, and opportunities to engage curiosity in student-driven problem solving supported stronger outcomes in student affect and engagement.[1]

The challenge, then, for teachers is how to help students engage in meaningful mathematical learning within the structures of schooling. I would love to hear your ideas about how to achieve this.


[1] Tesha Sengupta-Irving & Noel Enyedy (2014): Why Engaging in Mathematical Practices May Explain Stronger Outcomes in Affect and Engagement: Comparing Student-Driven With Highly Guided Inquiry, Journal of the Learning Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/10508406.2014.928214

Who Belongs in our Math Classrooms?

Many students enter mathematics classrooms with a sense of trepidation.  For some, their discomfort reflects a larger sense of detachment from school. They may have not felt welcomed because of the gaps they experience navigating between their home language or culture and the expectations at school. The social milieu of school may make them feel like an outcast, as they see peers who seamlessly “fit in” while they remain on the outside. Unlike the sports field, their community center, or the stage, academics may make them feel untalented and incompetent. For other students, school itself is fine, but there is a distinct dread upon entering math class. Math has never made sense –– or perhaps it used to make sense when it was whole numbers and counting, but as soon as the variables showed up, all hope was lost. They may have been demoralized by a standardized test score that deemed them below grade level. They may get messages at home that “we’re not good at math.” For still other students, they love the subject, but must contend with people who do not see them as fitting their ideas of a person who is good at math. They have to combat stereotypes to be seen as legitimate participant in the classroom, as they defy expectations by holding forth with their smartness even as others look on in dismay.

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

Why Belongingness Matters
When I go and observe in mathematics classrooms, I can usually ascertain students’ general sense of belongingness. What is their affect as they walk through the door? How warmly and personally do they greet the teacher and each other? Are they represented –– through math work or other means –– on what is posted on the walls?
All too often, I see students enter their math classrooms with a sense of gloom. Smiles disappear as they cross the threshold of the doorway. Their posture slumps. They sit at the back of the room or put their heads on their desks.They may even groan or launch into a litany of complaints. When I observe these student behaviors as a teacher, it signals that I have work to do to make children feel more welcomed and excited about spending their time with me learning mathematics.

Teachers’ relationships with students are an important source of of belongingness, but peers are equally (if not more) important. Even if a teacher welcomes each student with a smile and takes an interest in who they are, frequent insults or intimidation from other students can create a negative classroom climate. To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

During adolescence, children face the enormous task of developing a strong and stable sense of themselves. Although this identity development happens over the course of a lifetime, adolescence is distinct because it is when children are first able to think abstractly enough to grapple with both their own emerging self-understandings as well as how society views them. This leads to both a delightful self-awareness as well as a sometimes painful sense of self-consciousness for many students, as they are more sensitive to others’ perspectives and feedback. Necessarily, then, inclusive and inviting classrooms provide a place for this crucial developmental work, particularly in relationship to school in general and mathematics in particular.

What Gets in the Way of Belongingness
Although I generally avoid absolutes when it comes to describing good teaching, I will highlight a few common instructional practices that feed a negative classroom climate, thus working against belongingness. First, many math classrooms emphasize competition. Whether this comes from formal races, timed tests, or just students’ constant comparison of grades, competition sends a strong message that some people are more mathematically able than others. This is problematic because there is typically one kind of smartness that leads students to “win” these competitions: quick and accurate calculation. To paraphrase mathematician John Allen Paulos, nobody tells you that you cannot be a writer because you are not a fast typist; yet we regularly communicate to students that they cannot be mathematicians because they do not compute quickly. While a competitive dynamic may be at play in other school subjects, it is especially toxic in math classrooms because students do not have other venues to explore and affirm their diverse mathematical talents.

Another contributor to negative classroom climate comes from devaluing who students are. This may come in many forms, some of which teachers may not realize. For instance, some teachers avoid using what is for them an unfamiliar (thus difficult-to-pronounce) name. Not only does this lead to fewer invitations to participate, it communicates to students that we are not comfortable with something that might make them different than us. Names are deeply personal, one of the first words students identify with: They often reflect home cultures and personal history. When teachers avoid them or change them without consent, they devalue something of who students are.

