Good PD is Hard

This week, in addition to teaching, I am helping out with a week-long professional developmentthing (?) for middle math and science teachers. There was not a lot of time for the organizers to put it together, but they are making do. The physical science content is mostly around simple machines (and measurement), and the math content is mostly around graphing and patterns. Teachers work in pairs from a school (math and science together).

Here is some critical perspective toward what we are doing:

  • There is a tacit assumption in the way some of our activities are conducted that teachers are  more familiar with content than they are. An example of this is, teachers were doing an investigation into how much weight it would take to lift a brick (using a lever) with the fulcrum placed at different positions along the lever, largely in order to determine the position with greatest mechanical advantage. The activity is structured such that they start at the most effective location (but they don’t know that necessarily). When I walked around and talked to teachers about whether they would have to add mass or take away mass at the next position, it was nearly a 60/40 split. Cool thing to talk about, to hear ideas, arguments, etc. However, one of the instructors commented off the cuff about the next position in a way that suggested everyone in the room new we’d have to add mass. Some caught on to what the instructor said and changed their predictions, but their thinking was never engaged about why they thought one thing and why they now might have changed their mind). Some, and I’m more proud of them, maintained their original idea (probably because they didn’t hare), and got to be surprised about what happened. One teacher said to me, “I was only thinking about the distance, not about the brick on the other end, and how that might change, too. Now I’m thinking this is more like a see-saw.”
  • There are many “tools” being given out for teaching with no help in developing teacher’s thinking about those tools. One example of this is a brief technology session, in which a bunch of websites and apps were presented. There was no framework for thinking about the role of that technology (or any technology) in the classroom. None of the conversation was about how to change the manner in which students relate to content or how you relate to them (and content), but how to merely make class time more “efficient”. I’m all for efficiency, and sharing cool technology, but that’s not professional development.
  • Some of the pedagogy being modeled is difficult (for me) to see as productive.  An example of this is how we used a KWL chart. The question asked was, “What do we know about levers?” and the teachers who new about levers spit out vocabulary words and facts about levers, and those correct vocabulary words and facts were written on the board– Facts such as there are three different kinds of levers, levers have a fulcrum, levers are simple machines, etc. This kind of modeling misses the whole point of the K in KWL, which is bring the surface IDEAS, ways of thinking, real-life experiences, for the purpose of having them within the public arena of the classroom. To me, one of the worst way to activate prior knowledge is to ask, “What do you know about topic X?” and then proceed to write down canonically correct statements made by the few who happened to know them.
  • A lot of our time is spent rapidly oscillating between teachers being “students” engaging in a lesson and teachers being teachers, listening to meta-commentary about the teaching the lesson. I think it is easier to feel immersed in learning if you aren’t having to constantly shift frames from, thinking about levers to thinking about some advice about how to teach this lesson. I’m not saying we shouldn’t shift frames, but that we shouldn’t shit so rapidly in the moment. It’s dizzying even to me.
  • There is a lot of variety to what teachers do throughout the day. And while variety is good, variety is probably coming at the expense of coherence and meaningful learning. Teachers did a lesson on probability, then a lesson on graphing, then a discussion about technology, then a lesson on simple machines, etc. It was all disconnected for the most part. I could be wrong, but I don’t think ideas are not being pursued, refined, and developed over time, throughout the day and throughout the week. I fear that we are doing to these teachers what the school day does to students.

I am not in anyway suggesting that the people I am working with aren’t knowledgeable of many aspects of PD and aren’t hard-working and committed. I am suggesting that professional development is very difficult. So here are, at least, some very positive things:

  • Teacher seem, for the most part, very happy about the professional development (based on anecdote and daily feedback)
  • Teachers like the variety of activities they are doing
  • The week is extremely well organized and structured because of the organizers (I couldn’t pull that off).
  • Teachers time is well respected–there is little down time, they are being compensated, and lunch is provided, etc. (Very important)
  • The team is developing good rapport with the teachers, and the feel of the community is good (Maybe the most important)


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