• by Jack Dieckmann, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2003

Image of Jack Dieckmann, M.A.With recent federal legislation calling for high-quality teachers and teaching, schools will have to explore new ways to enhance teachers’ skills sets. Traditional teacher workshops have not been effective in engaging teachers, meeting their needs, or helping teachers transfer new practices into the classroom, especially those practices known to be effective with English language learners.

This is the final in a series of articles focusing on innovative teacher training designed to address traditional fragmentation in teacher training and learning. The training model described in this series links content and language with using real classroom teaching as a place for teachers to participate in professional development.

The first two articles reported on a demonstration lesson and teacher conversations about the lesson (Dieckmann, March 2003; Dieckmann, May 2003). This article describes the coordination needed from teachers and benefits for teachers, principals and central office staff as they work together to improve learning for all students, particularly English language learners.

Our strategy of “using practice as a medium for professional development” is one key strategy within a more comprehensive IDRA professional development project called ExCELS (Educators x Communities = English Language learners’ Success), funded by the U.S. Department of Education. See box on below.

Educators x Communities = English Language
Learners’ Success

Excels is an innovative IDRA professional development program that creates learning communities of schools, families and communities for English language learners’ academic success. Funded by the US Department of Education, the project is focusing on improving teachers’ capacity to address curriculum, instruction, assessment and parent involvement issues that impact the achievement of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students.

The project is comprised of five components that contribute to student success, as supported by the literature:
• Training for Capacity Building
• Technical Assistance for Classroom Support
• Teacher Mentoring
• Teacher-Parent Partnership
• ESL Learning Communities

For more information contact IDRA at 210-444-1710 or feedback@idra.org.

New Thinking in Math Teacher Learning

Teacher knowledge both in content and pedagogy directly influences teacher effectiveness with students. This is especially critical in mathematics. It is only recently that systematic development of a practicing teacher’s learning has received serious and widespread attention from the education research community. Professional development has traditionally been perfunctory and disconnected from the real work of teaching.

In mathematics, new ways of conceptualizing teacher learning are emerging, along with new structures that schools can use to help move teachers along a continuum of professional learning. They include lesson study, study groups, online learning and teacher video clubs, all of which have the practice of teaching at their core, with theory embedded in the experiences.

The ExCELS Classroom: A Learning Lab for Teachers

IDRA led a team of teachers as they observed and reflected on a math lesson with middle school students, including English language learners. The team observed students learning from math investigations while simultaneously acquiring and using language. As the students demonstrated learning, they reflected excitement in their inquiry.

Second, the team reported the focused conversations of the teachers reflecting on their observations of the modeled lessons and the implications for their own teaching (Bass, H., et al., 2002). The teachers were enthusiastic about the student breakthroughs, especially students learning English as a second language. The teachers were intrigued by the reflective and critical process of learning through real teaching rather than in a workshop away from their typical work setting.

The Process of Teacher Development Through Teaching

The process of teacher development through the practice of teaching is an important one. The practice of teaching as a medium for teacher development requires:

  • A context of high quality model teaching:
    • High expectations of the teacher resulting in high student engagement and academic success;
    • An experience of well planned instruction that models integration of language and content objectives;
    • Small groups of teachers released from their classroom to observe and debrief; and
    • A class that includes English language learners (García, 2001).
  • A process of deep noticing:
    • Observing teachers come together to share observations and insights; and
    • A professional development specialist guides the conversation through phases including reporting what happened, reactions and questions, implications for teaching, and possible application by the teachers (Mason, 2002).
  • A critical result sought is application appropriate to the observer’s skill level that leads to self-critique and self-improvement.

The positive reception to the process of teacher development through the practice of teaching points to a potential for greater impact on teaching and learning.

Key Elements to Learning Through Teaching

There are several key elements in the process and benefits to the teachers, staff developers and the school district that facilitate integration of the process into the regular patterns of teacher learning on campus.

High Quality Model Teaching

The context is real-time teaching with a cross-section of students that includes English language learners. In this example, the IDRA professional development specialist modeled some lessons. The specialist also identified teachers who had experience and success in integrating language and content objectives and co-planned the lesson goals and activities that were modeled.

An effective lesson for English language learners includes:

  • recognizing and drawing on student experiences (prior knowledge);
  • allowing for multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and mastery;
  • aligning with state standards;
  • demonstrating the use of language to develop content; and
  • connecting to real-life application.

In our example described in the first article, the lesson was a microcosm of the larger organic teaching process, showing the relationship among content, language, management and assessment. Readers may recall some key themes of the lesson.

The students were exploring angles, “quadrilateral” was a cognate for the Spanish, cuatro lados. The formal comparison and contrast of the angles in the torn triangles brought informal concepts to the surface.

The warm-up activity was about patterns. The students drew on their experiences with patterns and naturally stated that patterns are predictable and can be described with words and pictures. Their informal outside-of-the-classroom pattern-full experiences were copious resources to focus on the graphically simple triangles and quadrilaterals. The lesson focused on how patterns grow and change but in predictable ways – a fundamental aspect of mathematics.

The students’ home language and life experiences were powerful intellectual resources to understand that essential characteristic in math. In short, it was a slice of real-classroom life.

Deep Noticing

The teacher team reflectively observed the real-time class. In a follow-up conversation, each teacher’s observations were deepened through interaction that seeks deeper and clearer understanding of each individuals’ point of view. The observations provided the teachers with fresh responses to their own students.
The intentional, well-prepared instruction was observed and debriefed in a guided, expert way. The team noted critical incidents. The group was guided to differentiate the essential from the accidental, to separate surface instructional concerns from deeper and more critical ones (Mason, 2002).