Likewise, when teachers problematically differentiate their treatment of students based on cultural styles, they can devalue who students are. For instance, educational researcher Ebony McGee studies successful students of color in STEM fields. She interviewed a Black chemistry major at a primarily White institution who reported that a White instructor avoided her when she dressed in a way often perceived by middle class teachers as “ghetto.” When she changed her clothing and hair style, he told her, “Now you actually look presentable. I bet you are making better grades too.” Similarly, in a research project I conducted, a female high school student concluded that her math teacher “didn’t like” her after the teacher emailed her mother that her skirts were “too short.” Adolescents use clothing to express themselves and their culture as a part of the identity work they engage in. Avoiding or rejecting them because of these forms of self-expression can further estrange them from the classroom or school. If concerns need to be raised, they should be done in a way that respects students’ self-expression.

Finally, teachers may alienate students by correcting the inconsequential. Although our job is to help students become educated people, when we correct the inconsequential, we may work against other goals of engagement and inclusion. Deciding what is inconsequential is, of course, a judgment call: context is everything. For instance, our standards for speech and language differ when students try to explain an idea they are in the midst of grappling with versus when they are preparing for a job interview. In the former situation, correct grammar is not the point, while in the second, it may matter a lot. If our students are learning English as a second language, speaking a pidgin or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), our focus on correct grammar in situations where it is inconsequential may disinvite their participation.

Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

This morning, Jal Mehta tagged me on a tweet to linking to his recent Education Week blog post, entitled “Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It.”

The following exchange ensued:

He then asked if I could share some of my research to back my perspective. I sent him an email with journal articles and such, but I thought I would share my ideas with y’all too.

Here is my argument about why putting professional development (PD) back in schools may be necessary but not sufficient to improving its impact on teachers’ instruction.

Unlike medicine and other scientific fields, where problems are taken-as-shared and protocols for addressing problems are roughly agreed upon, teaching problems are locally defined. What needs attention in one school may not need attention in another. For instance, some schools’ “best practices” may center on adapting instruction to English learners, while other schools’ might center on the mental health ailments that have become prevalent among affluent teens. Likewise, other professions share language, representations, and goals for critical aspects of their work — these all important resources for learning together. In teaching, we see repeatedly that terms acquire the meaning of their setting more often than they bring new meanings to these places. Take, for instance, Carol Dweck’s ideas about mindset. The various ways that her construct has taken hold in education led her to explain why what she means by mindset is not how the idea is being used. If we leave professional development entirely up to individual school sites, this means that “doing PD” on Topic X probably looks fairly different from place to place, so radically localized professional development will exacerbate this problem.

Leaving professional development to local sites also limits teachers’ access to expertise. When my colleagues and I have studied teachers’ collaborative learning, we found that the learning opportunities are not equally distributed across all teacher groups. Some of this has to do with how teachers spend their time (e.g., focused on logistics or deeper analysis of teaching). But some of it has to do with who is sitting around the table and what they have been tasked to do.

Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them. This follows from my previous points, since problem definition is an important part of teachers’ on-the-job learning. For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down. In other words, problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work, which in other professions, are codified and disseminated through standardized use of language and representations.

Unequal access to expertise is only one of many reasons the optimistic premise of teacher community often does not pan out. There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers’ attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas. Add to this the norms of privacy and non-interference that characterize teachers’ work, you can see why deeper conversations around issues of teaching and learning are difficult to come by.

What about, you might say, bringing in expert coaches? Research shows that expert facilitators or coaches can make a difference. In fact, there is evidence that having expert coaches may matter more than expert colleagues when it comes to teacher development. At the same time, we suspect that expert facilitators are necessary but not sufficient, as coaches often get pulled into other tasks that do not fully utilize their expertise. In our current study, we see accomplished coaches filling in for missing substitute teachers, collating exams, or working on classroom management with struggling teachers. None of these tasks taps into their sophisticated instructional knowledge. Additionally, being an accomplished teacher does not guarantee you have the skill to communicate your teaching to others. In our data, we have numerous examples of really great teachers underexplaining their teaching to others.

Lee Shulman famously called out the missing paradigm of teacher knowledge, giving rise to a lot of research on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). While PCK gave a very useful way to think about teachers’ specialized knowledge, little progress has been made on understanding how teachers develop this and other forms of knowledge, particularly in the institutional context of schools, which often presses teachers’ practice away from what might be deemed “good teaching.” As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.

Laying the Groundwork for Logarithms

s

Strangely, I have had occasion to do a few tutoring sessions with different kids recently around exponential and logarithmic functions.

