George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Engaging Teachers in Math

March 21, 2013
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

I used to like Robert Marzano's ideas. Now, I couldn't possibly disagree with him more.

His obsession with data is appealing to administrators and central district staff who use his name (along with Mike Schmoker, Charlotte Danielson and the whole list of educational pedagogy specialists) as justification for every plan they have. But Marzano's way of enumerating things often makes us data rich and information poor. Much of his data relies heavily upon putting a number to something that's often arbitrary to the casual observer. For instance, no matter how often someone tries to put a number 1 through 4 on something within a rubric and give it dimensions, teachers might still want to rely on a 3.5 or a 1.5 to describe what's happening in that dimension. Nor does putting a number to something let us see things more holistically.

So let's grow beyond that.

We ought to rethink professional learning communities with our "subject" teams. Meeting with colleagues around our topics of study is critical to our never-ending professional development. Most of my colleagues agree that having these conversations about math matters more than input from outside consultants, book studies, or any other set of meetings we attend on a yearly basis.

When having conversations about math, here are some things I've seen that work, as both a math teacher and a math coach.

Create the Curriculum with Your Team; If Not, Learn!

Working with different educators, I've found one of the common threads with new teachers is that they never learn how to create a curriculum map, pacing calendar or unit map. Part of that stems from states creating the material themselves and dumping it into their schools so that every teacher in every classroom in every school in every district is in the same exact place no matter where their representatives go.

The problem with this is that not every child is the same, much less every classroom. Once teachers get handed the curriculum, some of them assume the thinking behind it is complete, and they just have to follow what they see. That never works.

Instead, teachers should develop curricula in teams. If they can come together, line up topics that they decide to cover, and gather appropriate materials, the conversations will run more smoothly throughout the year. Not only does this lead to less confusion, but any common struggles come to the fore pretty early on, and sharing assessments becomes a breeze.

Keep This Rule of Thumb: Complete, Consistent, Correct

By "complete, consistent, correct," I mean we should allow multiple pathways to a correct answer that a) allow for full understanding of a given procedure, b) can be used time and again without fail, and c) actually have a sound basis in math. While it sounds constricting, it removes some of the limitations we've set for ourselves when looking at student work.

For instance, when finding 25% of 80, the most basic thing we can do is turn the percent into a decimal (0.25) and multiply that decimal by 80. The result is 20. Yet when I presented this problem to a seventh grade class just learning this, one of the students astutely observed that 10% of 80 is 8, and 25% is just 10% + 10% + 5%. They doubled 8 (16), then took half of 8 (4), and added the results (16 + 4 = 20).

Some teachers might mark that incorrect because it doesn't follow the exact procedure they asked for, but we really should accept such a response fully, not just because of the answer, but because the procedure the student used works time and again.

Focus on the Evidence of Student Learning, Please

Having conversations around students always leads down a slippery slope about their competence for math. In other words, some colleagues find a name on their roster and say, "They can't even do this much! How can you expect them to do that?!" If someone in the meeting is unwilling to address this statement productively, it often leads to eye rolls and headaches.

Instead, let's redirect our professional conversations to just the evidence of student learning. For instance, we can establish a set of things that a team can do during the time given, such as creating tasks or having discussions around curriculum revision. Once we focus ourselves on instruction during those times, the conversations become more fluid. Because of math's technical aspects, fluid conversation means so much more because we can't afford to lose time on items that don't flow with students' actual learning.

Overall, we need our professional learning communities to work for us. We need to foster a collaborative spirit, and it makes no sense to constantly complain about children's deficiencies or make changes based on educational fads and not on viable best practices. Simply casting doubt on everything that crosses our desks doesn't help us grow, either.

The key is to keep it simple. No amount of jargon or professional books can usurp a team of teachers that come together on a consistent basis and focus on getting the math right. Robert Marzano would agree.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math

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