Skip to main content
ascd logo

February 1, 2021

Connecting Professional Learning to the Classroom and to Our Students

Direct application of new learning to current instruction bolsters professional learning, as a program for mathematics teachers with emergent multilingual students shows.
premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Professional Learning
Instructional Strategies
Connecting Professional Learning to the Classroom and to Our Students (thumbnail)
Professional development should be clearly connected to teachers' work in their classrooms. For learning to "stick," teachers need to connect what they learn to their practice—and particularly to their work with their current students. In leading a PD program we designed, we found that when teachers keep a focus on how students in their current classroom respond to new ideas, that professional learning lasts.
Research emphasizes this need to connect professional learning to practice (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). But research hasn't always been clear how to design professional learning that embodies this all-essential connection. When implementing a professional learning program we designed at Education Development Center—Visual Access to Mathematics professional development, or VAM PD—we found that cycles of planning, implementing, and reflecting can create connections between the professional learning teachers undergo and those teachers' practice. Moving through these cycles helps the PD-practice connection.
We developed VAM PD to support middle grades mathematics teachers whose classes include emergent multilinguals, in the hopes of improving teachers' skill at attending to the language needs of these English-learner students. To connect the PD and teacher learning to classroom practice, VAM PD uses a three-step cycle: Teachers plan with emergent multilingual students in mind, implement those plans, and reflect on what they see in student work after that implementation. Our approach also emphasizes three mechanisms for bolstering professional learning: attending to "focus" students, highlighting students' strengths and resources, and supporting teacher collaboration.
VAM PD focuses on teaching proportional reasoning with visual representations, such as double number lines, and integrating strategies that facilitate student language use into lessons. This 60-hour experience blends face-to-face and online learning to help teachers learn new instructional strategies and apply them in their classroom settings throughout an academic year. The program's structure, format, and activities encompass evidence-based design features, including a focus on connecting to practice.

Three Steps to Connect Professional Learning and Practice

Teachers in VAM PD use this three-step cycle:
1. Plan how to implement tasks and strategies with EM students' strengths and needs in mind.
2. Implement their plans with students.
3. In a structured way, reflect, share, and discuss what they saw in the classroom and what they saw in analyses of their students' work on the tasks.
Each step is necessary to lead to improved teacher self-efficacy and the ability to identify and interpret student thinking—two goals of VAM PD. Let's look at how each step supports the cycle.

Planning with Specificity

Teachers in VAM PD learn about language strategies and engage in mathematics tasks themselves to become immersed in the content at the focus of the PD. They then begin connecting that content back to the classroom by planning lessons or mini-lessons within their PD sessions. The protocols for planning include more specificity than teachers would usually have time to articulate explicitly for daily lessons. By thinking through all details of a lesson in depth, teachers can develop better understanding of the strategies and what they can learn by enacting the lesson.
For example, when learning about the Three Reads strategy for providing access to mathematics tasks (Driscoll, Nikula, & DePiper, 2016) and planning to use it in their instruction for the first time, teachers are prompted to consider their mathematics and communication goals for students. When using the Three Reads strategy, a mathematics word problem is read aloud or silently three times when it is first introduced. Students consider the problem's story context on the first read, the question to answer on the second read, and the important information given in the problem on the third read. Teachers consider how they will introduce each part of the Three Reads strategy to students as well as what responses they anticipate from students after each read and how they will respond to and document the range of responses from students. Teachers found that detailed planning made strategies more applicable and understandable for them (the teachers), even when the strategies being discussed were ones they were familiar with. Caroline, one of the participants, explained:
While I was familiar with many of the language strategies shared in this course prior to taking it, most of my [prior] learning and experience has been about how to use the strategies in an ELA [English language arts] class. I really appreciated the opportunity to think about, and actually plan for, the use of these strategies in a math classroom to support access and communication about mathematical ideas.