This particular mistake set off a few alarm bells:

logblog

 

Do you see what the student is doing here? She is treating

log a

like a variable that is being divided instead of a function.

I looked at the student’s notes, and all the usual log laws were there. But she did not yet have the unshakable understanding that logs are functions. I realized that there are some foundational ideas that she needed before we could really make sense of all of this.

Here are a couple of essential ideas I want to communicate to students about logarithm functions.

First, functions can be described as actions, so I always make students explain what a function is doing.

The question you should ask about every function is: what are we doing to the input to get to the output? I call it “saying the function in English.”

Since we usually teach logarithms after exponential functions, let me start with them.

I ask, What do exponential functions do? They provide rules based on repeated multiplication. So the function

2x

tells us that “some number (y) equals 2 multiplied by itself any number of (x)  times” to get y. We can do this with different examples, talk about how the function grows, look at the graph, look at tables, compare the growth of exponential functions to linear and quadratic ones. My goal is to get kids to have a feel for what is happening with exponential growth so well that when somebody says, “It was growing exponentially!” they can decide whether that is an accurate statement or not.

This is the first part of the groundwork for understanding logarithms.

Second, remember that anything we do in mathematics, we always find ways to undo.

This is thematic in all of mathematics. It becomes a chant when I teach math.
I say to students:
“Since this is math, anything we learn to do, we need to ….?”
They soon learn to respond with:
UNDO!!!”

Doing-and-undoing is a good mathematical habit of mind to emphasize, because students start to anticipate that when we learn some new funky function or operation, an inverse is coming down the pike. They are not at all surprised to learn that trig functions have an inverse and so on.

In this case, since we have learned to exponentiate, they can guess we need to un-exponentiate.

shrug

That’s just how math works!

I like to show inverses of functions in all of the representations. The idea is the same in tables, graphs and equations: the x’s and y’s switch places.

For tables and graphs, it’s fairly easy for students to figure it out. But the algebra gets tricky. To find the inverse of the previous exponential, for example, we need to derive it from:

inverse 1

This immediately creates a mathematical need to “un-exponentiate.”

So when we want to solve that equation for y, let’s undo exponentiation with a function we call a logarithm. Logarithms undo exponentiation.

logging the inverse
Since the log undoes the exponentiation, we end up isolating the y.

this one!

I also tell them we read this as “log base two of x equals y.”

So when you see an equation like:

fixed

you are asking “2 to what power equals 8?” I have them practice explaining what different equations mean.

Now your students are ready to learn all the details of working with logs!

Tell me your ideas in the comments.

[Before I close, vaguely related Arrested Development reference:

bob loblaw

Because this is a log law blog. But I guess I don’t really want to talk about log laws. Anyways…]

Building Teaching as a Responsive Profession

Those of you who spend real or virtual time with me have heard me talk about how hard it is to talk about teaching.

One frequently mentioned issue is that, unlike other professions, teaching does not have its own technical language. Professions like aviation and medicine have common professional terms that highlight important features of critical situations and guide practice. In aviation, for instance, pilots identify wind patterns to aid in landing planes. Likewise, surgeons have cataloged human anatomy and surgical procedures so the protocol for appendectomies can be named and routinized, with appropriate modifications for anatomical variations such as hemophilia or obesity. But a strong headwind in China is similar to a strong headwind in Denmark; a hemophiliac in Brazil will require more or less the same modifications as a hemophiliac in Egypt.

In contrast, an urban school may not be the same as an urban school a few blocks away, nor an ADHD kid the same as an ADHD kid in the same classroom. Although such terms attempt to invite descriptions about particular teaching situations, the language often relies on stereotyped understandings. Everyday categories like an urban school, an honors class, or an ADHD kid seldom work to describe teaching situations adequately to help teachers address the challenges they face. Words characterizing social spaces and human traits are inherently ambiguous and situated in particular social, cultural and historical arrangements.

The variation teachers encounter cannot always be codified, as they often are in aviation and surgery. In fact, in the United States, when educational situations are codified, they often presume the “neutral” of White, English-speaking, and middle class culture. However, the widespread practice of glossing cultural particulars, or only seeing them as deviants from a norm, reduces teachers’ ability to teach well. From Shirley Brice Heath’s  seminal work comparing home literacy practices in White and African American communities to Annette Lareau’s identification of social class-specific parenting patterns, we see time and again that children from non-dominant groups frequently encounter schooling expectations that are incongruous with their home cultures, often to the detriment of their learning. Conversely, when instructional practices align with children’s home cultures, teachers more are more effective at cultivating students’ learning. (See, for a few well documented examples, this work by Kathryn Au and Alice Kawakami, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Teresa McCarty.)

