Blog Posts

Professional Development Versus Arrested Development

I participated in a Twitter chat the other night that focused on professional development in school. I have always found this idea of PD to be an interesting beast. When I first got into education I thought, wow this is great! My school is going to pay me to go learn something and then I will come back to school and share about it with all my colleagues and they will be amazed at all the new things I’ve learned and we can all advance our teaching hand and hand into a golden rainbow of the future.

What I soon realized though is that the true reality went something like this. My school would pay to fly me somewhere, I would sit in a large conference room where a keynote speaker would tell me how bad standardized testing is and how we all need to change education for the future, and then I’d meet up at the bar with some teachers I just met to talk trash about our respective schools. I’d then return home, tell my peers how great it was, look over a bunch of random notes I made on my iPad, not really remember all that I crammed in my head in three days, and go back to teaching life as normal.

It didn’t really click for me until a few years into my teaching when I went to a Visible Learning conference in which I was introduced to the idea of “collective teacher efficacy” that I realized what the problem here was. And the irony was that I was attending this conference all by myself with over 1200 of my closest new friends. Now I don’t want this to be some pessimistic jaded rant about the failures of large scale “edu-corporate” PD, because these gatherings can be very useful and I have gained a lot of insight in attending some of these.

What I do want to propose is that there are cheaper, more readily accessible, and less time-consuming ways to have a positive impact on the learning our students experience in our classrooms. And its something I’d like to call the “dream and do” approach (we can also call this the D-n-D approach too if you’d like). In fact, it’s the bi-line I chose to put at the top of my blog I believe in it so much. What this entails is dreaming up big ideas and putting them into action in your classroom. I’d suggest using a design-thinking framework when doing this to help you towards successful implementation. To get started I’d really suggest the Design Thinking for Educators toolkit that you can download for free here put together by IDEO.

As part of this process, I think it would be helpful to have open and candid discussions with your peer teachers that you trust about some of your ideas and be open to their feedback and input on what you are looking to implement. I’d carefully reflect on what you are doing and share out to teachers you trust or even ask one of them to come in and observe you in their free time if it lines up. Document everything you do, be attentive to student feedback and how they react. Pay close attention to how you are impacting student learning and be open to pivoting if you see that something isn’t working. Be honest with the students that you are trying something new with the sole goal of making their learning experience better.

Consider jump-starting an account on Twitter and begin engaging and interacting with other educators (follow me at I’d be happy to chat!). I think you’d be amazed at the level of development that you can have in your teaching profession with this approach. And the amazing thing is it doesn’t even cost a dime! Before meetings share with other teachers what you are doing, or start a conversation with a teacher that you don’t often talk to and ask them if they are trying anything new. What this does is it helps you start to be part of a community of learners, just like we ask our students to be.

And then, now here’s the kicker, when professional development opportunities do come up during the course of the year, gather the people that you’ve been engaging with and bring your proposal to your leadership member/s. Tell them that you feel a team of three or four teachers should attend this conference because it would support insert teaching skill here. Now you can start moving towards authentic teacher efficacy. You can start to build a tribe of teachers looking to create shared learning networks around a common skill or need. From there the learning can spread and create a culture of learning and development unlike the individualized isolationist “development” of the past.

Is this a perfect model? No. Is this going to work for every teacher at every school? Of course not. But if you feel like you have been just going through the motions with your professional development proposals and starting to look at which conference is closest to your cousin’s town so you can go to a wine and food festival afterward, you might want to try this approach and begin to engage more deeply with your work and with your teaching tribe.

Mathematical Storytelling

I participated in a webinar this afternoon led by mathematics educator Sunil Singh titled “Using Math History and Storytelling to Invite Equity Into Our Classrooms”. Since I started in mathematics education some seven years ago I’ve thought a lot about how I could incorporate this idea into my teaching, but I have struggled to find a comfortable entry point. Yes, I’ve tried a few different things. For example, a couple years ago I took an old world map that our geography teacher was going to throw out and pasted on a bunch of pictures of historical figures from mathematics like Brahmagupta, Al-Khwarizmi, and Euclid with little notes below about their contributions to mathematical thinking. I hung this up outside my classroom along with some pictures of other important mathematicians around my classroom. Those have been good conversation starters for some curious students who happen to notice, and an opportunity for some storytelling around the human part of mathematics.

But what I have been looking for though was a way to connect this to the content that we are covering in the Algebra classroom. Mr. Singh shared the following progression on the impact of history and storytelling: storytelling -> humanization -> belonging -> curiosity. As a teacher who values curiosity, wonder, critical and creative thinking, this was an intriguing invitation to dig deeply into this ideas of storytelling. He also shared that in order to create vibrant classrooms we need to find an intersection of us (teacher), them (students) and math.

