Creating a Knowledge Base by Scott Willis

Creating a Knowledge Base by Scott Willis, Educational Leadership (2002)


 Q1) How is our concept of effective professional development changing?

The standards movement has really changed professional development.  It is now directly related to teacher’s practice, given on site throughout the school year, and it is curriculum based.

Many teachers want to receive professional development in the same manner as their students, through active learning.  Professional development should have teachers in the role of students- this gives them a working base knowledge of how their students will receive instruction and they can adjust instruction accordingly.

Q2) How would you describe past professional development practices?

Professional development has been given off-campus, at a hotel or university.  It has been generic so that it can be given to a large number of teachers.  They have been varied- independent consultants giving presentations without tying into an overall curriculum for schools, it was not research based.

Going to professional development programs was tricky for some educators.  You needed to examine what they were presenting and how it would fit into your curriculum, if it actually did.  Schools would typically send teachers to different professional development workshops which may or may not actually provide useful knowledge for their curriculum.  Teachers attended and were not expected to implement practices into their teaching or to even report out to peers about the workshop.  Different sessions would even provide conflicting information about best practices in the classroom.

Q3) What do teachers need to learn from professional development?

Teachers need to learn 3 things in order to change the effectiveness of their classroom instruction.  They need to learn how to analyze practice, they need to be exposed to alternative methods and they need to develop a feel for when to implement different methods into instruction.

Teachers need to think about the relationship between teaching and learning.  If students are not learning a concept, teachers need to be able to identify where in their lesson students are struggling.  They need to be exposed to multiple methods of presenting information to students.  Every student brings a different skill set to the classroom and teachers need to be able to meet those diverse sets, or be able to research different ways to present information to those students.  Teachers also need to develop a feel for the best teaching practice in their classroom based on student knowledge and skill set.

Q4) What is your vision for a better form of professional development?

A good example if a lesson-study program.  Teachers collaborate on instructional planning, observe what happens when it’s implemented, analyze what went wrong, formulate ideas on improving instruction, and reapply to classrooms.  Teachers find this model valuable, and are able to reproduce the activity easily.

Teachers need to be active learners in their curriculum.  They need to experience lessons in the same context as their students.  They can then make adjustments to instruction or develop alternate strategies to present if students struggle.

Q5) Do US teachers need to overcome reluctance to participate in these collaborative activities?

Yes, and many teachers are doing this.  When other teachers notice what is happening, they generally want to participate as well.  This shifts teaching from a private profession to public- which could be daunting for some teachers.

Some teachers are very self conscience about what they are doing in their classroom and are unable to discuss methods with others.  They need to be able to talk about instructional practices in a way that they will not internalize bad practices but be encouraged to implement methods that will benefit students.

Q6) What other challenges do we need to overcome to improve professional development practices?

We need to develop a knowledge base for the teaching profession.  They learn from their individual experiences but need to have a way to share that knowledge with peers.  We have relied on academic researchers to generate this knowledge alone, but it is not designed to solve classroom problems.  We also need to develop contexts where collaborative work can be sustained, shifting focus from having enough time to something teachers consider valuable and integrate into the classroom.  We need to encourage teachers to participate in these activities so they can be more successful for their students.

The MTBoS is a place that addresses these concerns.  Starting my own blog and professional twitter account has connected me in a way I could have never hoped to in the past.  It provides a large Professional Learning Community for a variety of different topics/focuses.  It allows us to collaborate on instruction without sharing a common locale.  In my opinion, if teachers are not connecting in this way they are really missing out on a great resource for their classrooms.

Q7) How could we create a knowledge base for teaching?

Teachers need to have a knowledge bast that is organized in accordance to standards and curriculum because that is how they need to access it.  It needs to have multiple representations: videotaped lessons, teaching aids, lesson plans, supplemental materials, etc that is available online for any teacher.

This has been done over the years since this article was published.  SciMathMN and MathShell are examples of this type of work.

Q8) Ideally, wouldn’t that knowledge base be centralized so that it could be shared by the whole country, or even internationally?

The most feasible design is to develop a platform where teachers can store their own knowledge, share it with their colleagues and begin to gather contributions from various other sources.  These would be built by teachers, districts and states in a format that is easily shared.

Once again, this has happened to a large extent (with the exclusion of video components).  the MTBoS is more individualized per teacher, where MathShell and SciMathMN are at a larger scale.  Teaching Instructors should either promote or develop a central base for their district to make this more accessible for new teachers and administration.