Culturally responsive pedagogies are, by definition, highly particular and have been documented to yield better student learning. To communicate sufficiently, professional language for teaching would need to encompass this complexity, avoiding simplistic –– perhaps common sense –– stereotypes about children, classrooms, schools, or communities.

How, then, can we develop shared professional language for teaching and build professionals responsive to the children they serve? I have some ideas I will share in another post.

Reinventing Mathematics Symposium at The Willows School

I am honored to be presenting tomorrow at the Reinventing Mathematics Symposium at the Willows School in Culver City, CA.

My workshop is on Playing with Mathematical Ideas: Strategies for Building a Positive Classroom Climate. Students often enter math class with fear and trepidation. Yet we know that effective teaching engages their ideas. How do we lower the social risk of getting students to share to help them understand mathematics more deeply? I will share what I have learned from accomplished mathematics teachers who regularly succeed at getting students to play with mathematical ideas as a way of making sense.

In my workshop, I will develop the concepts of status and smartness, as well as share an example of “playful problem solving.” Here is the Tony De Rose video we watched, with the question: How is Tony De Rose mathematically smart? If he were a 7th grader in your classroom, what chances would he have to show it?

Usually teachers like  resources, so I have compiled some here.

Books

Bellos, A. & Harriss, E. (2015). Snowflake, Seashell, Star: Colouring Adventures in Wonderland. Canongate Books Ltd; Main edition

Childcraft Encyclopedia (1987). Mathemagic. World Book Incorporated.

Jacobs, H. (1982). Mathematics: A Human Endeavor. W.H. Freeman & Co Publishers.

Pappas, T. (1993). The Joy of Mathematics (2nd Edition). World Wide Publishing.

Van Hattum, S. (2015). Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers. Natural Math

Weltman, A. (2015). This is Not a Maths Book: A Smart Art Activity Book. Ivy Press.

Blogs that Feature Playful Mathematics

Math in Your Feet Blog

Talking Math With Your Kids

Visual Patterns

Math Munch

Some Inspiring Ignite* Talks that Give Ideas about Teaching Playfully

*Ignite talks are 5 minute long presentation with 20 slides and with the slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. It’s the presentation equivalent of a haiku or sonnet.

Peg Cagle, What Architecture Taught Me About Teaching

Justin Lanier, The Space Around the Bar

Jasmine Ma, Mathematics on the Move: Re-Placing Bodies in Mathematics

Max Ray, Look Mom! I’m a Mathematician

There are tons more. The Math Forum does a great job of getting outstanding math educators to share their work in this series of talks.

Please feel free to add other good resources in the comments section!

 

Teachers’ Work Conditions

Today I was feeling chatty on twitter, so I wished everybody a good morning. It’s nice to hear about what is going on with folks, so it’s a pleasant way to start a day. I got several responses from people I was happy to hear from.

One exchange in particular got me thinking. At an early hour, where I still had one last child to bring to school, Tina Cardone had already attended an intense IEP meeting and faced off with complaining students.

In just a few tweets, Tina reminded me of some challenges of teaching, ones that are beyond the reach of teacher preparation or most education reforms: teachers’ work conditions. Most of the public debate about the profession skips the work conditions part (although there certainly are many discussions of teacher compensation).

An IEP meeting is usually an add-on to a teachers’ day. Teachers need to attend, both because they are legally beholden to IEPs but also to provide a team feedback on student. However, this time is not typically compensated. The teacher comes early, gives up a preparation period, or stays after school to attend an IEP meeitng.

Aggrieved students can be an emotional drain, as a teacher can find herself defending her professional judgement about something  — a grade, an assignment, a grouping arrangement — to a group of young people who may not see the big picture of her work.

Finally, Tina threw in the bit about her “lunch” time being scheduled for 10:30 AM. It brought me back to my last teaching job, when I was pregnant and hungry at odd times throughout the day. I have talked to other pregnant teachers who commiserate about that physical struggle. The half hour teachers typically get for lunch is seldom enough to eat properly in the best of circumstances. Throw in an early time slot or a physical condition that requires extra nourishment, it becomes difficult to keep the energy and mood up.

