Professional Development: What should it look like?

A few weeks ago Michael Fenton asked on his blog this question:

Suppose a teacher gets to divide 100% between two categories: teaching ability and content knowledge. What’s the ideal breakdown?

The question sparked many different answers that showed a very wide range of thinking, from 85%/15% favouring content, to 100% favouring pedagogy.  In general though, it seems that more leaned toward the pedagogy side than the content side.  While each response articulated some of their own experiences or beliefs, I wonder if we are aware of just how much content and pedagogical knowledge we come into this conversation with, and whether or not we have really thought about what each entails?  Let’s consider for a moment what these two things are:

What is Content Knowledge?

To many, the idea of content knowledge is simple.  It involves understanding the concept or skill yourself.  However, I don’t believe it is that simple!  Liping Ma has attempted to define what content knowledge is in her book:  Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China & the United States.  In her book she describes teachers that have a Profound Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics (or PUFM) and describes those teachers as having the following characteristics:

Connectedness – the teacher feels that it is necessary to emphasize and make explicit connections among concepts and procedures that students are learning. To prevent a fragmented experience of isolated topics in mathematics, these teachers seek to present a “unified body of knowledge” (Ma, 1999, p.122).

Multiple Perspectives – PUFM teachers will stress the idea that multiple solutions are possible, but also stress the advantages and disadvantages of using certain methods in certain situations. The aim is to give the students a flexible understanding of the content.

Basic Ideas – PUFM teachers stress basic ideas and attitudes in mathematics. For example, these include the idea of an equation, and the attitude that single examples cannot be used as proof.

Longitudinal Coherence – PUFM teachers are fundamentally aware of the entire elementary curriculum (and not just the grades that they are teaching or have taught). These teachers know where their students are coming from and where they are headed in the mathematics curriculum. Thus, they will take opportunities to review what they feel are “key pieces” in knowledge packages, or lay appropriate foundation for something that will be learned in the future.

Taken from this Yorku wiki

As you can see, having content knowledge means far more than making sure that you understand the concept yourself.  To have rich content knowledge means that you have a deep understanding of the content.  It means that you understand which models and visuals might help our students bridge their understanding of concepts and procedures, and when we should use them.  Content knowledge involves a strong developmental and interconnected grasp of the content, and beliefs about what is important for students to understand.  Those that have strong content knowledge, have what is known as a “relational understanding” of the material and strong beliefs about making sure their students are developing a relational understanding as well!

What is Pedagogical Knowledge?

Pedagogical knowledge, on the other hand, involves the countless intentional decisions we make when we are in the act of teaching.  While many often point out essential components like classroom management, positive interactions with students… let’s consider for a moment the specific to mathematics pedagogical knowledge that is helpful.  Mathematical pedagogical knowledge includes:

Which is More Important:  Pedagogy or Content Knowledge?

Tracy Zager during last year’s Twitter Math Camp (Watch her TMC16 keynote address here) showed us Ben Orlin’s graphic explaining his interpretation of the importance of Pedagogy and Content Knowledge.  Take a look:


In Ben’s post, he explains that teachers who teach younger students need very little content knowledge, and a strong understanding of pedagogy.  However, in the video, Tracy explains quite articulately how this is not at all the case (if you didn’t watch her video linked above, stop reading and watch her speak – If pressed for time, make sure you watch minutes 9-14).

In the end, we need to recognize just how important both pedagogy and content are no matter what grade we teach.  Kindergarten – grade 2 teachers need to continually deepen their content knowledge too!  Concepts that are easy for us to do like counting, simple operations, composing/decomposing shapes, equality… are not necessarily easy for us to teach.  That is, just because we can do them, doesn’t mean that we have a Profound Understanding of Foundational Mathematics.  Developing our Content Knowledge requires us to understand the concepts in a variety of ways, to deepen our understanding of how those concepts develop over time so we don’t leave experiential gaps with our students!  

