Lani Horn gave the first keynote at Twitter Math Camp today. Her talk was titled Growing Our Own Practice: How Mathematics Teachers Can Use Social Media to Support Ongoing Improvement, and she spoke about teachers’ professional learning, and how we can improve that learning in the MTBoS. I will skim over some parts and focus on my big takeaways, and what I hope to do with them.
Lani focused on the differences she sees between good and great teachers in her research, and noted three things about great teachers. I am paraphrasing her a bit, but:
- Problem Frames: the way teachers talk about issues in teaching are actionable, and reference things teachers can do to change something.
- Representations: the ways that students talk about and think about teaching are centered around students and student understanding.
- Interpretive Principles: the ways that teachers think about what happens in class look at the broader structure of how students, instruction, and learning interact together.
I really love this approach to thinking about great teachers. I’m a big fan of the research on novices vs experts, and the fundamental differences in the ways they think about their fields. I think this idea — teasing out what the important features of great teaching are, and how we as teachers can focus our attention on those features, seems like the way to improve teachers’ reflection and professional growth.
I think interpretive principles in particular is really key. Lani used the word “ecology” to describe the way they looked at classroom — as a complex set of interactions, rather than straightforward cause and effect that can oversimplify the act of teaching. This gets at some huge ideas of formative assessment and ambitious teaching that I am wrestling with at the moment — it’s a challenging way to look at teaching, but an important one.
Lani gave a few pieces of advice for us to think about how to make the most of our professional growth online. She suggested:
- Engage in the #MTBoS
- Add to our collective representations of teaching
- Have conversations that push interpretations of teaching
- Find ways to grow your understanding
- Develop a sense of the interconnections in our work, between all of the things that are happening in our classrooms
I love Lani’s ideas, and I want to think through the challenges in what she’s talking about.
The first is that we lack a common vision of what great teaching looks like. Lani wrote a great post a while back titled “First, Do No Harm“. She asked if math teachers should have a sort of “Hippocratic Oath”, of things to avoid that do harm to a students’ belief in themselves as mathematical sense makers. She named practices like timed math tests and not giving partial credit — but these aren’t widely agreed upon by math teachers, even within the MTBoS. How does this lack of consensus affect our ability to have these conversations publicly?
Parallel to this is the “echo chamber” effect. It often seems like people are spending all of their time talking to like-minded folks, and hearing the same opinions bouncing around over and over again. I think that, in general, people are good at having constructive disagreements and working through challenging issues on the internet. I really value all of the wonderful people who comment on my blog and tell me when I’m saying something stupid. But the MTBoS is completely organic, and people tend to talk to people who agree with them. The lack of consensus I mentioned above — those people tend to miss each other, and that’s a challenge in creating common representations of teaching.
Finally, it seems to me like the movement of conversation from blogs to Twitter the last few years has taken away some of the nuance of the conversation. I think that the depth of ideas that Lani is talking about take more than 140 characters, and if there is going to be this type of discourse, I’m skeptical it will meet its potential on Twitter.
None of these are insurmountable, but all affect the discourse on the internet, and they’re all traps that I unconsciously fall into if I am not deliberate about my interactions.
I am looking forward to taking this lens to my interactions here and on Twitter. I have three goals coming out of this. First, I want to return to Lani’s ideas to make sure that I am talking productively about teaching. I think my blog serves as a great filter to help me talk more productively than my actual self in school, where I tend to whine and complain a lot more than I do online. Second, I want to think carefully about the balance between theory and practice in my thinking about teaching. Theory is important, and it builds the representations that Lani is talking about, but grounding that work in the concrete actions that we take in front of students every day is essential to making positive change. This is difficult, in particular in light of the different classroom context each teacher comes from, but building that context and linking theory and practice has to happen. Third, I want to have the courage to challenge the ideas of others and to invite others to challenge mine, as we work through our ideas about teaching and build a common understanding of what we want our classrooms to look like.