I am not singling Tina out here. To be sure, Tina knows how to hit the re-set button better than most folks. She is a frequent tweeter on the #onegoodthing hashtag (some of her #MTBoS pals even have a blog dedicated to this). Even in telling me about what was going on, she took these conditions as a part of the deal, focusing on what she could do: take her preparation time to get her emotions together (“re-centering”) so she can be in a good space for the rest of her classes.

When I think about conversations about teacher turnover, I notice how little we attend to these very basic conditions. Even when talk about making schools welcoming and comfortable places for students, we too often skip the part about making schools welcoming and comfortable places for teachers. We pay attention to school climate for kids so they can do their best work. What would happen if we did the same for teachers?

Here is one idea that could alleviate some of the time intensity of teachers’ work: What if schools staffed one or two adults as permanent in-house substitutes, whose primary job it is to know the students, teachers, and classrooms, so they can step in seamlessly when somebody needs a moment for re-centering after a difficult meeting, to compensate teachers’ time taken for additional meetings, or to allow a pregnant teacher to step out and use the bathroom during class?

In the years since NCLB, I have seen schools find funding for “data managers” so they can generate the tables and spreadsheets needed for evidence-based practice. Why not support teachers in bringing their best selves to each class by giving them an additional resource through by funding the floating support person?

What other ideas do you have for improving teachers’ work conditions?

The Moral Qualities of Teaching

A few years ago, my colleague Rogers Hall and I looked at how biostatisticians and epidemiologists’ workplace conversations compared with those of instructional coaches and teachers. (We both study how people learn at work.)

As we compared our methods for analyzing workplace learning, we had a few great a-ha! moments. Rogers focuses a lot on epistemic communities in his analysis — that is, how different professions collectively agree about what qualifies as knowledge. The architects, etymologists and epidemiologists he has studied all have different standards for saying that something is “known.” Sharing analytic methods benefited me: the idea of epistemic community helped me describe how different teachers take different tacks on what counts as knowing in teaching.

My work informed his in a different way. In my studies, I examine how teachers justify instructional decisions. Oftentimes, they provide affective reasons for what they do  (“I am skipping this lesson because I don’t like it.” “I am going to do this activity because the kids love it.”)  Sometimes, they ground their choices in technical knowledge (“We need to give kids more time on subtracting integers. Those are hard ideas, and they need to see them lots of different examples.”) In addition, teachers will invoke moral reasons (“I am doing re-takes because every kid needs a chance to learn this. I don’t care who your 8th grade teacher was, you are going to learn in my class.”)

Through the comparison, Rogers saw that morality played in epidemiologists’ decisions too. For instance, in one observation, a scientist and a biostatistician debated how to sample a population to look for relationships between HIV and HPV –– whether to do fewer numbers of a better HPV screening or to get more statistical power by using a less expensive HPV test. If quality data were the only consideration, the need for statistical power would prevail. However, the epidemiologist had a had a strong moral commitment to improving the lives of poor women being recruited in the study and wanted to make sure they got the best screening available. This consideration played into his research design. Even supposedly “objective” scientists have reasons to weigh moral and ethical issues in their research.

Why do I bring up the role of morality in teaching? At the moment, I have intellectual and personal reasons.

Intellectually, I need to push back on how the cognitive revolution impacts how we think about teacher knowledge. Lee Shulman had a critical insight: good teachers have a special kind of content knowledge — what he called “pedagogical content knowledge”:

Pedagogical content knowledge (or PCK) includes: (a) knowledge of how to structure and represent academic content for direct teaching to students; (b) knowledge of the common conceptions, misconceptions, and difficulties that students encounter when learning particular content; and (c) knowledge of the specific teaching strategies that can be used to address students’ learning needs in particular classroom circumstances.

By acknowledging the specialized kinds of understanding that good teaching demands, Shulman did his part to elevate the teaching profession, opening entire programs of research that specify different facets of PCK.

Yet, somewhere in the years that followed, the moral element of teaching has too often been devalued. In our quest to professionalize teaching by defining its specialized knowledge, we have downplayed that teaching, at its best, is a deeply moral act.

For example, the PCK construct says nothing of what Rochelle Gutierréz calls “the political knowledge” teachers need to have truly equitable and inclusive classrooms. For instance, teachers need to understand the often biased structures of schooling and work deliberately against them. Recognizing bias and working against it is inherently moral: it acknowledges the inequities built into schooling, from unequal resources to cultural bias to curricular marginalization.

