Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What does responsive professional development look like?

If we want our teachers to engage students in inquiry in the classroom, they need to experience inquiry through the same activities they would use with their students. If we want them to use technology, we need to consider their beliefs, needs, fears, and interest as they pertain to using technology in the classroom. Professional development should be differentiated based on the needs of the teachers that attend!

What would this look like in action? It begins with identifying where teachers are with relation to the topic of the workshop. For example, if teacher have signed up for a technology workshop, then the assessment should try to identify the entry point for teachers with regard to their belief about the use of technology in the classroom, their comfort level with technology, and which forms of technology (probes, blogs, or other forms) they have used or not used before the workshop.

Next, using the data, workshop sessions could be tailored to meet the needs of the teachers attending. This does not mean 25 different learning plans, but rather means looking for where the data forms groups of teachers that are similar. For example, in a recent technology workshop we held though the Martinson Center; almost all the teachers who attended were novices with regard to the use and design of blogs, wikis, and photostory. We did have one teacher who reported she had been using blogs for a while. To ensure she was continually learning and being stretched, we developed an activity that mirrored what the other teachers would be doing, but its design was a little more complex. Instead of just creating a blog, we asked this teacher to mix blogging with what she learned about voice threads. Not only did this keep her engaged during the course, it also kept her learning as it provided a challenge for her. The workshop leader provided support through coaching in order to ensure she was successful. While it would have been easier to develop a session that had the same activities for everyone, this would not have met all of the needs of the teachers participating. With a little bit of effort, we created activities that met the needs of all teachers participating in the course.

Long story short: If we expect teachers to differentiate instruction for students, then professional development should be differentiated for the teachers.

Monday, October 5, 2009

When I work with teachers, it always comes up. It's sort of like the proverbial elephant in the room-science is expensive and I don't have time to get materials.
Research from the National Research Council articulates that new understandings are constructed upon on a foundation of existing understandings and experiences. Without experiences, children are less likely to remember science or math content for very long.
So, if research shows children learn best through experiences, why is it some teachers choose not to do hands-on science. Is it really that expensive or hard to put together? No, not if you believe in the power of hands-on instruction with regard to student learning. Science does not have to be about glass test tubes and beakers. All you need is about 5$ per lesson and many of the materials can be found at stores located right around the corner.

Here is a quick and simple example to articulate my point. My daughter had been studying matter and while she could rattle off the definitions with ease, I wanted to see if she could use what she knew to explain whether or not a substance was a liquid or a solid or both. The materials for the activity were corn starch, water, a bowl, and a spoon. Before we started, I put some corn starch in the bowl and asked her to describe it using words. Next, she began to add the water very slowly while stirring. Eventually the corn starch became like thick gravy.
Gak, oobleck, or whatever you might know it as, is really cool to play with. If you get the consistency of water to corn starch right, you create a substance that seems like a solid, but then moves like a liquid. I think my daughter's face says it all! We had a blast playing with our matter and watching it go from a solid to a liquid. Could she explain whether she thought the substance was a solid or liquid, yes! Was she able to describe the physical properties using words associated with size, shape, and texture? Yes! More importantly, she remembers that experience and is now comparing things to the Gak. Now I know all you science buffs out there will say it is a non-Newtonian fluid and you would be right-but try to explaining that to a 3rd grader!
Long story short: Science doesn't have to be hard or expensive! But the time spent doing science is worth it!

National Research Council. (2005) How students learn: Science in the classroom. National Academy Press: Washington D.C.