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Meeting the Challenges of Scale: The Importance of Preparing Professional Development Leaders

by Hilda Borko, Karen Koellner & Jennifer Jacobs - March 04, 2011

In this commentary, we make a case for the importance of preparing and studying the leaders of teacher professional development. We then highlight three central PD practices of mathematics professional development: engaging teachers in productive mathematical work, leading discussions about student reasoning and instructional practices, and building a professional community. Within each practice we identify a number of specific activities and discuss the knowledge that PD leaders need to enact them. We conclude by arguing for the importance of additional research on the practices of effective PD leaders.

Scalable, Sustainable Professional Development Requires Qualified Leaders

In recent years there has been a growing demand for professional development (PD) opportunities for K-12 teachers. To meet this demand, the educational community is charged with the task of creating effective PD models that are scalable and sustainable. A major impediment to implementing sustainable, scalable PD is the lack of attention to identifying and preparing qualified individuals who can serve as PD leaders. Our understanding of what PD leaders must know and be able to do has increased in recent years (Borko, Koellner, Jacobs, Baldinger, & Selling, 2010; Even, 2008; Koellner, Jacobs, & Borko, under review). However, research on how to prepare and support these leaders is sparse. As Even (2008) commented, Expecting the education of practicing teachers to play a critical role in improving the quality of mathematics teaching and learning at school requires greater attention to educators of practicing teachers (p. 56).

Mathematics has been at the forefront of both educational reform efforts and calls for increased PD opportunities, particularly amidst mounting evidence that on-going support and structured learning opportunities for teachers can lead to significant gains in students mathematics achievement (Desimone, 2009). The preparation of mathematics PD leaders has also been the focus of a small number of research and curriculum development projects (e.g., Borko et al., 2010; Elliott et al., 2009; Koellner, Schneider, Roberts, Jacobs, & Borko, 2008) and commercially available workshops and materials (e.g., Carroll & Mumme, 2007; www.teachersdg.org). In this commentary we provide specific recommendations related to the preparation of math PD leaders in an effort to promote increased dialogue about this critical topic.

What Must Math Professional Development Leaders Know and Be Able to Do?

Desimone (2009) identified five features of effective professional development that are supported by a research consensus: content focus, active learning, coherence, duration, and collective participation. While these features provide important guidelines for PD designers, they do not address the knowledge PD leaders should have or the specific practices they should use when working with teachers. We suggest that increased attention should be paid to the more pointed question, What must PD leaders know and be able to do to effectively enact sustainable and scalable PD? In this commentary we begin the conversation by providing some initial insights into this question, drawing on relevant research projects in mathematics education. Based on our reading of the literature and our own experience working with PD leaders, we highlight three central PD practices: engaging teachers in productive mathematical work, leading discussions about student reasoning and instructional practices, and building a professional community. Within each practice we identify a number of specific activities and discuss the knowledge that PD leaders need to enact them.

Engaging teachers in productive mathematical work. Almost any list of features of effective PD includes a focus on the content that teachers will teach in their classrooms (Borko, Jacobs & Koellner, 2010; Desimone, 2009). In mathematics PD, attention to content frequently is operationalized as engaging the teachers in the same math tasks that they plan to use with their students. Analyses of workshops conducted for and by PD leaders in several recent projects suggest, however, that for math teachers to develop the specialized content knowledge (SCK) (Ball, Thames & Phelps, 2008) needed to teach effectively, they must engage with the content in a much deeper way (Borko et al., 2010; Elliott et al., 2009; Koellner, Jacobs, & Borko, under review). This insight should come as little surprise given differences in the goals for teacher learning as compared to student learning. For example, whereas it may suffice for students to be able to use one strategy and one set of representations to solve a math task, this is not the case for teachers. Teachers must be able to critically analyze the task and consider how to use it in a way that maximizes learning opportunities for students, for example, by anticipating their students correct and incorrect strategies and how they might respond to those strategies.

In order to effectively facilitate PD in a way that will enhance teachers SCK, math PD leaders need to be knowledgeable about topics such as: selecting mathematical tasks appropriate for teachers; engaging teachers in activities that generate multiple representations and multiple solution strategies; and orchestrating discussions in which teachers explore deeply the mathematical relationships among the different representations and strategies, and the mathematical affordances and constraints of each. They must also be able to provide guidance as teachers consider how to adapt math tasks for the students in their classes, with particular attention to meeting the needs of all learners and the growing population of English Language Learners in classrooms.