On the personal level, I have a child who has struggled in school. This child’s school experience has vastly improved when teachers are morally invested, sometimes beyond what would be sensible. I am fortunate because this year, my child’s teacher deeply understands the nature of these struggles.

When we first met, we discussed the history and nature of what has gone on. She shared that she had a child with similar challenges. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “So when I say I get your child” –– she tapped her hand to her heart –– “I get your child.

Since then, she has told me that she finds my kid an “interesting challenge” and a “delight.” I have heard her talk to other parents as well and can attest that this teacher has a strong commitment to find a way to connect with and reach every student in her classroom.

Calling her commitment a form of knowledge does not do justice to the deep place it comes from: from her heart, from her very purpose as a teacher. And I know that has made all the difference.

A Fallacy about Teacher Learning

In schools across the United States, professional development (PD) season is coming to its grand finale. Summer workshops end and district-mandated in-services begin.

My #MTBoS Twitter pals know this is a season of schadenfreude for me. They tweet me the ironic misfires, like when a teacher who develops sophisticated lessons around technology was obliged to attend an all day workshop on Google docs. Or when another teacher who travels the country leading sessions on classroom math talk is made to sit through a full day on classroom norm setting.

These examples of bad PD stem from a total lack of differentiation. Those teachers had expertise that did not matter in the one-size-fits-all mandates of their schools or districts. The workshops were not responsive to their needs or respectful of what they had already accomplished.

Even when PD is matched to teachers’ needs, it still often falls short. Anyone who has eagerly signed up for a workshop based on a title and description and left unsatisfied is familiar with this. These workshops are often full of activities, handouts, and tips and tricks, but they do not help teachers make sense of how to get these ideas going in their own schools.

In my view, centering descriptions of what to do in PD stems from a fallacy about teacher learning: to get teachers to do better, we need to change their behavior. 

To be clear, of course it matters what teachers do in the classroom. But actions are not the same as behavior.

Behavior involves a description of a sequence of events, such as:

 A woman was tied to a stake and set aflame. She died.

Action considers the meaning involved, which is derived from who people are and where they socially and historically situated, like:

Joan of Arc, who resisted the English because she heard the voice of God,
was tied to a stake and burned. She died as a martyr.

Teaching involves creating meaning. To develop teachers, we need to make them more effective actors in the complex social world of the classroom. If we only focus on providing activities or developing sequences of behaviors, we miss out the opportunity to grow their ability to interpret situations, make judgments and take the purposeful action that shapes meanings for and with their students.

In order to make teacher professional development more effective, then, we need to take seriously what it means for teachers to learn –– and not just learn what to do, but also how and why as they respond and adapt to the myriad and complex situations they face in their classrooms everyday.

Making Sense of Student Performance Data

Kim Marshall draws on his 44 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator and writer to compile the Marshall Memo, a weekly summary of 64 publications that have articles of interest to busy educators. He shared one of my recent articles, co-authored with doctoral students Britnie Kane and Jonee Wilson, in his latest memo and gave me permission to post her succinct and useful summary.

In this American Educational Research Journal article, Ilana Seidel Horn, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jonee Wilson (Vanderbilt University) report on their study of how seventh-grade math teams in two urban schools worked with their students’ interim assessment data. The teachers’ district, under pressure to improve test scores, paid teams of teachers and instructional coaches to write interim assessments. These tests, given every six weeks, were designed to measure student achievement and hold teachers accountable. The district also provided time for teacher teams to use the data to inform their instruction. Horn, Kane, and Wilson observed and videotaped seventh-grade data meetings in the two schools, visited classrooms, looked at a range of artifacts, and interviewed and surveyed teachers and district officials. They were struck by how different the team dynamics were in the two schools, which they called Creekside Middle School and Park Falls Middle School. Here’s some of what they found:

  • Creekside’s seventh-grade team operated under what the authors call an instructional management logic, focused primarily on improving the test scores of “bubble” students. The principal, who had been in the building for a number of years, was intensely involved at every level, attending team meetings and pushing hard for improvement on AYP proficiency targets. The school had a full-time data manager who produced displays of interim assessment and state test results. These were displayed (with students’ names) in classrooms and elsewhere around the school. The principal also organized Saturday Math Camps for students who needed improvement. He visited classrooms frequently and had the school’s full-time math coach work with teachers whose students needed improvement. Interestingly, the math coach had a more sophisticated knowledge of math instruction than the principal, but the principal dominated team meetings.

