Teachers and Mathematics: Making the most of professional development

Over the past week I have been involved in a number of professional development events for primary and secondary teachers of mathematics. This included presentations at a primary and middle years conference and a number of sessions involving the development of teachers as action researchers. This weekend I will be travelling to the US to attend the NCTM Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington DC and will be presenting a session there. All of these engagements with teachers reminded me of a post I published last year about what teachers do with the information they gain from attending professional development, particularly when it happens away from school. The following are some thoughts I wrote about last year – a timely reminder for those teachers who are taking time away from their students or in their personal time to deepen their knowledge about mathematics teaching and learning.

How do you make the most of professional development?

Too often teachers attend PD sessions, get enthusiastic, try a few new things, but quickly get bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of life in a busy school and the demands of administration and curriculum authorities. How can you translate the underlying philosophy being promoted in the professional development sessions into sustainable change that can be shared amongst colleagues to improve and transform mathematics teaching and learning?

PD is expensive, and it’s important that opportunities aren’t wasted. I’ve been talking and writing a lot recently about promoting critical thinking in the mathematics classroom. It’s equally as important for teachers to engage critically with professional development. The following list contains a few thoughts that might help teachers get the most out of PD opportunities.

  1. Choose the right PD

Do a little research on the person presenting the PD. What are their credentials? Are they a self-proclaimed expert or do they have an established reputation? A simple Google search should reveal some insights, and, if the presenter is an academic, you could search Google Scholar for some of their academic publications. Spending time researching the presenter’s background can save you from attending a PD session that may not be right for you, and can provide some good research background should you choose to go ahead with the session. You also need to consider what you want out of a PD session. If you want a ‘bag of tricks’ in the form of a handful of ready to go activities, then you probably shouldn’t be wasting your school’s money. Rather, think about PD that is going to cause you to think deeply about your practice, and have a long-term effect on students’ educational outcomes.

  1. Does the presenter understand the school context and curriculum in your state/country?

When you attend PD, you expect that the presenter is aware of the school/state/country context, and more importantly, the curriculum. This assists you, the teacher, in applying the learning to your practice, and also makes the content of the PD more relevant to you and your students.

  1. Understand the structure of the PD session

Before you commit to attending a PD session, ensure you understand what is going to happen in that session. Nobody likes sitting down and being lectured to for hours on end, nor do you want to listen to a presenter talk about themselves for an entire day! Look for presentations that are interactive and allow participants to apply theory to practical activities. If we are going to ask our students to do something differently, we need to experience it ourselves first. It’s also a better way of retaining information.

  1. Active Participation

When you’re at the PD session, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s also important to think critically about the information you are receiving. Presenters are usually very happy to answer questions that spark discussion – this often results in deeper learning, and better value for your school’s money! If the presenter doesn’t welcome questions, this is a sign that they may not have expert knowledge.  During the PD session it’s important that you participate in any activities – there’s usually a good reason a presenter has asked you to engage in a task. Active participation gives insight into the student experience and possible challenges, and it’s a great way to make links between theory and practice.

  1. Use the session as a networking opportunity

Often one of the most valuable aspects of professional development sessions is the opportunity to connect with teachers from other schools. It’s a great opportunity to discuss practice, students and school procedures. Networks developed at PD sessions can be maintained easily using tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

  1. Reflection

Before you leave your PD session, pause and consider what you have learned (a good presenter will actually give you opportunity to reflect). Think about how you might apply what you have learned (not just the activities, but the educational philosophy underpinning them) to your classroom, and don’t limit yourself to just replicating the activities. What are the underlying messages? How can you use those messages to adapt your practice? What will be different in the way that you plan and implement lessons? It doesn’t have to be a big change. Often subtle differences have huge effects.

  1. Sustainability: Sharing the Learning

Finally, it’s important to share the learning. It’s difficult to sustain any kind of change that will have ongoing benefit for students if it’s not supported by others in your school. This may not be easy, but small changes are better than no changes. Sometimes it’s a good idea to try out new things in your own class first, then use evidence of your success to convince others.

When it comes to PD, one of the most important things to remember is the reason we do what we do. We want our students to be the best they can, and when it comes to mathematics, we want to give them confidence, skill, passion and excitement that will ensure they continue to study and use mathematics beyond their school education.

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