Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What if we held professional development workshops to the same standards as our classes?

Every so often, a kind parent says to me "My child really felt that every minute in your class was valuable."  Of course, I don't think that's literally true, but I'm glad that this family understood my most important goal:  to make every minute valuable, in fact totally crucial.  I believe that anything else is disrespectful. Think about it:  by law, students are not just asked, but compelled to be in my classroom for (46 minutes, 90 minutes, whatever) each day.  How can you justify forcing someone to be someplace where you then waste their time?

So I hold my classes to high standards:
  1. If everyone already knows it, we don't cover it.  If most but not everyone knows it, we don't cover it as a class;  I provide an opportunity to review or relearn the idea either as a pull-out, or as part of a larger task, or as one option among many activities.  If a few people know it, I give them something else to do while the rest of the class learns.
  2. I figure out ahead of time and at the time how many people can already do what I want them to do, and how well, so I can do item #1.
  3. I help students connect each day's lesson to course themes and to material from other courses (and also to real life).  I make sure they know why that day's lesson is important. 
  4. Class time is for work that can't be done at home: because it involves high-level problem-solving, demands that they share ideas, requires higher-level thinking that they can't do independently, or because they need guided practice or reinforcement that isn't available online or with a worksheet with answers.
  5. Class time is not for watching movies, reading, lecture, or even whole-class discussion, unless I expect ideas to build on each other, students to critique each others' ideas, etc.  In particular, we don't "report out" results unless there's something to do or discuss from the reports.  Time I spend talking is, as far as I can tell, mostly time wasted.
  6. When the assigned work is done, I always have more math for students to work on, so that the ones who get done early don't sit around getting bored.  This strategy also decreases the incentive for students to rush through the material without thinking carefully.
Items 4-6 can be summarized simply: class time is for doing mathematics, not for watching other people do mathematics.

Now let's turn to the typical professional development session:
  1. "Who here knows about Gardner's Multiple Intelligences? [or Bloom's Taxonomy, or the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, or ... ]"  The teachers are all over the place, but it's hard to tell exactly what each teacher knows, because "Who knows about ____ ?" is not exactly a fine-grained assessment.
  2. "Everyone do this worksheet reviewing the different Intelligences [levels of Bloom's//Standards for Mathematical Practice//etc."  Now there's no opportunity for choice or differentiation.  When you're done, you just wait around until everyone else is finished.  There's no immediate followup task.
  3. "Let's watch this TED talk about ___ ".  Or:  "Read this article about ___ " I could have done this at home.  In fact, I love watching TED talks at home, so I'd be happier watching it at home and using the class time productively.  Also, what am I supposed to get out of the TED talk or reading?  Why not tell me up front?  Occasionally, the TED talk actually shows a process or strategy that would be hard to summarize, like this one by Dan Meyer.
  4. "Let me tell you about ... " What is my take-away?  What do I need to get out of this?  Could I just read what you're planning to say?  and then spend group time doing some task related to the take-away?
  5. "Well, we can wind up at many different places with this ... " Obviously, we're all professionals, and so it's hard to tell someone they're flat-out wrong.  But it is important to have standards and to communicate them clearly.  If the point of the activity is to rewrite a textbook activity to achieve a certain aim, and the proposed rewrite doesn't achieve it, then whom does it help to let the activity slide by?
In this area, I think we teachers are our own worst enemies.  In my classes, one norm is that everyone is wrong at least sometimes, and that correcting an error or misconception is an important job for everyone.  But how often do we sit in PD and watch someone say something that is clearly incorrect without challenging it?  Maybe one reason why in-school or departmental PD is more effective (at least for me) than inter-school PD is that we're only willing to challenge people we know well and trust.
Tony Wagner's article Rigor on Trial lists seven questions he poses to students during a lesson to assess the level of rigor; note #6 and #7.
  1. What is the purpose of this lesson?
  2. Why is this important to learn?
  3. In what ways am I challenged to think in this lesson?
  4. How will I apply, assess, or communicate what I've learned?
  5. How will I know how good my work is and how I can improve it?
  6. Do I feel respected by other students in this class?
  7. Do I feel respected by the teacher in this class?
He asks whether these questions could "be used as a set of standards for planning and assessing both adult and student learning across a district?"  It's hard to imagine how much things would change if they--and the other standards to which we hold our own classes--were implemented as basic principles of PD.

Update:  In this morning's PD, taking my own maxim to heart, I challenged a teacher who said that you have to go over every homework problem and every answer to in-class tasks.  I said that what I see is that when the teacher "goes over" problems and answers, the energy level and engagement drop dramatically, and that time spent going over homework is mostly wasted.  Immediately another teacher said "Where you do you teach?  Oh, Payton." I stuck to my guns, pointing out--as we've discussed on this blog--that no matter what high school we're at, if more than 20-30% of the studentscan't do a particular homework problem, then that problem probably wasn't appropriate for independent work, and that if that's the situation for many problems on the assignment, then the assignment itself was too hard.  But they'd already stopped listening....