The deep noticing happens because of the appeal to the teacher of situated learning. The observed classroom is an underutilized site for learning in professional development to the loss of the profession. The real-time class observation and reflection with peers is key to the ongoing process of self-assessment and improvement of a teacher’s practice (Schon, 1987).

Application to Personal Skill Level

The teachers observed, debriefed and then had to sift out what applies to themselves. The experienced teacher will be able to notice deeper and more subtle aspects of the lesson, such as weaving disparate student ideas to connect with the lesson. In contrast, the novice teacher might notice the broader or more obvious issues in classroom management. Yet, both can learn much from the same experience.

Teachers become more aware of their own actual teaching through the observations of the effective modeling of the teaching approaches. They can become more clear about their own practice and have a common reference point for describing their teaching. This primes them for challenging and critiquing their own practices. Incorporation of new behaviors is a more extensive process for which this provides the motivation.

Adoption by the Institution

A staff development framework that has merit must demonstrate meaningful benefits for its stakeholders to flourish. Thoughtful staff developers hope to have influence that extends beyond the initial activities – the planning, training, demonstrations and conversations. This process, though demanding and non-traditional, has an appeal and the possibility of lasting influence.

The students are the primary stakeholders and were engaged in several ways including a self-assessment and sharing of perceptions about activities and opportunities for their success not reflected here.

For this process we will focus on three groups who must value it: teachers, staff developers, and the larger system or school district.

Teachers – This process has underlying assumptions about teachers, their intelligence and their desire to trust their own perceptions that increases the chances that they will apply what they learned and get attached to the process. The teacher is acknowledged as one who can change when powerfully moved to do so. The process focuses on the actual classroom, in a well-prepared and taught lesson. It assumes that the observing teacher has the ability to notice deeply.

There is a powerful appeal to teachers to move away from staff development processes that depend on the external expert for answers. This approach is especially appealing to teachers who are tired of training that infantilizes and patronizes. It appeals to those who want rigorous self-examination and a more focused lens on their own teaching. It also supports collegiality and dialogue about practice and cultivates the campus as a learning organization for the teachers (García, 2001; Rodríguez, 2002).

Staff Developers – Staff developers want to bring rich context to staff development. They know that a simulation, video or demonstration modeled in a workshop is not enough. This more challenging, but more gratifying, modeling in a real classroom preceded and followed by dialogue about practice and deepening of the noticing, gives great hope to the trainer. This process can have extended ripples of influence on the observers and the campus.

Many staff developers are in that role because they were strong teachers, and this approach gives them the opportunity to return to teaching, only now they are observed by peers.

This process of teacher development through the practice of teaching is a part of the larger IDRA professional development and school improvement framework, called ExCELs, which has five major elements.

  • Training for Capacity Building: Workshops on developing a knowledge base for English language acquisition; the role of language in content learning; and diversified forms of assessment.
  • Technical Assistance for Classroom Support: Model lessons, designing instruction, planning meetings, guiding conversations; team problem-solving and success sharing.
  • Teacher Mentoring: modeling, coaching and material sharing.
  • Teacher-Parent Partnership: parent meetings; student/teacher/parent conversations.
  • ESL Learning Communities: electronic communication with ESL experts and higher education resources.

School District – With the pressure of accountability and higher standards, schools have to conduct professional development that accelerates teacher improvement and reduces the time from introduction to application in teaching. An approach that makes the real classroom central to the method and happens on campus reduces logistical problems (i.e., travel time and moving staff to a central staff development location) and allows for more efficient use of the district resources.

The district needs to trust that the staff development models best teaching practices and there is a reasonable chance of transfer to the classroom. The possibility of transfer in this process is greater because it happens in the real classroom and is the closest simulation other than it happening with the teacher being coached with his or her own students.

An ongoing school district dilemma is the lack of teacher joint planning. A critical sore point is the separation of English as a second language and content specialists. This process demonstrates effective integration of language and content objectives.

In the lesson describe above, math and language lessons were skillfully and smoothly blended so that students participated in an organic and holistic lesson in math that was also a powerful language lesson without having to stop and do one first and then the other. This is not only efficient and cost-saving for the district, but also accelerates the adaptation of math teachers into language instructors, without sacrificing the content.

School districts are getting increased pressure for academic progress from the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, to the state accountability system, to the local school board dicta that all students must achieve. English language learners’ performances are carefully monitored. The ExCELS process offers one viable approach to accelerate teacher skills and ultimately student success.

English language learners can succeed in learning language and core content. Teachers can learn how to help them succeed. These are patterns of success – concentric circles of students and teachers learning.


Bass, H., and A.P. Usiskin, G. Burrill (Eds). Studying Classroom Teaching as a Medium for Professional Development (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2002).

Dieckmann, J. “Mathematics Achievement for All? Yes!: Developing Students as Flexible, Fluent and Resourceful Mathematical Thinkers, Ready to Compete in a Global Economy,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2002).

Dieckmann, J. “Learning Angles with English Language Learners,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2003).

Dieckmann, J. “Learning Angles with English Language Learners: The Discipline of Noticing,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2003).

Fullan, M., and A. Hargreaves. What’s Worth Fighting for in Your School (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1996).

García, J. “Transforming Teachers with FLAIR,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2001).

Mason, J. Researching Your Own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing (New York, N.Y.: Routledge/Flamer, 2002).

Rodríguez, J.L. “Arkansas Educators Explore Ways to Better Serve Their Growing Numbers of English Language Learners,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2002).

Schon, D. Educating the Reflective Practitioner (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

Jack Dieckmann, M.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]