Lynn Goldsmith began her career as a developmental psychologist studying child prodigies and other cognitive developmental phenomena. Hoping to help learners of all types, she broadened her research to study teachers’ professional development in mathematics—how they learn and stay current in their ever-changing classrooms.
Popular media often report on classroom practices and how children learn. But we don’t see as much attention given to how teachers themselves learn and stay current. Why do you think that’s so?
Well, I think to some extent there’s an assumption that if you’re a teacher, you already know what you need to know. But teaching, like any other profession, requires lifelong learning. Not only do ideas about best instructional practices change, but our understanding of the developmental trajectories of children’s learning in different content areas also improves.
What are the challenges for teachers to engage in professional development?
Every year, teachers get a whole new bunch of kids, and every year, they need to think about what’s different and what’s the same about this group in order to do the best job possible of promoting the learning and well-being of their students. One challenge is simply finding the time for professional development. Many people think teachers have easy 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedules, but the time teachers spend in the classroom is only a small part of the story. Teachers spend may hours before and after school, and on weekends, planning instruction and providing students feedback on their work.
A second challenge comes from examining their practice critically while going into class and teaching every day. Someone once described trying to integrate professional development into daily practice as “trying to redesign an airplane while you’re flying it.”
Another challenge, particularly for teachers who have been in the field for many years, is coming to understand professional development as useful and relevant. Professional development is often top-down, with districts mandating that teachers must learn this or that to be in keeping with best practices. Many teachers have seen districts tout programs and approaches that come and go, and they become a little cynical about the “next best thing.”
What are some of the most popular and effective ways that teachers can engage in professional development?
There is currently a lot of interest in models that provide in-school coaching for teachers. Professional development that occurs outside of school hours is also pretty popular. One-shot workshops are being replaced by ongoing, sustained work that often lasts a year or even longer. Part of the work of these extended professional development groups is to develop communities of practice, where teachers construct, together, a culture of collaborative inquiry. Case study approaches to the content of professional development have gotten to be quite popular, as has lesson study, a form of ongoing professional development which began in Japan and has been gaining interest in the United States.
Another aspect of professional development I’ve been working on with Nanette Seago of WestEd and Mark Driscoll here at EDC is helping teachers use classroom artifacts—for example, short video segments of mathematics lessons or students’ written work—to hone in on important issues about mathematics learning and teaching. Artifacts can be powerful tools for helping teachers focus deeply on students’ mathematical thinking. We’ve been particularly interested in understanding how to help teachers use artifacts skillfully to inquire into practice.
Tell us a bit about your new research study in the arts.
I’ve just started an interesting new project with Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland from Harvard Project Zero. We’re investigating whether intensive training in visual arts gives students an advantage in geometric reasoning. We’re comparing the geometric reasoning abilities of Boston high school students who are enrolled in intensive painting studies with students who are studying domains that call upon other, less visual knowledge and skill. We will begin data collection next fall.
How does your background in developmental psychology apply to your current research?
It really makes me think about how people learn—kids and adults. I’m interested in the kinds of things teachers learn in professional development, and also the processes that seem to make learning most effective. My goal as a researcher is to provide the knowledge that’s important for designing and providing professional development for teachers that’s more substantive, more relevant, and more engaging.