Professional Development, Memorization, and Dubious Rubrics

By Barry Garelick

Editor’s note: This is Chapter 15 in a series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California.  He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd. If it is made into a movie I will be played by either Jeff Bridges or Harrison Ford. The part of Ellen will be played by Jamie Lee Curtis; Diane will be played by Helen Mirren.” The previous chapters can be found here: Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 Chapter 4 , Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10,  Chapter 11Chapter 12 and Chapter 13 and Chapter 14

Ch 15.  Professional Development, Memorization, and
Dubious Rubrics

As part of
the parole/credentialing process, I was required to have nine hours of
Professional Development (PD) for the school year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but
a conference I attended prior to my starting at Cypress came in handy when it
came time for my first mentor Ellen to fill in the electronic checklist on
professional development (PD).

I had
attended a conference given at Oxford University, sponsored by a grass-roots
organization called researchED, a teacher-led organization dedicated to disseminating
information on effective teaching practices backed by scientific research. I
had in fact given a presentation at this conference about the state of math
education in the U.S., how it got that way, and how it looked like it was going
to stay there thanks to Common Core.

I asked
Ellen whether I could count my attendance at the researchED conference, given
that it occurred in the summer before I started at Cypress. “Of course it
does,” she said. “I wish we could count it double, since you presented there.”

didn’t ask what my presentation was about, nor did I volunteer it. In fact no
one at the school ever asked. While I’d like to paint myself as a totally
altruistic hero, I have to say I really wish someone had shown even the
slightest interest.

“Can you
describe a session that you attended?” Ellen asked.

I told her
about a session on the role of memory in learning and understanding. She looked
at me over her lap top.

she asked.


is not a good thing,” she said as if she were talking about parents beating
their children. “Was this person advocating it?”

 “It was about how memory plays a role in


This wasn’t
looking good. “You taught biology, right? Did you need to know a lot of

“Well, yes.”

“Names of
organisms, what’s in a cell, and so forth, right? Somehow that gets into your
long-term memory doesn’t it?”

She started
typing information into her electronic form. “OK, how does this sound?” she
asked.  “The session focused on long term
memory and its role in understanding.”

good,” I said. While she did not appear entirely convinced that this was true, she
did look satisfied that it would pass muster by her superiors. I use the same
technique. For example, if asked to describe in writing my preferred teaching
style, I might say “I use direct and explicit instruction with worked examples
to fulfill my intentionality of having students construct their own knowledge.”

“What other
PD did you have this year?” she asked.

“This is
where it gets a bit difficult,” I said. “I was required to attend a six hour
session held here at the school the week before school started.”

“Why is this

“Because I
really didn’t like it.  It was called
‘How to lesson design like a rock star teacher.’ “

“It was
about designing lessons?”

“More or
less. I guess. I don’t know. It was six hours of being all over the map, and
the guy clearly didn’t like certain things.”

I stopped
there. It was hard to know what to say or not say about it. There was the “ice
breaker” in which the moderator—a jovial know-it-all who name dropped several
constructivist leaders he admired—had us state what our “super power” is? (Why
is so much PD steeped with the vocabulary that has teachers being “rock stars”
or “super heroes”?)  I noticed that
James, the union rep said “sarcasm” which I found interesting. When the leader
got to me, I said “Card magic”. Although the moderator has a rejoinder for each
person’s response, he didn’t know what to say to mine, so he moved on.

There was the comparison we
had to make between various instructional methods, using a scoring rubric based
on Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking—a textbook example of confirmation
bias. Creativity was based on whether the method incorporated open ended
questions with more than one answer. The moderator showed the first candidate
on the screen:

My group agreed that
there’s nothing wrong with a math workbook and we gave it high points, but we
didn’t exactly follow the rubric either. We saw the need for practice, and felt
that not everything has to be open ended or collaborative. Since there are no
wrong answers in situations like these, the moderator upon seeing that we gave
it a good score exclaimed “Good for you!” and then added “There’s nothing wrong
with workbooks, they have their place, but you have to be aware of the potential for creativity.” Which was the
edu-reform way of saying: “You really shouldn’t have given workbooks such a
high rating.”

I told Ellen none of this
given her educational inclinations.

“I can see that a six hour
session on lesson design is a bit much,” she said. “But can you think of
anything that you got out of it?” I could see she needed something positive in
order to fill out her electronic form. 

“Well there was one thing
that made sense,” I said. “He was critical of projects like building models of
the California missions out of sugar cubes, or making a model of a Navajo
village, because it is not teaching anything other than the construction itself.”

“Ah, good,” she said and
started typing. “How does this sound? ‘Effective lessons should reflect and reinforce
what students are expected to learn about a particular subject.’ ”

“Sounds good,” I said.

I wasn’t being completely
honest about this part of the PD.  I
neglected to tell her that after making his point about how sugar cube missions
had no educational value, he told us what he thought was in fact a good
activity. (Wait for it).  “Minecraft!” he

For those who don’t know,
Minecraft is a video game version of Lego blocks in which players build
structures while discovering and extracting raw materials, making tools, and
fighting computer-controlled mobs.

I’m not sure what rubric he
was using to give Minecraft high marks, but I suspect it had to do with the
“potential” for Creativity.  Or words to
that effect.

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