However, I’m not quite sure that the original question from Michael or that presented by Ben accurately explain just how complicated it is to explain what we need to know and be able to do as math teachers.  Debra Ball explains this better than anyone I can think of.  Take a look:

Research Gate: Figure 1.  Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (Ball et., al, 2008)

Above is a visual that explains the various types of knowledge, according to Deb Ball, that teachers need in order to effectively teach mathematics.  Think about how your own knowledge fits in above for a minute.  Which sections would you say you are stronger in?  Which ones would you like to continue to develop?

Hopefully you are starting to see just how interrelated Content and Pedagogy are, and how ALL teachers need to be constantly improving in each of the areas above if we are to provide better learning opportunities for our students!

 What should Professional Development Look Like?

The purpose of this article is actually about professional development, but I felt it necessary to start by providing the necessary groundwork before tackling a difficult topic like professional development.

Considering just how important and interrelated Content Knowledge and Pedagogy are for teaching, I wonder what the balance is in the professional development currently in your area?  What would you like it to look like?  What would you like to learn?

While the theme here is about effective PD, I’m actually not sure I can answer my own question.  First of all, I don’t think PD should always look the same way for all teachers, in all districts, for all concepts.  And secondly, I’m not sure that even if we found the best form of PD it would be enough because we will constantly need new/different experiences to grow and learn.  I would like to offer, however, some of my current thoughts on PD and how we learn.

Some personal beliefs:

  • We don’t know what we don’t know.  That is, given any simple concept or skill, there is likely an abundance of research, best practices, connections to other concepts/skills, visual approaches… that you are unaware of.  Professional development can help us learn about what we weren’t even aware we didn’t know about.
  • Districts and schools tend to focus on pedagogy far more than content.  Topics like grading, how to assess, differentiated instruction… tend to be hot topics and are easier to monitor growth than the importance of helping our students develop a relational understanding.  However, each of those pedagogical decisions relies on our understanding of the content (i.e., if we are trying to get better at assessment, we need to have a better understanding of developmental trajectories/continuums so we know better what to look for).  The best way to understand any pedagogy is to learn about the content in new ways, then consider the pedagogy involved.
  • Quality resources are essential, but handing out a resource is not the same as professional development.  Telling others to use a resource is not the same as professional development, no matter how rich the resource is!  Using a resource as a platform to learn things is better than explaining how to use a resource.  The goal needs to be our learning and hoping that we will act on our learning, not us doing things and hoping we will learn from it.
  • The knowledge might not be in the room.  An old adage tells us that when we are confronted with a problem, that the knowledge is in the room.  However, I am not sure this is always the case.  If we are to continue to learn, we need experts helping us to learn!  Otherwise we will continually recycle old ideas and never learn anything new as a school/district.  If we want professional development, we need new ideas.  This can come in the form of an expert or more likely in the form of a resource that can help us consider content & pedagogy.
  • Learning complicated things can’t be transmitted.  Having someone tell you about something is very different than experiencing it yourself.  Learning happens best when WE are challenged to think of things in ways we hadn’t before.  Professional development needs to be experiential for it to be effective!
  • Experiencing learning in a new way is not enough.  Seeing a demonstration of a great teaching strategy, or being asked to do mental math and visually represent it, or experiencing manipulatives in ways you hadn’t previously experienced is a great start to learning, but it isn’t enough.  Once we have experienced something, we need to discuss it, think about the pedagogy and content involved, and come to a shared understanding of what was just learned.
  • Professional learning can happen in a lot of different places and look like a lot of different things.  While many might assume that professional development is something that we sign up for in a building far from your own school, hopefully we can recognize that we can learn from others in a variety of contexts.  This happens when we show another teacher in our school what we are doing or what our students did on an assignment that we hadn’t expected.  It happens when we disagree on twitter or see something we would never have considered before.  We are engaging in professional development when we read a professional book or blog post that helps us to consider new things and especially when those things make us reconsider previous thoughts.  And professional learning especially happens when we get to watch others’ teach and then discuss what we noticed in both the teaching and learning of the material.
  • Some of the best professional development happens when we are inquiring about teaching / learning together with others, and trying things out together!  When we learn WITH others, especially when one of the others is an expert, then take the time to debrief afterward, the learning can be transformational.
  • Beliefs about how students learn mathematics best is true for adults too.  This includes beliefs about constructivist approaches, learning through problem solving, use of visual/spatial reasoning, importance of consolidating the learning, role of discourse…
  • Not everyone gets the same things out of the same experiences.  Some people are reflecting much more than others during any professional learning experience.  Personally, I always try to make connections, think about the leaders’ motivations/beliefs, reflect on my own practices… even if the topic is something I feel like I already understand.  There is always room for learning when we make room for learning!

