Reflections by Jim Stigler

Jim Stigler

I have enjoyed reading the posters, and also Deborah's keynote. As a researcher, I found Deborah's analysis to be provocative and deep. But as I read the posters, I realized how often politics, attitudes, money, and the like get in the way of professional learning. For me personally, both perspectives are important, and they both need to be part of the discussion.

Let me make just a few comments on some of the themes I saw in the posters, as well as on the ideas raised by Deborah:

1. The Classroom is the Final Common Pathway

Deborah Ball's suggestion that we work backwards from practice to determine what teachers need to know is powerful because it respects the central importance of the classroom in our attempts to improve education. No attempt to improve education can succeed unless it affects the quality of teaching and learning inside the classroom; the classroom is like a bottleneck, through which all reforms must pass.

Deborah recommends that we study the actual practice we are trying to achieve in the classroom, then use what we learn to focus and guide our investment in professional development. There are an infinite number of things teachers can learn. But only some of them will affect the quality of their practice, and therefore of their students' learning. Saying "our teachers don't know math" can be discouraging because there is so much "math" one could learn. Engaging in the kind of analysis Deborah recommends makes the task much more manageable and shows us where to begin.

This is a powerful idea, and one we should take seriously. There is a growing willingness on the part of politicians to fund professional development. But if the programs that result do not focus on the precise knowledge teachers need to improve instruction we all will be disappointed in the results.

2. Toward a Broader Definition of "Teaching Practice"

One thought I would like to propose to Deborah is that we broaden our definition of what "practice" is. We tend to think of teaching as what goes on during the lesson. But I believe it is important to realize that planning and reflection are also part of the practice of teaching.

Every teacher goes through what I call the cycle of teaching: plan, teach, and reflect. But planning and reflection are often carried out informally and idiosyncratically, sometimes even in the shower! I believe that planning and analysis are two of the most under-utilized tools we have for improving teaching. Lesson study, for example, is based on the idea that a more disciplined approach to planning and analysis can result in improvements in instruction and learning. And the knowledge teachers need to plan an effective lesson, or troubleshoot one that did not go according to plan, may go beyond what is needed to implement that same lesson in the classroom.

Thus, when we analyze practice to determine what teachers need to know, let's include planning and analysis as part of the practice that we analyze.

3. The Role of Curriculum in Professional Development

Several of the posters mentioned the role of curriculum in professional development, and particularly the importance of a common curriculum and common materials as a way to provide focus to teachers' learning. Some of the projects assumed a common curriculum, while others actually built curriculum units so that teachers would be working on a common basis.

I have long believed that a shared curriculum is almost a prerequisite for truly effective professional development. The reason is simple: improving teaching means improving the details of what students experience in classrooms. Without a shared curriculum, teacher collaboration may lose its focus, and discussions will almost certainly be at a more general level. I've seen some of the best discussions among teachers focus on such specific questions as: Why is it that students don't seem to understand Example B on page 56? Answering this question can not only deepen teachers understanding of content and of how students learn content, but also can yield a practical modification to Example B that will directly improve students' opportunities for learning.

4. The Problem of Turnover

I was struck by how frequently the poster presenters mentioned the problem of turnover, both in the teaching force and among district leaders. I know this is a huge problem, especially when we are moving to models of professional development that are longer-term and that rely on more frequent interactions and collaborations among teachers and administrators. New teachers enter a group and don't have the shared values that others have spent a year or two developing. They mean well, but still can derail the process of gradual improvement and send everyone back to the beginning.

I'm not an expert on this, but I do think that the only answer to this problem is strong leadership. As professional development becomes more school-based, the role of the principal as instructional leader becomes more and more critical. As hard as it is to find accomplished teachers, it is even harder to find principals with the skills and the will to lead schools down the path of continuous improvement.

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