Implementing Strategies: A Risk That's Worth It

After planning together within the PD sessions, the next step for bringing ideas, strategies, and content to life and connecting them to teachers' work is for teachers to try out the ideas, strategies, and content in the classroom. After engaging in collaborative planning, VAM PD facilitators ask teachers, at regular intervals during the professional learning experience, to try out a strategy with a class before the next PD session. Teachers choose whether to enact particular activities with an entire class or with a smaller group.
Trying out a new strategy may not be entirely comfortable—it may feel risky. We encourage teachers to look at the implementation as a formative data-gathering opportunity, and to take an inquiry stance about how implementation will go. Suspending assumptions about how a specific student may react to a particular task or strategy can help teachers feel more open to different responses, and more ready to try out the new strategy. Gwen, a VAM PD participant, told us she felt "challenged to apply the various strategies in different ways" with her students, but that this challenge benefitted her instruction.
Seeing the strategies in action in their own classrooms with their own students—even if everything doesn't go smoothly at first—is powerful. Another participant, Lydia, noted she was "more confident and willing to try [the strategies] more often … and hopefully make them better." Jewel described how trying out visual representations for teaching fractions, ratios, and proportions turned out to support student participation and thinking:
I teach 8th grade, and always relied on symbolic methods to solve such problems. It has been so easy to illustrate solution strategies that utilize a visual representation. I have learned that using visual representations forces students to make sense of the problem first so they know if their approach and answer make sense…. Visual representations can be excellent thinking tools, but also communication tools.

Analyzing and Reflecting

After planning and implementing new strategies, the next step—teachers analyzing evidence and reflecting on what they learned in trying the visual representation strategies—must be intentionally carried out before starting a new cycle. In VAM PD, this analysis and reflection is supported in large part by student work analysis protocols that build off ones that we developed and used in our prior PD programs, such as the Fostering Geometric Thinking Toolkit (Driscoll et al., 2008).

Figure 1. Student Work Analysis Sheet Used in VAM PD

Figure 1 shows one example of our Student Work Analysis protocols. These protocols focus on evidence of students' mathematical thinking, related inferences teachers can make, and next instructional moves. Teachers reported that the student work analysis helped them focus on how strategies learned in the PD could impact particular students.

Three Processes for Bolstering Professional Learning

Our research on teachers participating in VAM PD indicates that it can fuel changes in teachers' practice and in their sense of being able to support emergent multilingual students. Our study of middle-grade teachers in 47 New England schools taking the full 60-hour VAM PD demonstrated that the experience increased teachers' ability to identify and interpret student mathematical thinking, as well as teachers' self-efficacy related to teaching emergent multilingual students and using visual representations in instruction (Neumayer DePiper, Nikula, & Louie, 2019).
To achieve these outcomes, in addition to using the cycles of planning, implementing, and analyzing, VAM PD facilitators incorporated three essential processes across these teacher learning activities: attending to focus students, highlighting students' strengths and resources, and supporting teacher collaboration.

Attending to Focus Students

Teachers select two "focus students" and then pay particular attention to these students throughout the PD experience as they anticipate students' responses, plan for students' strengths and needs, and interpret student work to reflect on their practice. The use of focus students grounds planning and student work analysis in learners' specific strengths and needs. It leads to specificity in planning. We encourage teachers to select focus students that represent some range in the classroom—such as students with different English-language proficiency levels. One teacher, Mary, noted how this practice supported modifying her instruction for students who are emergent multilingual: "I appreciate having focused on two [emergent multilingual] students. I am able to have those students and their strengths and areas for improvement in mind when thinking about changes to make to tasks."

Highlighting Students' Strengths and Resources

Focusing on students is not enough on its own. To be able to implement new strategies productively, it is critical to consider students through the lens of what strengths and resources they bring to the classroom. In VAM PD, we emphasize learning about and building from students' strengths and resources in their mathematical thinking and communication with a specific focus on students who are emergent multilingual, while also encouraging tapping existing strengths in mathematics with any student.
Prompts for planning include anticipating what students could do, write, and say that would be in line with goals for mathematics and for communication for the lesson. Reflecting on student work includes identifying students' strengths, even in initial responses that aren't correct, so teachers can consider how to build on that initial productive thinking from the student. Figure 2 shows the type of student work teachers analyze in VAM PD. In this example, teachers might discuss what the different "7s" they see in the work represent and what each shows about the students' emerging understanding.