In one data meeting, the principal asked teachers to look at interim assessment data to predict how their African-American students (the school’s biggest subgroup in need of AYP improvement) would do on the upcoming state test. The main focus was on these “bubble” students. “I have 18% passing, 27% bubble, 55% growth,” reported one teacher. The team was urged to motivate the targeted students, especially quiet, borderline kids, to personalize instruction, get marginal students to tutorials, and send them to Math Camp. The meeting spent almost no time looking at item results to diagnose ways in which teaching was effective or ineffective. The outcome: providing attention and resources to identified students. A critique: the team didn’t have at its fingertips the kind of item-by-item analysis of student responses necessary to have a discussion about improving math instruction, and the principal’s priority of improving the scores of the “bubble” students prevented a broader discussion of improving teaching for all seventh graders. “The prospective work of engaging students,” conclude Horn, Kane, and Wilson, “predominantly addressed the problem of improving test scores without substantially re-thinking the work of teaching, thus providing teachers with learning opportunities about redirecting their attention – and very little about the instructional nature of that attention… The summative data scores simply represented whether students had passed: they did not point to troublesome topics… By excluding critical issues of mathematics learning, the majority of the conversation avoided some of the potentially richest sources of supporting African-American bubble kids – and all students… Finally, there was little attention to the underlying reasons that African-American students might be lagging in achievement scores or what it might mean for the mostly white teachers to build motivating rapport, marking this as a colorblind conversation.”

  • The Park Falls seventh-grade team, working in the same district with the same interim assessments and the same pressure to raise test scores, used what the authors call an instructional improvement logic. The school had a brand-new principal, who was rarely in classrooms and team meetings, and an unhelpful math coach who had conflicts with the principal. This meant that teachers were largely on their own when it came to interpreting the interim assessments. In one data meeting, teachers took a diagnostic approach to the test data, using a number of steps that were strikingly different from those at Creekside:
  • Teachers reviewed a spreadsheet of results from the latest interim assessment and identified items that many students missed.
  • One teacher took the test himself to understand what the test was asking of students mathematically.
  • In the meeting, teachers had three things in front of them: the actual test, a data display of students’ correct and incorrect responses, and the marked-up test the teacher had taken.
  • Teachers looked at the low-scoring items one at a time, examined students’ wrong answers, and tried to figure out what students might have been thinking and why they went for certain distractors.
  • The team moved briskly through 18 test items, discussing possible reasons students

missed each one – confusing notation, skipping lengthy questions, mixing up similar-sounding words, etc.

  • Teachers were quite critical of the quality of several test items – rightly so, say Horn, Kane, and Wilson – but this may have distracted them from the practical task of figuring out how to improve their students’ test-taking skills.

The outcome of the meeting: re-teaching topics with attention to sources of confusion. A critique: the team didn’t slow down and spend quality time on a few test items, followed by a more thoughtful discussion about successful and unsuccessful teaching approaches. “The tacit assumption,” conclude Horn, Kane, and Wilson, “seemed to be that understanding student thinking would support more-effective instruction… The Park Falls teachers’ conversation centered squarely on student thinking, with their analysis of frequently missed items and interpretations of student errors. This activity mobilized teachers to modify their instruction in response to identified confusion… Unlike the conversation at Creekside, then, this discussion uncovered many details of students’ mathematical thinking, from their limited grasp of certain topics to miscues resulting from the test’s format to misalignments with instruction.” However, the Park Falls teachers ran out of time and didn’t focus on next instruction steps. After a discussion about students’ confusion about the word “dimension,” for example, one teacher said, “Maybe we should hit that word.” [Creekside and Park Falls meetings each had their strong points, and an ideal team data-analysis process would combine elements from both: the principal providing overall leadership and direction but deferring to expert guidance from a math coach; facilitation to focus the team on a more-thorough analysis of a few items; and follow-up classroom observations and ongoing discussions of effective and less-effective instructional practices. In addition, it would be helpful to have higher-quality interim assessments and longer meetings to allow for fuller discussion. K.M.] “Making Sense of Student Performance Data: Data Use Logics and Mathematics Teachers’ Learning Opportunities” by Ilana Seidel Horn, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jonee Wilson in American Educational Research Journal, April 2015 (Vol. 52, #2, p. 208-242