Magazine article Teaching Children Mathematics

Listening to Teachers: Planning for Professional Development. (Early Childhood Corner)

Magazine article Teaching Children Mathematics

Listening to Teachers: Planning for Professional Development. (Early Childhood Corner)

Article excerpt

"Teachers are the key to academic achievement for students." This statement is widely accepted, but professional development in early childhood mathematics education faces a number of barriers. What are those barriers? What do teachers have to say about developing their own knowledge of the teaching and learning of mathematics? What should be done to address these problems? Answering these questions was the goal of a recent project funded by the National Science Foundation called "Planning for Professional Development in Pre-School Mathematics: Meeting the Challenge of Standards 2000." This article shares some of the answers I found in the course of that project.

Barriers to Participation

In the past fifteen years, professional development has received a great deal of attention as a means of improving education (Showers, Joyce, and Bennett 1987). Educators find no shortage of suggested guidelines and claims regarding the requirements necessary for successful professional development. However, many barriers that hamper professional development efforts have also been documented.

One economic barrier is the prohibitive cost of attending professional development seminars, especially if employers do not grant release time from work. In addition, teachers have little incentive to participate in professional development because most child-care centers pay little more than the minimum wage. Regulatory barriers exist in the different licensing and certification requirements for experience and training. In fact, many early childhood practitioners in the United States are not required to have any early childhood training to work with young children (NAEYC 1991).

The fact that some teachers' underlying values conflict with innovative practices also poses problems. Teachers' values have widespread effects, influencing both their practices and their students' learning (Peterson et al. 1989). Most teachers were taught mathematics as a body of knowledge consisting of unconnected rules and procedures. Not surprisingly, many early childhood educators identify mathematics as their weakest area of concentration (Schram et al. 1988). Traditional approaches to in-service teacher education, like traditional teaching approaches, explain new information, such as new classroom strategies, techniques, and perspectives, without considering how these ideas might fit with teachers' existing knowledge and beliefs. Even when professional development programs are designed to provoke teacher change by modeling alternative views of content and pedagogy, most teachers are still unlikely to embrace these methods. As past students themselves, teachers have already spent a considerable period o f time in conventional classrooms and their beliefs are deeply held (Kennedy 1991).

No matter what the barriers, research and practice from several fields suggest that the most important feature of a superior educational environment is a knowledgeable and responsive adult. Ongoing, high-quality professional development is essential to reform. Professional development in early childhood mathematics demands considerable attention, especially given the diversity of the teacher and caregiver population. To aid in development of a comprehensive plan for professional development in mathematics, I surveyed early childhood care providers on topics that address some of the barriers identified in the literature and ideas to overcome some of those barriers.

Survey of Professional Development Issues

I sent a survey to more than 4000 individuals who worked in early childhood education in western New York and the Detroit tri-county area. Ten percent of those sampled completed the survey. Two forms of the survey were sent out. Individuals who worked in family and group day care were sent a much shorter form of the survey. A longer form was sent to teachers of four-year-olds in day-care centers, public and parochial schools, traditional nursery schools, and head-start centers. …

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