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How do we design effective professional development for math teachers?

Math is often taught focusing on rote memorization and “drill and kill” methods with little attention paid to the beauty and creativity of the concepts that form this discipline. This approach has resulted in a pandemic of math anxiety and fear for the discipline which needs to be addressed and eradicated. Math education needs to undergo a reform to encourage inquiry-based, constructivist methods that focus on building conceptual understanding. Due to a shortage of in-field teachers, math teachers are sometimes not well-prepared, through no fault of their own, or out-of-field teachers and many focus on following a textbook and teaching procedural rote methods. More professional development and training opportunities need to be provided to support the growing need for competent math teachers to support this reform in math education.

Professional development for teachers is at the heart of improving curriculum and instruction which, in turn, can promote higher order thinking, enhance learning in the classroom and improve student learning outcomes. Developing and improving teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills within the field of mathematics is an aim for many educational authorities around the world (OECD, 2005; US Department of Education, 2005). Past research has showed that traditional face to face professional development courses for mathematics teachers are often of poor quality, and are often one to three days, focusing very little on mathematical content resulting in minimal instructional impact and student learning (Porter, Garet, Desimone, Suk, & Birman, 2000).

Guskey (1995) discussed the importance of professional development being viewed as a process rather than an isolated single event. An effective and successful professional development model should be continuous and support teachers’ growth. Guskey (2000) developed a five-tiered, hierarchical framework to evaluate professional development courses and they consist of: 1) collecting teachers’ responses to the professional development course through surveys; 2) finding out what teachers actually learned from the professional development course; 3) whether there is organizational support for the teacher from a school level to allow teachers to apply their newly acquired skills in their practice; 4) collecting information about how teachers use their new knowledge and skills in their instruction; and 5) collecting information and data on the impact of the newly acquired knowledge and skills on student learning. Guskey (2000) proposed that these five levels for evaluation are critical to collecting and analyzing data to design quality professional development with the success at each level dependent on the success of the previous level.

The first level of Guskey’s model is the most basic level and collects information about the participants’ responses to the course such as satisfaction level. Typical questions may include whether the participant enjoyed the experience and were their basic needs met. Herzberg’s (1968) theory of motivation refers to the basic needs as hygiene factors. In a professional development setting hygiene factors are an important component to the success of a professional development course.

The second tier of this model refers to measuring the learning of the participants by looking at the knowledge and skills gained. The third level involves whether participants will receive organizational and structural support to implement the newly acquired knowledge and skills. Lack of support from an organization standpoint can negate any positive effects and undermine the goals of the professional development. The policies and practices of the organization must also align with the professional development so participants feel they are supported and not fighting a losing battle when trying to implement or try new instructional strategies.

The next level; the fourth level is about collecting information concerning how participants are using their newly acquired knowledge and skills in their classroom practice. This information cannot be collected at the end of the professional development course and a period of time must pass before teachers are able to report any changes to instruction. Sometimes information collected for this level must be measured at several time intervals in order to be able to conclude whether the professional development course was effective or not. The highest level; the fifth level involves collecting information about whether student learning outcomes have improved as a result of the professional development. This represents the ultimate goal of all professional development for educators. Joyce (1993) suggested that evaluation of student learning outcomes need to include a variety of measures for example portfolio evaluations, scores from standardized tests and even affective dispositions such as attitudes in order to fully to understand the achievement level of the student.

One of the most important implications of Guskey’s five tier framework is that when designing quality professional development, a backward model should be adopted where the designer considers student learning outcomes first and plan backwards from that fifth level. After identifying student learning outcomes, the next stage looks at the instructional strategies and polices that will support the intended learning outcome (level 4). From that level, the next consideration is the structural and organizational support for the participants (level 3). Next incorporate what the participants need in terms of knowledge and skills to implement the newly acquired practices (level 2). Lastly, consider the experiences, the hygiene factors and the actual course design (level 1). The model is a systematic approach to collect information about the effectiveness of professional development and provides educators with a framework to design quality professional development courses.

Dede’s (2004a, 2004b) research findings have reported that there are six requirements for professional development to improve education and they are: 1) move away from teaching rote memorization for standardized testing to a model that develops 21st century knowledge and skills, 2) emphasize transformational strategies, 3) shift from one to two-day professional development to an ongoing, continuous and teacher driven model, 4) move away from “sit and listen” models for professional development to encourage active engagement of teachers through collaborative professional learning communities, 5) ensure there are synchronous opportunities for discourse that utilize digital tools, and 6) provide distributed learning opportunities.

Building teachers’ content knowledge as well developing as pedagogical skills is a key priority across the world. Heibert, Gallimore & Stigler (2002) have reported that successful professional development needs to be “long term, collaborative, school based and focused on students’ learning and, link to curricula that teachers have to teach” (as cited in Sinclair & Owston, 2006, pp. 45). A study by Loucks-Horsley et al. (2003) reported that successful professional development should focus on teacher collaboration and learning should mirror the instructional strategies that hope to be developed. For example, to promote inquiry based learning in mathematics, the professional development should model inquiry based approaches to help teachers learn content and new instructional strategies.

More online professional developments courses need to be developed to support both the in-field and out-of-field math teacher and to develop the use of technology to enhance learning in mathematics. Professional development for math teachers needs to be embedded into their practice as an ongoing process which is responsive and personalized. The design of future online professional development courses need to ensure they utilize the power of collaboration by building a well-connected, online community, be well-designed to model instructional strategies that are to be encouraged in the classroom and provide regular and effective feedback. Technology should be an embedded component of all courses. High quality online professional development programs should have design elements that includes both synchronous and asynchronous discussions, include collaborative group work and for mathematics learning be inquiry-based with a focus on conceptual understanding.


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Loucks-Horsley, S., Love, N., Stiles, K. E., Mundry, S., & Hewson, P. W. (2003). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Porter, A.C.; Garet, M.S.; Desimone, L.; Suk Yoon, K.; and Birman, B.F. (2000) Does Professional Development Change Teaching Practice? Results from A Three-Year Study. Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, Planning and Evaluation Service by the American Institute for Research. Washington: D.C.

Sinclair, M., & Owston, R. (2006). Teacher Professional Development in Mathematics and Science: A Blended Learning Approach. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 32(2), 43-66.

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