iwonderstand?


With Wonder: Leading a Mathematics Community

 

Introduction

Our society is very critical of mathematics education, including the curriculum and our implementation of it. Only through professional learning opportunities can we develop a shared understanding of the content, pedagogy, and curricular expectations for what we teach. Just as education is the future of our larger society, professional learning is the way to allow our professionals to make the best possible decisions for what and how to teach the children they serve. Leading professional learning in mathematics is both complex and rewarding. Although I have had a number of leadership roles in education, I have to admit that I felt underprepared to lead mathematics learning at a division or provincial level. Often, we leaders of mathematics are placed in leadership roles because of a perception that we are ‘good math teachers’. While this is certainly one part of being an effective facilitator of math professional learning, it is simply not enough.

As I navigate the world of being a mathematics consultant, there continue to be many ‘wonders’ in my mind. These wonders have driven my professional learning, conversations, and creative problem solving over the past seven years. As a facilitator I need to know how to best meet the needs of the professional learners that count on me, so that they can best meet the needs of the students that count on them. The responsibility for changing mathematics education rests in partnership and relationships among teachers, administrators, division and provincial leadership. It is not enough to point out issues and struggles and expect classroom teachers to solve those issues on their own.

One frustration is that research often focusses on one narrow part of the professional development experience such as the format of the learning, the assessment plan, the size of the group, or the agenda that a meeting should have. It is important to look at how it all fits together. This guide is meant to be an exemplar rather than a recipe. Professional judgement by you as the facilitator, and most importantly, listening and responding to teacher needs and suggestions are what is most important.

Listen Respond Create Opportunity

As leaders of professional learning, it is our responsibility to provide the most authentic and meaningful learning opportunities possible. The way to do that is to open up spaces for professionals to explore, learn, and collaborate within a safe and learning-rich environment. Through professional conversations and listening to our professional mathematics teachers, we are better able to meet the needs that they identify. It is our responsibility to have strong and clear goals and action plans, create opportunities that are invitational to a wide range of professionals, meet their learning preferences and styles, and have a deep understanding of current research in content, pedagogy, and curriculum. To guide our thinking, it is imperative that leaders of mathematics communities have an ongoing formative assessment plan to move the learning of the community forward. This is a long term plan that looks at teacher satisfaction, professional learning outcomes, and impact on student learning. Without this assessment plan, a facilitator is unable to know what the impact of their work is, and is not able to make informed decisions as to what to do next.

Building communities as an innovative model of professional development is something that started for me years ago with a McDowell Foundation Research Project. This was my first experience with the power of professionals driving their own learning in order to impact students. In my current context, initiating and supporting mathematics learning communities has far surpassed my hopes and dreams in their ability to increase teacher confidence and provide spaces for learning conversations amongst professionals. Community member ability to lead learning of colleagues in their schools comes from their increased spirit of generosity and responsibility to each other. As facilitator, I have a sense of responsibility to our community building a feeling that together, we can make a difference to mathematics education and the children we serve.

Above all, a facilitator needs to recognize that they are partners in professional learning and expect to learn as much from the teachers that they work with as they hope teachers will learn from them. Partners are both able to question and contribute to the learning destination and the path to get there. Partnership and community are the only possible ways to navigate the enormous changes that are necessary in mathematics teaching and learning. Together, creating a vision and pathway to get there is possible.

 

Definition of a Mathematics Community

There are a number of different forms of learning communities identified in research. In this context a mathematics community is characterized by:

  • Founded on school, division, and provincial goals.
  • Voluntary
  • Shared vision, co-constructed and reflected upon by all community members.
  • Community member direction regarding resources, time and topics of focus.
  • Access to a variety of professional learning forms, including
    • individual coaching
    • small group collaborations
    • whole group community meetings
    • responsive self-selected topic-specific learning opportunities
  • Ongoing evaluation of Professional development processes to be used as a formative assessment cycle to move learning forward.
  • Community facilitator whose role is flexible to meet community member needs.
  • Support for professional learning in the form of time, resources, and access to facilitator outside of formal meeting times.

A mathematics community is built upon sharing teacher’s best practices, focussing on what individuals do well and giving them space to share those practices. As well, a mathematics community is a safe place for teachers to reveal those areas that they are less confident in, as it is non-judgemental and supportive. Unlike rigid structures for professional development, which focus on coaching OR workshops OR small group collaborations, a Mathematics Community provides a myriad of different learning opportunities. The facilitator’s key actions are to listen to community members, respond to needs identified by individuals and small groups, and create opportunities for community members to learn from one another.

 

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