Editor’s note: This is Chapter 15 in a series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California. He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The Atlantic, Education Next, Education News and AMS Notices. He is also the author of three books on math education. Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd. If it is made into a movie I will be played by either Jeff Bridges or Harrison Ford. The part of Ellen will be played by Jamie Lee Curtis; Diane will be played by Helen Mirren.” The previous chapters can be found here: Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 , Chapter 4 , Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12 and Chapter 13 and Chapter 14.
Ch 15. Professional Development, Memorization, and Dubious Rubrics
As part of the parole/credentialing process, I was required to have nine hours of Professional Development (PD) for the school year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a conference I attended prior to my starting at Cypress came in handy when it came time for my first mentor Ellen to fill in the electronic checklist on professional development (PD).
I had attended a conference given at Oxford University, sponsored by a grass-roots organization called researchED, a teacher-led organization dedicated to disseminating information on effective teaching practices backed by scientific research. I had in fact given a presentation at this conference about the state of math education in the U.S., how it got that way, and how it looked like it was going to stay there thanks to Common Core.
I asked Ellen whether I could count my attendance at the researchED conference, given that it occurred in the summer before I started at Cypress. “Of course it does,” she said. “I wish we could count it double, since you presented there.”
She didn’t ask what my presentation was about, nor did I volunteer it. In fact no one at the school ever asked. While I’d like to paint myself as a totally altruistic hero, I have to say I really wish someone had shown even the slightest interest.
“Can you describe a session that you attended?” Ellen asked.
I told her about a session on the role of memory in learning and understanding. She looked at me over her lap top.
“Memorization?” she asked.
“Memorization is not a good thing,” she said as if she were talking about parents beating their children. “Was this person advocating it?”
“It was about how memory plays a role in learning.”
This wasn’t looking good. “You taught biology, right? Did you need to know a lot of information?”
“Names of organisms, what’s in a cell, and so forth, right? Somehow that gets into your long-term memory doesn’t it?”
She started typing information into her electronic form. “OK, how does this sound?” she asked. “The session focused on long term memory and its role in understanding.”
“Sounds good,” I said. While she did not appear entirely convinced that this was true, she did look satisfied that it would pass muster by her superiors. I use the same technique. For example, if asked to describe in writing my preferred teaching style, I might say “I use direct and explicit instruction with worked examples to fulfill my intentionality of having students construct their own knowledge.”
“What other PD did you have this year?” she asked.
“This is where it gets a bit difficult,” I said. “I was required to attend a six hour session held here at the school the week before school started.”
“Why is this difficult?”
“Because I really didn’t like it. It was called ‘How to lesson design like a rock star teacher.’ “
“It was about designing lessons?”
“More or less. I guess. I don’t know. It was six hours of being all over the map, and the guy clearly didn’t like certain things.”
I stopped there. It was hard to know what to say or not say about it. There was the “ice breaker” in which the moderator—a jovial know-it-all who name dropped several constructivist leaders he admired—had us state what our “super power” is? (Why is so much PD steeped with the vocabulary that has teachers being “rock stars” or “super heroes”?) I noticed that James, the union rep said “sarcasm” which I found interesting. When the leader got to me, I said “Card magic”. Although the moderator has a rejoinder for each person’s response, he didn’t know what to say to mine, so he moved on.
There was the comparison we had to make between various instructional methods, using a scoring rubric based on Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking—a textbook example of confirmation bias. Creativity was based on whether the method incorporated open ended questions with more than one answer. The moderator showed the first candidate on the screen:
My group agreed that there’s nothing wrong with a math workbook and we gave it high points, but we didn’t exactly follow the rubric either. We saw the need for practice, and felt that not everything has to be open ended or collaborative. Since there are no wrong answers in situations like these, the moderator upon seeing that we gave it a good score exclaimed “Good for you!” and then added “There’s nothing wrong with workbooks, they have their place, but you have to be aware of the potential for creativity.” Which was the edu-reform way of saying: “You really shouldn’t have given workbooks such a high rating.”
I told Ellen none of this given her educational inclinations.
“I can see that a six hour session on lesson design is a bit much,” she said. “But can you think of anything that you got out of it?” I could see she needed something positive in order to fill out her electronic form.
“Well there was one thing that made sense,” I said. “He was critical of projects like building models of the California missions out of sugar cubes, or making a model of a Navajo village, because it is not teaching anything other than the construction itself.”
“Ah, good,” she said and started typing. “How does this sound? ‘Effective lessons should reflect and reinforce what students are expected to learn about a particular subject.’ ”
“Sounds good,” I said.
I wasn’t being completely honest about this part of the PD. I neglected to tell her that after making his point about how sugar cube missions had no educational value, he told us what he thought was in fact a good activity. (Wait for it). “Minecraft!” he said.
For those who don’t know, Minecraft is a video game version of Lego blocks in which players build structures while discovering and extracting raw materials, making tools, and fighting computer-controlled mobs.
I’m not sure what rubric he was using to give Minecraft high marks, but I suspect it had to do with the “potential” for Creativity. Or words to that effect.