Mathematics Teachers’ On-the-Job Learning: A Synthesis of Research and Conceptual Frameworks

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This is a cross-site, cross-disciplinary collaboration among researchers at Mills College, Syracuse University, and Education Development Center, Inc. which focuses on the question, “How do practicing mathematics teachers continue to develop the knowledge and habits of mind that enable them to teach well and to improve their teaching over time?” Project work focuses on strategically sampling existing bodies of literature and framing them in a way that will help us better understand what is already known about mathematics teachers’ learning from research, what is only partially known, and what is still largely unknown.

Research Design: 

This is a research synthesis project that involves strategic review of literature, coding/ categorization of areas of teachers’ learning and of the nature of the learning of practicing teachers. We developed selection criteria for papers to initially include in our synthesis and have read, coded, and summarized these papers. We are currently in the process of summarizing the findings of the set of papers, refining our coding scheme as we proceed. We included studies:

  • with data on teacher learning
  • with data on factors that influenced teacher learning
  • using any methodological approach

One of our preliminary findings is that we have found a surprising unevenness in the evidence of teachers’ learning, and a relative paucity of information about the circumstances and mechanisms promoting teachers’ learning. In addition to exploring models of teacher learning, we are currently focusing our analysis on three areas identified during the literature review.

(1) Evidence for “conventional wisdom” about effective professional development. Conventional wisdom about professional development (e.g., it should be ongoing, focus on students’ mathematical thinking, be consistent with other local initiatives, engage teachers in active learning) is somewhat supported by at least two large-scale studies (Garet et al., 2001; Heck et al., 2008). However, both studies rely on teachers’ self-reported changes in knowledge/skills and practice, and neither includes direct observation of professional development or teachers’ classroom practice. Altogether, the variables capturing the conventional wisdom about good professional development account for a relatively small amount of the variance in teachers’ self-reported changes in knowledge, skill and practice: what, therefore, makes this wisdom valid?

(2) Longitudinal evidence on teacher learning. Our review to date indicates that a relatively small proportion of the reviewed studies follow teachers for more than one year, that “one-shot” or “two-shot” (pre-post) designs are predominant, and that only a few studies propose or explore mechanisms for continuing learning after the completion of an external intervention. We are exploring existing ideas about mechanisms for continuing change (e.g., maintaining focus on student thinking) and identifying some of the questions that seem both important and insufficiently answered, e.g., what measures predict continued on-the-job learning.

(3) Conceptualization and empirical findings on the development of teachers’ attention/noticing. The complexity of the intellectual and interpersonal dynamics occurring during mathematics lessons makes it impossible for the teacher to attend to every activity and interaction. In recent years, scholars have noted the importance of understanding what teachers do attend to, and how to promote shifts of attention toward students’ mathematical ideas. We are exploring how this growing body of literature can help organize our understanding of mathematics teachers’ learning.

Publications & Presentations: 

Doerr, H.M., Goldsmith, L.T., & Lewis, C.C. (2009, April). Mathematics Teachers' On-the-Job Learning: Perspectives on Theory and Evidence. Paper to be presented at the NCTM Research Pre-Session. Washington, D.C.

Goldsmith, L.T., Doerr, H.M., & Lewis, C.C. (in press). Opening the black box of teacher learning: Shifts in attention. Tzekaki, M., Kaldrimidou, M. & Sakonidis, C. (Eds.). Proceedings of the 33rd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Thessaloniki, Greece: PME.

Research Design: 


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