Rethinking Professional Development for Elementary Mathematics Teachers

By Walker, Erica N. | Teacher Education Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Professional Development for Elementary Mathematics Teachers


Walker, Erica N., Teacher Education Quarterly


Introduction

Researchers have found that despite reformers' best efforts, teachers' mathematics classroom practice remains largely unchanged--in part because teachers hold fast to their own mathematics understandings, attitudes, and experiences (Ball, 1996; Raymond, 1997; Tzur, Martin, Heinz, & Kinzel, 2001). In particular, in the last decade, elementary mathematics teachers have found themselves balancing a number of sometimes competing requirements in their teaching: adhering to mathematics reform initiatives in their school, district, and/or state; meeting the expectations of principals and parents; and finding ways to ensure that their students are able to perform adequately on standardized tests that have significant ramifications for teachers and students if students fail (Manouchehri, 1997; Raymond, 1997; Schoenfeld, 2002). In recent years, many teacher education programs have begun to address elementary mathematics instruction by helping prospective elementary teachers expand their knowledge of mathematics content. This has often occurred through mandating more mathematics courses (American Mathematical Society, 2001); but often these courses have not focused on the special needs of elementary teachers.

Further, the support that these teachers receive once they leave teacher education programs is often sporadic and shallow (Borman & Associates, 2005). With the advent of new curricula, professional development for elementary teachers is often heavily focused on implementation of a particular curricular package, which may target organizational or logistical requirements of the curriculum rather than mathematics content or pedagogy aligned with content objectives. Many of these curricula, seeking alignment with National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards reform documents (1989; 2001), require substantially more teacher engagement with students than 'traditional' textbooks and their framers expect elementary teachers to deeply understand the underpinnings of elementary mathematics (D'Ambrosio, Boone, & Harkness, 2004). In order to spur student learning of mathematics, rather than just performance, teachers are expected to respond to student misconceptions, help students develop conceptual understanding, and provide multiple curricula and media to do it (American Mathematical Society, 2001; Frykholm, 1999). This can be difficult when teachers themselves may hold misconceptions, have limited rather than deep conceptual understanding of mathematical topics, and may not understand how working with different media and manipulatives can contribute to student thinking and learning in mathematics.

I developed a professional development model designed to address these issues as part of a larger study of an intervention, Dynamic Pedagogy, (1) targeting Grade 3 students and their teachers in an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school district in upstate New York. My fellow researchers and I, through Dynamic Pedagogy, sought to improve student learning and performance in mathematics, as well as develop 'habits of mind' conducive to life long learning habits among these children. However, we soon realized that we first had to enhance teacher understanding of mathematics and help teachers to create mathematics classroom experiences that would foster student thinking, so that teachers would be able to effectively implement the Dynamic Pedagogy intervention. This paper discusses the professional development model and describes how it was reflected in the classroom practice of participating teachers. Because much of the literature in teacher education is silent on the mechanisms by which teacher education and professional development affect actual classroom practice, I also report how this model influenced one teacher's planning and instruction in mathematics.

Background

   Teaching elementary mathematics requires both considerable
   mathematical knowledge and a wide range of pedagogical skills. 

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