The Best PD is all in your head

While some might think of the best professional development for teachers as another two weeks off in June, there are plenty of teachers out there reading professional development books, taking courses and having the hard conversations about teaching. These are all important. But I think there’s a rarely-discussed, just as powerful way to improve our teaching practice, and it involves just six words and a blank piece of paper.

What worked?

What didn’t?

What next?

These three questions are the most powerful tools that I’ve used to improve my teaching practice. Most friday mornings, during a duty or prep period, I sit down with a notebook and record my answers to those questions.  Sometimes, it’s about the class that just ended. Sometimes it’s about the whole week. And sometimes it’s about the unit that my students are finishing up.

Diving deeper into research on teacher reflection, I came across Lana M. Danielson, whose work I’ll share with you today. If you are a new teacher or you work with new teachers, an awareness of Danielson’s four ways that a teacher’s mind works is super valuable way to examine the problems that teachers face.

I recommend checking out her full article here.

While Danielson mentions that some types of thinking are problematic for certain situations, each type of thinking is a useful tool for our reflection tool kits.  Below are quotes related to the four types of thinking, DOs and DON’Ts for when to use the four types, and personal examples of where I’ve needed to implement each type of thinking.

For classroom procedures gone wrong

Danielson says:

Technological or formulaic thinking is based on prepackaged knowledge from an external source. It relies on practices that have proven efficient and effective. For example, teachers might adopt general policies and rules that are part of a school culture. In deciding how to teach a concept, curriculum teams might adopt standardized instructional procedures they believe will result in greater student learning.

Formulaic thinking is essential for the daily processes of school: taking attendance, getting food in the cafeteria, writing a hall pass, or moving from class to class. My teacher Jim Mahoney explained to us that he practiced even the most mundane routines with his students, including how to stop talking after he flickered the lights, or how to distribute papers most efficiently. It is clear that formulaic thinking is necessary and can be a powerful part of a good teacher’s arsenal in specific situations.

As Danielson mentions in the article, formulaic thinking is great for teachers to use when we are strictly focusing on the what. Here is a task to complete. It’s best if it is done quickly, and often, almost automatically. Let’s not stop to think about why.

DO use formulaic thinking when refining the fastest route for you to take to work, the safest way to get your kids across the school, the most efficient use of space for your classroom supplies.

DON’T use formulaic thinking when designing dynamic question sets for a text your students will read, creating course materials like a handout or planning on how to differentiate instruction for your students.

Personal example: during my student teaching, I asked students to cast a YES/NO vote for a series of questions in just about the worst way possible. I told them: put one hand up for YES, and two hands up for NO. This quickly began to look more like an auction house gone wrong as students were yelling out, “Two for YES? Or Two for NO?” as well as some students having a great time with waving their hands in the air. Formulaic thinking led me to reflect and switch to a thumbs up/thumbs down approach.

Stepping outside of our teacher egos

Danielson says:

When teachers make decisions using situational thinking, they focus only on information embedded in a specific context at a specific time, such as student behavior they are observing in the moment. They reflect quickly and act on a problem immediately.

If a teacher is unable to look beyond the realities of the immediate, frustrating situation, situational thinking can lead to spinning one’s wheels rather than to quick reflection that halts a problem in its tracks.

The act of situational thinking that is at the top of my mind right now is the writing or reading conference. They demand a constant state of situational thinking, where the teacher examines the book a student is reading, his level of engagement with that book, the specific page he is reading and the level of comprehension he is demonstrating. Then, the teacher uses all that situational data to decide whether to provide instruction or let the student keep reading, and then decides on the exact type of instruction to give. Wow. And you thought you were just interrupting your students to talk to them.

DO use situational thinking when you see a conflict between two students in the hallway, you realize you’ll have to cut your lesson because of time, your student enters class in a bad mood, you communicate with a student in a certain way because of your knowledge of her cultural background.

DON’T use situational thinking to blame a student for never handing in his homework without having a conversation with him, to classify a certain lesson idea as “good” or “bad” after one try, to decide where to steer your lesson or unit because of your emotional response to a small success or failure.

Personal example: A student last year was very late in handing in a key assignment, and he also seemed fairly apathetic about it. It was only after some conversation that he told me that he couldn’t do the assignment on the computer because he had no access at home, and he had to go to work after school, so he couldn’t use the library. Better thinking here would have been to immediately step back from the situation and inquire in a less accusatory way when talking to the student. My situational thinking kept me trapped within the confines of worrying about the assignment instead of the student.

Educators as pedagogical detectives

Danielson says:

With deliberate thinking, an educator purposefully seeks more information than the immediate context provides by, for example, revisiting theory, talking with colleagues, interviewing students or reviewing student records. The goal is to learn more to better understand the dilemma.

Here is where we get to the good stuff. This is where each lesson becomes your small experiment within the larger context of your teaching practice. Deliberate thinking, when applied appropriately, is empowering: it is a mindset that allows teachers to view the results of the lesson as data or research results. Then we can learn, refine and adapt our instruction in order to do it better next time.

Daneilson shares an example of teacher reflection that demonstrates deliberate thinking:

Today I was working with this group on a short story. Every time I asked Tony a question, I’d get “I don’t know.” When my eyes left him, I guess he grinned at another kid. After about three rounds of this, Jane [Beth’s mentor] took him to the hall to talk with him. After much prodding, he finally blurted out “She treats us like we’re stupid! I know those dumb vocabulary words, and the stories we read are stupid 3rd grade stories.

When Jane told me what Tony said, I felt awful. I kept thinking, “If I treat kids like they’re stupid, that defeats my purpose.” … This situation brings up the larger question. What do you do in a class [where] there are about five kids with average skills, about four who have low skills, and then about three who are simply behavior problems?

Personal example: I had a very flawed process for incompletes during this past school year.  My thinking was that, if I held students accountable for completing major projects like end of quarter portfolios, and gave them an incomplete at the end of the marking period instead of failing them, then those students would be motivated to finish the projects and remove the incomplete. Often, they weren’t. This resulted in:


  • Yours truly bugging kids and their parents to address the incompletes
  • The school’s guidance staff checking in with me A LOT because I had incompletes left unaddressed at the end of each marking period and the school year


A mixture of conversations with students, revisiting my reasons behind the assessment policy and looking at the sheer number of emails from guidance led me to realize that the incomplete policy needed revamping.

Your personal action research in education

Danielson says:

The dialectical mode builds on deliberate thinking to gain understanding of a situation and generate solutions. The greater a teacher’s ability to suspend judgment and the broader the repertoire of pedagogical strategies, the more flexible dialectical thinking will be.”

Dialectical thinking is characterized by a change in how the thinker conceptualizes a particular episode that results in new teaching behaviors.

This form of thinking is basically a DO under all circumstances that teachers have the time for. It allows for teachers to learn and make concrete changes in their teaching.  

Personal example: For the first few years of my teaching, it seemed that students were never too interested in the research-based assignments I created.  Typically, students were researching topics I had dictated to them, usually related to a whole class text. But, I knew that curiosity-driven research was an opportunity for true engagement. This led me to the Multigenre Research Paper and the work of Tom Romano. I wrote about the results here.  This project resulted in some of the best work my students have ever done.

How will you use the four modes of thinking to reflect on your practice this year? What area is most useful to you right now? Let me know in the comments.

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