Of Math and Myths: Professional Development and Change among High School Teachers

Every culture has its myths — collections of enshrined beliefs, borne of experience, almost sanctified by repetition, that like the mythology of the Greeks, Romans and Celts, seeks to provide order to chaos or rational explanations to seemingly non-rational outcomes. The professional culture to which I belong
Publish date:
Social count:
Every culture has its myths — collections of enshrined beliefs, borne of experience, almost sanctified by repetition, that like the mythology of the Greeks, Romans and Celts, seeks to provide order to chaos or rational explanations to seemingly non-rational outcomes. The professional culture to which I belong

Every culture has its myths — collections of enshrined beliefs, borne of experience, almost sanctified by repetition, that like the mythology of the Greeks, Romans and Celts, seeks to provide order to chaos or rational explanations to seemingly non-rational outcomes.

The professional culture to which I belong — that of teacher educator — also contains its own myths. Many of these myths center on high school teachers and can be encapsulated as follows:

  1. Of the three levels — elementary, middle and high school — the latter is most resistant to change;
  2. High school teachers have a predominant content focus, making non-content focused professional development difficult;
  3. While high school teachers will use technology, they will resist cooperative/collaborative groups; and
  4. Of all high school faculty, math teachers are the most resistant to learner-centered approaches.

While myths are fiction, they do serve as a shorthand to explain a particular circumstance or to personify a moral message: Narcissus and the danger of vanity; Ceres and the origin of the seasons; the Irish warrior, Cuchulainn's undoing by his own passions. Myths about high school faculty do indeed outline some basic problems in how content and instruction are ordered and the way in which professional development is often organized at the secondary level. Certainly there are high school teachers — indeed teachers at all levels — who, given such organizational constraints, appear to validate such myths. But based on my experience this past year with high school teachers in Laredo, Texas, the myth of the unchanging high school practitioner is one that needs revisiting.

In July 2002 the SouthCentral RTEC at Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), at the invitation of the United Independent School District, initiated Active Learning with Technology, a yearlong professional development project with 87 teachers from four high schools in Laredo, Texas. The aim of this project was to assist teachers to create learner-centered classrooms supported by technology.

Laredo is separated by the Rio Grande from its larger Mexican urban twin, Nuevo Laredo. In addition to being the second-fastest growing city in the United States, Laredo is also one of the poorest. Poverty levels are high at all schools (in some cases 100 percent). Many students moved with their migrant families for part of the year to work in northern agricultural states. Many other students, especially at one high school, lived in colonias-settlements on the urban fringe, often lacking water, wastewater, adequate housing and secure tenure. Overall, most students appeared more comfortable with Spanish than with English.

In April 2002, before the start of this project, I conducted classroom observations in 50 classrooms in 2 of the 4 high schools to determine the kind of professional development on which we should focus on in the upcoming year. Though grades and subject areas varied, the teaching style, with one exception, was uniform: teachers stood in front of the classroom, often anchored to their overhead projector, and talked at students, who sat in rows. Though every classroom possessed at least one computer, none was in use. Admittedly, one 45-minute observation cannot capture the complete range of teacher practice, but additional data buttressed these initial observations. Surveys administered to teachers indicated that 20 percent of teachers used technology on a "regular basis" (mostly for their own productivity) and on a scale of 0-3 (0 being "no experience" and 3 being "very experienced"), overall teacher proficiency with all standard office software was 0.70. I interviewed numerous teachers asking them about their goals and their fears regarding technology. Again, despite the diversity of teachers, goals could be synopsized as "I want to put my lectures on PowerPoint" and fears as "I have one computer and 25 students. How am I supposed to 'integrate'?"

Having observed their classrooms, heeded their concerns, considered the general consensus on the difficulty of "changing" high school practitioners, and recalling the professional isolation of my five years as a high school teacher (Had I actually ever seen any of my colleagues teach?), I must admit some initial hesitancy on our part. We had just successfully implemented a two-year professional development project with 160 teachers, helping them move toward more technology-integrated learner-centered classrooms. But of those teachers, high school teachers made up only a handful. Our professional development was not technology training; it focused more on creating a sense of comfort with technology. It was interdisciplinary, hands on, project-oriented and collaborative. Would the Laredo teachers respond to or reject this?