Some things to reflect on:

As always, I like to ask a few questions to help us reflect:

  • Think of a time you came to make a change in your beliefs about what is important in teaching mathematics.  What led to that change?
  • Think of a time you tried something new.  What helped you get started?
  • Where do you get your professional learning?  Is your board / school providing the kind of learning you want/need?  If so, how do you take advantage of this more often?  If not, how could this become a reality?
  • Think about your answers to any of the above questions.  Were you considering learning about pedagogy or content knowledge?  What does this say about your personal beliefs about professional development?
  • Take a look again at any of the points I made under “Some Personal Beliefs”.  Is there one you have issue with?  I’d love some push-back or questions… that’s how we learn:)

As always, I encourage you to leave a message here or on Twitter (@markchubb3)!


14 thoughts on “Professional Development: What should it look like?

  1. Mark,

    I really appreciate this thoughtful post on different types of knowledge and professional development. I get really excited for PD, but I often find that I am let down by presenters. Some of that is a result of bad pedagogy: 3+ hours of lecture is a really ineffective way of helping teachers (or students) to grow.

    Two ideas you shared resonated with me:

    1.) “Some of the best professional development happens when we are inquiring about teaching / learning together with others, and trying things out together! When we learn WITH others, especially when one of the others is an expert, then take the time to debrief afterward, the learning.”

    This is absolutely true. One issue that tends to happen with PD is that it is a one-shot-dose. Without continued conversation, action, and testing of what was learned, little permanent growth will happen.

    2.) Beliefs about how students learn mathematics best is true for adults too.

    Yes! I need time to wrestle with an idea, to investigate, to question, and to discuss. And, I need willing colleagues and leaders with whom I can experience ideas. We know not to expect our students to take in perfectly formed ideas through lectures, why do we so often expect that of our teachers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for responding Tyler. In my role as an instructional coach, I get to provide professional development in schools… in classrooms… with teachers, about the things they want to learn and get to try things out with them in their classrooms. This form of PD allows all involved to have opportunities to learn and make permanent changes. While this is one form of PD, there are times when meeting, PD sessions and other forms are helpful too. What matters is that everyone involved considers how to be better PD facilitators and better PD attendees. That’s not an easy thing to ask for, but it is a hope of mine!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mark!

    Thanks for such an insightful read. I think a lot about PD and how I can make the time spent the most effective for the teachers involved. I like how you’ve decomposed all the layers to the purpose of PD and the structure you’ve outlined. Gives me good food for thought and useful language to think about in my work.

    I heard someone once say “There’s always value in us thinking more deeply about simple ideas.” That quote kept reverberating in me as I read your post.

    One of the things that I think is also really important for the growth of teachers is taking the time to engage in lesson inquiry and the practice of planning, teaching, and observing student learning together. Through lesson inquiry, we can engage in deliberate or purposeful practice to improve our instruction. I was moved by a Freakonomics podcast last year and wrote about it on my blog. I think the idea of “deliberate practice” needs to be something culturally embedded into any school PD. How do we get better as instructors individually and collectively? How do we encourage a tone of professional vulnerability around our struggles to make math meaningful and engaging for our students? How do we take professional development out of the sterile walls of the PD room and into the messy world of instructing, inspiring, focusing, and coordinating kids?

