June 22, 2015

A Better Course for Teacher PD

A new take on professional development offers teachers a differentiated learning experience

Ruth Hibbard’s seventh grade mathematics class could hardly be described as one-size-fits-all. She uses technology tools, hands-on activities with manipulatives, and quick, targeted assessments to help her students grasp fundamental math concepts.

It’s hard work to provide each of her special education students with individualized ways to make sense of the content—called differentiation in the parlance of education—but she knows that it’s the best way to foster learning.

But when Hibbard attends professional development workshops, she experiences a different reality. Content is delivered as if she and her fellow educators all have a common set of prior experiences, strengths, and needs.

“We all have different levels of knowledge about the topic at hand,” she says. “Teachers say, ‘Why don’t they differentiate for us?’”

EDC’s Amy Brodesky had been wondering the same thing for a long time. So she decided to develop and study a new approach to professional development—one that provides teachers with more choice in their professional learning.

Now five years into Differentiated Professional Development (DPD)—a National Science Foundation-funded project—Brodesky and her EDC colleagues Emily Fagan, Cheryl Rose Tobey, and Linda Hirsch have built three courses that offer teachers the opportunity to tailor their professional learning. To date, 148 teachers in 21 school districts have participated.

“Through our work on this project, we realized a significant disconnect,” says Brodesky. “Teachers are expected to differentiate instruction for their students, but most have never had a differentiated learning experience themselves.”

Reaching all teachers

The 12-week courses are designed for teachers of grades 4 through 7 and use both face-to-face and online sessions. In each course, participants explore topics that students often struggle with and which are critical to later mathematics learning: fractions, decimals, and positive and negative numbers.

The courses contain core mathematical activities and a self-assessment as well as a feature known as “choice points,” which gives teachers the opportunity for a more in-depth look at a mathematical concept or instructional method being covered.

For example, after completing several core activities about dividing by fractions, teachers can choose one of three choice point options: applying their understanding of the operation by solving and writing word problems, using visual models to grapple with fraction division problems that contain a remainder, or exploring why the commonly taught fraction division algorithm—to multiply by the reciprocal of the divisor—works.

This freedom to pursue mathematical ideas of individual interest is what sets the DPD courses apart from more traditional approaches, where all participants typically engage in the same learning activities together.

“Research on adult learners shows that people want learning opportunities that are directly relevant to their jobs and that provide choice,” says Brodesky. “A differentiated model invites teachers to play a big role in their own education, which helps make the professional development more engaging and more relevant.”

Higher standards

 Building professional development opportunities that work for all teachers is especially important now as implementation of new mathematics standards requires upper elementary, middle school, and special education teachers to collaborate more than ever before.

Fagan believes the differentiated model of the DPD courses allows teachers from all three groups, and with a broad range of teaching experiences and mathematical content knowledge, to participate in ways that are intellectually rigorous.

“The choice points encourage teachers to take intellectual risks to advance their knowledge and practice,” she says.

Hibbard agrees and says she purposefully chose activities that were harder for her during the workshop to explore new ways to convey difficult concepts to her students.

“Having the choice points was excellent,” says Hibbard. “I can perform integer operations with a high level of accuracy most of the time. But I didn’t really have an understanding of how to present underlying concepts to students, as when multiplying a negative by a negative.”

Preliminary research conducted by the authors has shown that the courses are having a positive impact on both teacher and student mathematical knowledge.

“Teachers really appreciated the ability to make more choices in their professional development,” says Brodesky. “They often remarked that experiencing differentiation in their own learning reinforced the value of providing this opportunity for their students, too.”