Saturday, March 10, 2018

Let's Discuss Professional Development

One of my favorite math ed profs is Sam Otten at Missouri (and the Lois Knowles Faculty Fellow). His research is interesting and situated, he holds teachers in high regard and listens to their ideas, and he illuminates research through the Mathed podcast. He has definitely enriched my practice. In addition, he's just a lovely and creative guy, as well as a world class expert on the DC Comics film universe. Beyond that, he's a GVSU grad, so I knew him when.

He is a part of the team that produced some new professional development materials, and I had a few questions for him about it. Mathematics Discourse in Secondary Classrooms, MDISC, is based on research and developed with teachers in the field. I'm a big believer in the importance of discourse in learning, and know that secondary mathematics has been one the places where traditional teaching has included the least discourse. I also think people need support to make changes, so something like this project is needed.

What inspired these materials? Was it an idea you wanted to develop or a response to situations you saw in the classroom?
The MDISC materials came from a group of math education scholars at Michigan State University and the University of Delaware, led by Beth Herbel-Eisenmann, who were passionate about the role of discourse in math classrooms. We all believed that there was profound value in students discussing mathematical ideas and building meaning together as a community. So at its core, MDISC is a set of professional development materials that are intended to help teachers increase the quantity and quality of discourse in their classrooms.

As we set out to create these materials, we tried to draw on other work that already existed in the math ed literature. Some of that work was Beth's own research with Michelle Cirillo. They had worked for years with a group of secondary teachers, examining discourse patterns and power dynamics. We also drew on the work of Chapin, O'Connor, and Anderson, who wrote a great book called Classroom Discussions that focused on mathematical discourse at the elementary level. They had some really amazing results with respect to student achievement scores that stemmed from a new emphasis on discourse. With MDISC, we tried to take some of those ideas from the elementary level and reinterpret them in ways that made sense at the secondary level -- focusing on middle school and high school classes.

Overall, the MDISC PD materials equip secondary math teachers to think about discourse in productive ways and it also provides them with specific tools for changing the discourse in their classrooms so that it really empowers students. It helps move us beyond teaching-as-telling.

What are some of the different ways these materials might be used? 
The MDISC materials include a physical facilitator's guide and then digital versions of all the participant materials as well as sample videos. It could be used by a teacher leader, facilitating sessions with secondary math teachers, or by a PLC of teachers who want to work through it on their own. It could also serve as a textbook for a graduate-level course, so a teacher educator going through the activities with practicing teachers, for example in a Master's course or an Ed Specialist course. The materials are designed to be a year-long study, with connections to everyday classroom practice, but it's flexible -- so with some adjustments, it could also be used in one semester. Or people could select which components they want to focus on.

There's also an optional follow-up where teachers can be guided through some action research, if they want to continue making purposeful efforts toward shaping their classroom discourse. There are several different options, and the MDISC team is very open to communicating with people if they have questions about enactment. We've also enacted the materials many times in many different settings, so we have a lot of experiences to share. 

As you piloted these materials, what were some of the changes you saw in classroom discourse?
We have piloted the materials and had others pilot them in both Michigan and Delaware, with several different groups of teachers. They have been very well received thus far, with some teachers willingly joining in for a second and third year because once they start, they don't want to stop thinking about their classroom discourse. Some of the teachers have called it the most important learning experience in their teaching career, and this even came from a 30-year veteran.

The most visible changes have been the number of students talking in class. They open up more and share their ideas, and the great thing is that they're sharing mathematical ideas. I think this comes from MDISC's dual approach of not only providing insight into the nature of discourse but also providing specific moves for teachers to use. For example, MDISC develops six teacher discourse moves that include inviting student participation and also probing a student's thinking. These are concrete ways to get the discussion going and keep it directed toward important mathematics.

Another big change that is noticeable is that more wrong answers come to the surface -- it's not that MDISC leads to student confusion (just to be clear), it's that an increase in discourse helps more student ideas to come to the surface. And of course some of those ideas are incorrect or imprecise, and that can lead to good discussions and good learning opportunities for the group.

What’s one feature of these materials or an example experience that might help teachers understand how they will support their teaching?
One feature of the MDISC materials is that they are practice-based and case-based. So teachers will get to make constant connections to their own instructional practices and their own students. Those connections are built right into the materials. And there is also the chance to see and discuss detailed cases of other teachers. Rather than lots of little isolated examples, MDISC instead is built around larger cases of real teaching. So for example, when you're learning about the transition from small-group work to whole-class discussions, you can actually see a middle school teacher as she circulates among her students and selects certain ideas to be shared later, telling the students that she'd really like them to bring it up in front of the whole class. Then you can follow the case to see how it played out in the discussion.

Another important feature is that the MDISC materials integrate an emphasis on equity. Powerful discourse means that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and to learn from the conversations. So there is a lot of attention paid to how teachers can use a discourse-based approach to reach more students, including those with traditionally marginalized backgrounds.

What movie would you like to see DC make next?
Great question! When I'm not working in math ed or spending time with family, I love watching and analyzing DC superhero movies. I really loved Man of Steel and then I thought Batman v Superman took it up another notch, with great themes about immigrant experiences and the danger of overt masculinity having to face feelings of powerlessness. So although I'm excited about Aquaman and the Wonder Woman sequel, I would really like to see another Superman solo film make it onto the slate. And it would also be great if the Cyborg standalone would get the green light because I thought he was a really intriguing character in Justice League and I think his story could be used not only as a commentary about race in modern society but also about our increasing dependence on technology.

(Back to me) There's so much promising here. Use of real classroom discussions with connections to your own. The focus on equity. And the idea that in running it with teachers there's a measurable change in the number of kids participating in discussion, as well as the frequency and quality of discussions - that's a dream. I'd love a chance to work through this with teachers.

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