My colleague, Arusha Hollister, and I facilitate the Implementing Investigations 3 (II3) online course. Working with Arusha and the many teachers, math coaches, and administrators who have participated in the course has been a truly meaningful learning experience for me—one that has pushed my thinking about how to best support professional development experiences online, particularly through the use of discussion forums.

The II3 course discussion forum, which essentially functions as an online community, is one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the course from the standpoint of the facilitator. During the 7-week course, participants log in several times per week to reflect on, and ask questions about, the activities and readings in the weekly sessions. For each session, we pose a question for everyone to consider that highlights the key mathematical ideas in that session.

Our goals as facilitators are to create a forum that promotes discussions in which participants feel supported to share new learning, ask questions about the curriculum, and talk about their teaching practice openly and honestly with each other.

Feedback on the discussion forum has been clear: participants appreciate the opportunity to learn from and reflect on their practice with colleagues across the grades. As one participant commented, “Anytime I can reflect on myself, my career and connect with my colleagues, it’s a win for me, but more importantly [it’s a win for] my students.”

Creating an online forum in which everyone can connect with colleagues and engage in meaningful conversation requires lots of careful planning.  Over the past year, Arusha and I have been thinking together about the factors that contribute to the development of the forum. Here are some of my key takeaways from our work:

Ask questions that encourage depth over breadth

We have found that questions that ask participants to think very broadly about a mathematical topic often encourage people to summarize information, which does not promote engaging conversation, so we’ve switched to questions that encourage participants to go deep. For example, we recently replaced the question, “What does it mean to be computationally fluent?” — which appeared at the end of the session about addition and subtraction in the early grades — to “What do you see as the key elements of the work students do in the early grades with addition and subtraction?” The former question tended to encourage a lot of summaries about the elements of computational fluency, while the latter has sparked conversation about a range of topics including the importance of flexibility in problem solving, mathematical language, the Standards for Mathematical Practice, and much more.

Create space to discuss the ideas and questions that feel most relevant to participants

The best conversations arise when people feel that they can use the forum as a tool to extend their learning rather than as a place where they must compose the “correct” answer to a specific question. Over time, we have come to describe the forum as a place for people to write about aspects of their learning, or ideas or questions that are coming up for them. While we do pose a question to consider, we now emphasize that this is meant as a jumping off point.

Help everyone make connections between new learning and classroom practice

Meaningful professional development happens when there are multiple opportunities to connect and enact new learning in one’s professional work. We encourage participants to offer specific examples of the ways in which they plan to change their teaching practice in response to new ideas they have encountered in the course. Being specific helps participants really articulate how a new idea can be put into action. For example, one participant wrote the following in response to the session on multiplication and division:

“I expanded my knowledge regarding how helpful arrays are for developing meaning and solving multiplication problems.  As a second-grade teacher, understanding the progression of this tool through the upper grades is helpful.  Going forward, I will aim to be more purposeful in helping students notice equal groups and identify and describe the patterns they notice in the tables they work with to represent their ‘cube building’ arrays.”

Encourage self-reflection

Being self-reflective is key to developing one’s professional practice! I am always moved when participants take time to honestly reflect on their math learning and on their work with students.

Know when to respond as a facilitator

This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of my work as a facilitator. It feels important to give participants space to connect with each other and so we do try to limit our involvement on the forum. Sometimes, however, a response from us is warranted, particularly when a specific question about the curriculum comes up. For example, a question about how students are instructed to fill a ten-frame at the beginning of kindergarten is something our staff can answer quickly and unequivocally.

Looking Ahead to Continued Learning

Each new iteration of the II3 course presents new opportunities to learn more about online course facilitation and the teaching and learning of mathematics. Looking ahead, I would like explore how to use other types of online communities to sustain the learning begun during the II3 online course once it is technically over. How do we keep the conversations going? The launch of the Investigations online community (coming soon, sign up to be notified!) will be a wonderful opportunity to explore this further.

Annie Sussman
Tag(s): online learning | professional development |