So after this webinar I set out to examine some resources he shared to see what I could uncover to bring into my classroom. One person Mr. Singh mentioned is Jonathan J. Crabtree who does lots of work around incorporating ancient Indian mathematics into the current times. In researching his materials I came across some interesting things that I am looking forward to implementing. Here is one resource I would like to point to: It’s a pretty long slide deck, but he walks you through some pretty basic yet revealing ideas behind operations and the integers. And what I am able to glean from this is that there is potentially a comfortable entry point for an element of storytelling when covering content.

The example that came to mind is when solving one- and two-step equations. Let’s take 2x-7=11 for example. When having to “undo” subtraction I find many students will try to “add a negative”, ie do “+ -7” to both sides and come up with 2x=4 and then x=2. Obviously, there is some carryover from their earlier math classes in which the idea of applying the rules of operations using negative numbers is getting jumbled up. I am thinking that this would be a great place to do a short lesson on Brahmagupta’s concept of negative and positive integers (see slides 71 and 72 from the above link from Crabtree). My instincts tell me that attaching a human storytelling element to the concept would have more impact than trying to repeat the abstract explanation that obviously didn’t work for that student before when the concept was first introduced at age 11 or 12.

In my Algebra class, we have just finished the first part of the text that covers linear equations so I may have to workshop this idea in more detail for next year. But what it has done is opened up my eyes to the potential power of storytelling and historical origins when teaching mathematical concepts. Looking forward to our unit on solving quadratic equations I will be building out a lesson I have done on completing the square in which I share how this was first developed by the Babylonians when calculating land divisions.

In this case, rather than just mention in passing that the idea of completing the square was first used many centuries ago, I would like to place that human experience at the center of the learning. My goal is to emphasize that the entire reason that we have this concept of completing the square was that humans found themselves up against a very real human problem that required a very real human solution. I’ll make a note to return to this with a blog post in the future when I arrive at that lesson.

I am very grateful for Sunil Singh to have started this discussion and offered his webinar. I am hopeful that more teachers of mathematics take his ideas to heart and are looking at their own ways of bringing this approach to teaching into their classroom.

It took me back to my own days when I was younger when my dad shared with me how the Greeks calculated the circumference of the earth. It was those ideas that got me so interested in mathematics in the first place. Why? I think because it tapped into my curiosity. My dad used storytelling to describe the human problem at hand and how there was a very real human element to solving this problem. This humanized the idea of pi, and the circumference of a circle. This made me feel a belonging to not only this mathematical concept, but history as well. And from there it tapped into my curiosity. How did they know the value of pi? How did we get a more accurate calculation of the circumference of the earth? How did we calculate the circumference of the moon? And I want to bring that joy into my classroom for my students to experience as well.

What is educational intrapreneurship?

I look at our job as teachers as being one of designing learning experiences for our students. And I have often thought of this process of designing these learning experiences as involving heavy amounts of risk taking and innovation. So one day as I was reading something or the other about entrepreneurial thinking I came across the term “intrapreneurship”. I came to learn that this was a term that was created by Gifford Pinchot III. He defined it the following way: “Those who take hands-on responsibility for creating innovation of any kind, within a business”.

This was a game-changing sentiment to me at the time. Since we as teachers are in the business of education, I made the connection that this is an apt description of what we do when we are at our best. We are taking initiative to create unique new ways in which to create learning experiences for our students. So in creating this blog, I thought this is the perfect manner in which to describe what I want to write about.

So what does educational intrapreneurship look like? I feel that it can take many forms, but at its core it is any learning that you design and implement at your school. Since we are all working “within” some school or institution, we are all working within the broader vision of that institution. While entrepreneurs create things from the ground up, we as teachers are most often working within an organization and so are having to build things from within. And I personally think that there is a lot of value in this type of innovation, and one that is often overlooked and undervalued.

For example, let’s say I am tasked with teaching how to solve quadratic equations in my mathematics classroom. I have two options, I can take the activities from the teacher text book, follow the pre-designed lesson plan and sequence, issue the pre-made assessments on the recommended date, and correction the test with the given answer key. And I could do all of this with doing very little if any deep thinking, and any other teacher could replicate that process and create a very similar experience for their students somewhere else in the world.

Or instead I can use a little intrapreneurial thinking and I could examine the provided activities, pick them apart, pull out the elements that I think will support student learning. Make adjustments to the scope and sequence of the learning, work with students to write our own success criteria and learning targets. Utilize student input to create formative assessments and create self-assessment opportunities based on the pace of the learning. Collaboratively design the unit assessment and allow for student agency in deciding how they can showcase their learning.

That is educational intrapreneurship!

In what I described I am working within the school organization to create innovation. It’s powerful stuff. It makes me as the teacher an active change agent working in collaboration with the students that are participating in the learning. It is an iterative process that asks the participants to be calculated risk takers. It requires us to independently research, to collaborate with our peers and be self-reflective in the process. As educators we are more than just facilitators of learning, we are designers, implementers, and co-creators!

To me this is a much more exciting type of education to be a part of. I hope to find more like minded teachers, learners, and designers who share this mindset and are looking to engage with others who feel the same way. It’s cool to be different. It’s exciting to initiate change. It’s important that we are reflective agents for change in the education space.