    If you have time for the read, I’d love to hear your thoughts:



    1. Thanks for the link Chase. Great read! I love the analogy of the French Scrabble player. As to your comment about how we get better at being PD providers, I’m still not sure… but I know I do believe that it is really important for us to consider what we believe… truly consider what will help us understand mathematics deeper…
      It’s not an easy topic for sure!


  3. I think most educators will agree that both content knowledge PD and pedagogical knowledge PD are important. I think, however, that if you ask educators to define these 2 things there would be very different answers depending on who you ask. I feel like much of my district PD focuses on pedagogy. However, it is done in an attempt to make a one size fits all PD. Everyone needs pedagogy, not everyone needs math content. I love your clear definitions (I could not agree more, but would have struggled to put it all into words without your post). I find as a middle school teacher, my hobby has become deepening my understanding of elementary math and how children learn it. I have spent much of my own time and money on this endeavor. I don’t think I will ever be given time to do this work in my current job of 7th grade teacher. And yet, others (often admin who plans PD time) want to know how I have become the math teacher I am. They want me to share my skills and talents with others. So, to answer your question, what do I want PD to look like? I want both, content and pedagogy. I want it connected to other grade levels. I want it connected to other content areas. I want it centered around math because that is my perspective. I want it to deepen my content knowledge so I can put into action the pedagogy that it teaches me. That is my dream. Unfortunately, schools don’t run on dreams. They run on money. And that is why I will not get any of that, but I will be able to tell you our grading and retake policy.
    So, I’ll keep on dreaming and continue to personalize my PD to move myself forward both in content and pedagogy.


    1. Adrianne — I love your passion and persistence, and I’m frustrated by your reality. I think you’re spot on that it’s an attempt at one-size-fits-all PD that works for all teachers, instead of realizing that every teacher has different PD needs. Any thoughts on how to change that? Is there anything that could be done at your district that would allow more personalized PD, or anything on a larger state/national level that would encourage that? I was just talking with a friend from NCTM the other day, and we were longing for the days when Eisenhower money was available and more teachers got to experience the types of high-quality PD that they were wanting. Those were the days, my friend…


      1. Personalized PD needs to take place in schools, by math coaches. PD that is at the school level or with other grade-like individuals or with others taking PD on specific topics should be aimed at building a Shared understanding on specific things. For example, coming together to learn more about how patterning and algebra relate, and the experiences students should have to develop the kinds of reasoning we want…
        There isn’t an easy answer, and typically what is best is costly. However, the little bit of PD time that is available, we should aim to both build coherence (shared experiences build shared understandings), and personal reflections that will help us make our own decisions, be passionate about the things that interest us, and make intentional decisions. A few PD sessions won’t fix things (which they shouldn’t be aimed at), but they can inspire us and help us continue to have good conversations back at school.


  4. This is an important idea to be reflecting on. I value both, but personally lean towards focusing more on pedagogy because it’s what I feel more comfortable with. I think my own content knowledge is something I always feel like it could be stronger with.

    One interesting piece of the puzzle might be are teachers more interested in professional development that focuses on content knowledge or pedagogy. In my role with Grassroots Workshops, it’s been my experience that teachers are MUUUUUCH more interested in content knowledge PD over pedagogy PD.

    My rationale for why this is related to how clear it is that someone doesn’t know something and the discomfort they feel. For example, consider PD on conceptually understanding fractions versus PD on teaching math through problem solving. A teacher might realize that they don’t fully understand fractions and don’t feel comfortable teaching it. So, using Dan Meyer’s headache/aspirin metaphor, PD on fractions is the aspirin to a raging headache. However many teachers might think that they already do problem solving. So that PD is an aspirin to a much smaller headache or possibly no headache at all.

    Thanks for this conversation.


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