Q9) Why is it important to have a video component?  What are the advantages?

Teaching is a performance, it occurs real-time.  In order to improve, you need to study live classrooms.  Video allows you to capture, revisit and reflect.  It shows you the complete picture of a lesson that paper can’t convey.

Video is a powerful medium through which we can improve our teaching.  We all can recall times when we wished we had done something different in a lesson, but video allows us to see things we can’t- those students who we miss while we are in the front of the room.  It allows us to observe the whole classroom, playback parts of the lesson to hear discussions or questions that my may mentally dismiss.  It also shows our appearance to students, our body language, facial expressions and tone that students see.

Q10) Should teachers contribute only videotapes of classes that they think are exemplary, or should they also use a tape of a class that fell apart or a mediocre example?

It is probably not useful to watch video of a disastrous lesson, there are different things that can go wrong in a lesson and if we see all of them at once, it is hard to analyze.  Every teacher makes mistakes, and it is important to leave those in.  Show the lesson for what it was, and allow observers of the lesson to determine where improvements can be made.

I would use both medium and exemplary lessons for video analysis.  It will allow you to determine what it takes to transform your lessons into great opportunities for student learning.  There are too many things that can be learned from videotaped lessons, use it.

Q11) One finding of TIMMS was that the major difference in teaching among Germany, Japan and the US lay more in the quality of the lessons than in the skills of the teachers.  Should we focus professional development on improving lessons rather than polishing teacher’s skills?

There are three ways to improve the quality of teaching that students experience: improve the applicant pool, improve the competence of the people in teaching and improve the methods teachers use.  The focus of the US is to get better people in the classroom rather than improving the methods of teaching.  This is backwards, we need to work on competence of teachers.

There are  a lot of great teaching methods accessible, we need to make sure that everyone is exposed to them.  Many teachers are creatures of habit, we get comfortable with our teaching and lose focus on how effective it is for our students.  Teachers need access to new methods through professional development or professional learning communities.  Some teachers just need that extra nudge to transition out of their rut.

Q12) Is there resistance in the US to determining a standard method of teaching because we have an individualistic outlook, or is that overstated?

There is resistance.  Some teachers think that if they only do the standard practice that they are not being professional, they feel they need to do new things.  There is nothing wrong with using the standard practice as long as you have a means of improving it over time.  A lack of knowledge base is what has kept teaching stagnant for the past 100 years.

A standard method is like a curriculum, it is an guideline for your classroom- not the classroom in it’s entirety.  There are great methods that should be implemented across the board for teaching, but you also have to customize your style to fit yourself as a person and professional- play to your strengths.  You also have to modify what happens in your classroom based on student need, if you neglect that then you are the opposite of professional.

Q13) From your experience, what helps site-based professional development flourish over time?

First, you need a strong principal and superintendent.  Second, you need to focus on the end result- improving student learning.  Third, maintain a focus over time, such as a three year cycle.  Persistence goes hand in hand with leadership, if you persist you will see results of what you are doing.

Just like in the everyday running of your classroom, administrator backing is the key for professional development.  Having a strong administrator who will commit to a long term plan will show the best results on improved teaching methods and student learning.  Create good relationships with them, it will only help your students succeed.

Q14) How will the accountability movement affect professional development?

On the long run, it’s going to have an excellent effect because it creates a context in which everyone is motivated to improve.  There will be glitches: alignments between standards and assessment isn’t well set, teachers focus on assessments since that is their accountability.  A good thing will be that all teachers in a state will share the same learning goals for their students.  If everyone is teaching different things, it’s harder to create a professional knowledge base.

Over the years, I am not sure his first statement is correct, accountability is not providing a positive motivation for improvement.  Many teachers have negative feelings toward standardized testing, and teaching to the test is rampart in school systems.  Recently there is a movement towards a growth model, which has promise as long as it is focused on true student growth and not state or national norms.  With any type of assessment or accountability program, we can never lose sight of the reason for them in exchange for convenience of statistical number processing.  It’s about the students, and has to be about them to make things work.  It can’t be about what is more efficient for the state or district- as soon as it does, we shift our focus from our students and they lose out on the great experiences they can encounter in their classrooms.  We teach for the adults our students can become, never lost sight of that.