Leading discussions about student reasoning and instructional practices. A central practice for PD leaders is guiding productive conversations about teaching and learning. A growing body of research supports the use of lesson artifacts to promote in-depth discussions focused on student reasoning and instructional practices. For example, there is evidence that collaborative analysis of either video clips from classroom lessons or samples of students mathematical work can positively impact the knowledge and practices of experienced teachers (Kazemi & Franke, 2004; Little, 2007; Sherin & van Es, 2009). These discussions can help teachers deepen their understanding of critical issues such as how to elicit student thinking and use it to guide their in-the-moment instructional decisions (Franke & Kazemi, 2001).

Without guidance by knowledgeable leaders, conversations in PD workshops often lose their focus and fail to help teachers support their students learning in classrooms (Borko et al., 2008; Cobb, Zhao & Dean, 2009). In addition, some lesson artifacts appear more likely to foster deep examination of student reasoning and instructional practices than others (Borko, et al., 2008; Sherin, Linsenmeier & van Es, 2009). Thus, PD leaders need to be knowledgeable about the selection of artifacts to anchor the PD conversations; framing interactions with the artifacts; and orchestrating discussions to explore relevant topics. In particular, leaders need an understanding of the features of written work and video clips likely to lead to productive mathematical and pedagogical discussions, and techniques to elicit teachers ideas and scaffold their use of evidence-based reasoning (Borko et al., 2010; Borko, Koellner, Jacobs & Seago, 2011).

Building professional community. Building and maintaining a safe, supportive, and professional community is another key professional development practice. Such communities have been shown to foster teacher learning and instructional improvement (Borko, 2004; Little, 2002). However, developing a strong professional community can be difficult and time consuming (Stein, Smith, & Silver, 1999). One essential task for PD leaders is setting norms that promote challenging yet supportive conversations. Social norms provide the foundational support that teachers need to feel safe when critically analyzing lesson artifacts, especially videotapes of classroom lessons. In the right environment, sharing videos can serve as a powerful springboard for group reflection and help teachers to assume ownership of their learning (Jacobs, Borko, & Koellner, 2009). Math PD leaders should pay particular attention to cultivating sociomathematical norms (Elliot et al., 2009). When engaging with mathematics content, established sociomathematical norms help to ensure that teachers discuss the math in a meaningful way, including justifying their mathematical claims, feeling comfortable making mistakes, and acknowledging where they are struggling.

PD leaders play a key role in setting social and sociomathematical norms, and helping to maintain a balance between respecting individual community members and critically analyzing topics related to their specialized content knowledge and instructional practice (Wilson & Berne, 1999). PD leaders must have a strong understanding of how community develops over time, how they can encourage teachers participation, and how they can support teachers commitment to growth and change. The knowledge PD leaders need in order to successfully build a professional community includes: an understanding of the local context; an awareness of how to set relevant norms for communication and participation; and a vision for carrying out PD in a way that is responsive to the groups goals and needs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The mathematics education community has made some progress toward the goal of preparing a cohort of PD leaders who can offer sustainable, scalable mathematics professional development in their local contexts. We have begun to identify and study the knowledge and practices of PD leaders and the supports that they need. From both research and policy perspectives, much more remains to be done. The set of practices we have identified is only a beginning. Research is needed to identify additional practices, characterize the specific activities that comprise these practices, and determine the knowledge required for their successful enactment. As we continue to explore the knowledge and practices of math PD leaders, we must also consider the generalizability of our findings. To what extent are these domains of knowledge and practices characteristic of PD leaders in other subject areas? Which practices are consistent across grade levels and which are not?

Efforts to prepare PD leaders must proceed concurrently with research. To achieve the goals for student learning our nation has set, the education community must put more resources into the development of local PD leaders and create opportunities for these leaders to work with teachers on an ongoing basis. Despite the unmistakable demand for sustainable, scalable PD, too few educational researchers, policy makers, and teachers are addressing these issues.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 04, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16358, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:13:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Hilda Borko
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    HILDA BORKO is a professor of education at Stanford University. Her research explores the process of learning to teach, with an emphasis on changes in novice and experienced teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learning, and their classroom practices, as they participate in teacher education and professional development programs. With Karen Koellner and Jennifer Jacobs, she is designing and studying a program to prepare mathematics leaders to facilitate the Problem Solving Cycle model of professional development.
  • Karen Koellner
    Hunter College, City University of New York
    KAREN KOELLNER is an associate professor in mathematics education at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her research is focused on student's mathematical thinking, instructional practice and professional development.
  • Jennifer Jacobs
    University of Colorado, Boulder
    JENNIFER JACOBS is a Faculty Research Associate at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the Institute of Cognitive Science. Her focus is on educational and comparative research, specifically mathematics education, instructional practice, and professional development.
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