Figure 2. Sample Student Work for Analysis

Gwen reflected on how student work analysis helped her "connect student strengths to starting points for conversations with [a focus student]" and explained, "overall, I've found that [analyzing student work] made me more aware of what she is or isn't accessing during class and put her at the forefront of my mind when I am planning lessons or interventions to make sure that I'm meeting her needs specifically." Before using the protocol, Gwen's analysis of student thinking based on looking at work samples had been "anecdotal and informal."


Collaboration with colleagues is another feature of effective PD identified by research. In VAM PD we emphasize collaborative work during lesson planning and student work analysis. VAM PD facilitators offer frequent opportunities for teachers to plan or analyze work together, sharing feedback and different perspectives. Collaboration and teacher sharing of approaches and reflections on learning happen during face-to-face meetings for the PD's summer institute and school year workshops, as well as during small group interactions over videoconference during the school year.
Teachers expressed appreciation for the collaborative nature of lesson planning and student work analysis. For instance, Kevin found that analyzing sample student work with colleagues led to changes in practice beyond mathematics instruction:
Sharing the [Student Work] Analysis Sheet data with fellow participants at my school brought about conversations about common language, instructional practices, effectiveness, and how the Three Reads strategy could be used between all content classes, not only math.

No Shortcuts

If educators want PD to stick, leaders and PD facilitators need to support teachers through all stages of learning, implementation, and reflection, which takes time and structured activities. The cycles described above form a bridge between PD and the demands and conditions of teaching. They support teachers to transfer their learning to their instruction. Lesson planning leads to implementing approaches discovered or reinforced in the professional learning; then, when teachers analyze student work and see how student understanding is evolving, that analysis supports teacher reflection (Goldsmith & Seago, 2011).
Through our experience designing, implementing, and studying VAM PD, we've witnessed teachers using these PD cycles become more confident in their work to support all students in the mathematics classroom. The ways each teacher reported enacting their professional learning in the classroom weren't always exactly the same. Educators' strengths, needs, and classroom contexts will always differ, and our goal was to offer supports that teachers in various situations could productively try. Some teachers reworked existing curricular units based on their learning, others integrated particular strategies across every mathematics task, and others made plans for how to introduce the same topic differently in subsequent years.
The need for intensive work to solidify teacher learning is especially relevant when trying to build teachers' skills in a domain outside their own discipline. However, while the PD described here focuses on mathematics and the language needs of students who are emergent multilingual, the main takeaways—the practice of connecting PD to the classroom by encouraging planning with focus students in mind; encouraging teacher collaboration; and especially emphasizing students' strengths—can apply to any PD program.
Authors' note: The research reported here about the Visual Access to Mathematics professional development is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL 1503057. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. All teachers' names in the article are pseudonyms.

Darling-Hammond, L., Hammerness, K., Grossman, P., Rust, L., & Shulman, L. S. (2005). The design of teacher education programs. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 390–441). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Driscoll, M., Nikula, J., & DePiper, J. N. (2016). Mathematical thinking and communication: Access for English learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Driscoll, M., Wing DiMatteo, R., Nikula, J., Egan, M., Mark, J., & Kelemanik, G. (2008). The fostering geometric thinking toolkit: A guide for staff development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goldsmith, L. T., & Seago, N. (2011). Using classroom artifacts to focus teachers' noticing: Affordances and opportunities. In M. G. Sherin, V. R. Jacobs, & R. A. Philipp (Eds.), Mathematics teacher noticing: Seeing through teachers' eyes (pp. 169–187). New York: Routledge.

Neumayer DePiper, J., Nikula, J., & Louie, J. (2019). Shifts in self-efficacy for teaching English learners: Emergent findings from mathematics teacher professional development. In S. Otten, A. G. Candela, Z. de Araujo, C. Haines, & C. Munter (Eds.), Proceedings of the forty-first annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (pp. 547–551). St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri.

End Notes

1 While U.S. schools often label students as "English learners," we prefer the term emergent multilinguals because it highlights the strengths and language resources of students who are developing fluency in multiple languages.

2 The authors would like to acknowledge Mark Driscoll's leadership on and instrumental contributions to the VAM PD project, including his foundational work on which VAM PD was built.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.