Professional development

We held six staff development sessions for teachers from August 2002 through March 2003. Each session was 6 to 7 hours in length and held on Saturdays in the school library. Within these sessions, the facilitator served as the "teacher" and the teachers themselves were "students." All activities, project- or problem-based, modeled the use of limited technology and focused on an interdisciplinary theme applicable to the high school curriculum. For example, in one activity, teachers used spreadsheet software to reapportion the 435 members of the House of Representatives based on the latest Census data. In a visual literacy activity teachers analyzed digital images and then used image-editing software to create a series of campaign ads for a candidate of their choosing. A third involved teachers in the creation of a digital community museum in which they rotated among learning stations to gather data for their digital museum. (A complete description of all activities, and the activities themselves, can be found at ACT: Active Learning with Technology

In addition to the active portion of the sessions, each provided time for sharing of ideas, reflection about challenges and successes, and work time to hone new teaching and learning skills and strategies. Professional development sessions were supplemented by monthly on-site follow up visits to each teacher's classroom in which the facilitator assisted teachers with the creation of new activities, gave refreshers on the technology, or conducted informal classroom observations and provided feedback.

We needn't have worried about teacher enthusiasm toward the activities. Teachers were most enthusiastic, and participated as we had hoped they would — as active and engaged learners. They eagerly drove around Laredo taking pictures for a "community museum"; were moved by interviews at a local nursing home; exhibited pride in their first Web page; and took mischievous delight in recounting how skittish Border officials watched them as they learned to use probes to collect vehicular air and noise emissions at the International Bridge in Laredo (on the first day of the Iraq war and a Code Orange alert). They made connections between their own learning and that of their students. In a reflection session following the first day's professional development, one teacher said, "I'm so glad that it's okay to put the kids in groups. I think they really like it--and I really like it too. It's not just for elementary school kids."

During the course of the year, change was difficult and slow for many teachers as they struggled with the demands of preparing students for the Texas state exam, and commenced the difficult process of reorganizing their classrooms to accommodate technology and learner centered instruction. We experienced attrition — something new for our SEDL projects — as seven teachers dropped out of the project to focus on preparing students for the 10th grade Test of Academic Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The District experienced many of the problems associated with high need and low wage areas as one of the high schools rotated through three principals in one year and the district lost two of its three technicians to higher paying private sector jobs. Teachers at first struggled with grouping strategies, with fitting technology into their content area, and with reorganizing instruction for a classroom of one computer and 25-30 students. A few teachers never attempted to apply anything they had learned in the professional development sessions. Some attempts at collaboration were stillborn; others incubated but never hatched. But many more classrooms gave life to a new type of learning: computers were on, in regular use by teachers and students alike. Students were collaborating. Teachers shared examples of student projects using electronic presentation, concept mapping and web editing applications. Teachers were excited. Student-produced work sprouted all over formerly bare hallway walls.

But what, specifically, about the shibboleths of high school teachers and change, collaboration and content? As part of our post-professional development classroom observations, I revisited the same 50 classrooms in March 2003 that I had observed in 2002. Having steeped myself in the aforementioned mythology of high school teachers and change, I had modest expectations in terms of any sort of impact of our professional development on teacher practice. I was most pleasantly surprised and will now discuss the changes I observed in light of the myths mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Evidence of change

I saw some degree of change in all 50 classrooms. In some instances, the changes were small (such as allowing students to work together in groups for the last half of class or allowing individual students to access technology). In 20 of the classrooms, change was substantial, involving grouping and the reorganization of traditional modes of communication, organization and labor. In some classrooms, given my knowledge of the teacher and his/her previous mode of instruction and hesitation with technology, the changes were noteworthy. I mention two below. These, perhaps, may seem modest to many readers because of their own comfort with technology, but they are indeed dramatic given where these teachers had started.

  • In one Spanish class, where previously the teacher had restricted herself to worksheets and rote activity, the class worked in groups of 2-3 to create a PowerPoint book on a Latin American country of their choosing. Whereas in the previous year's observation, the teacher had led students through rote recitation of Spanish phrases, one year later, students were generating authentic language. The teacher circulated among the students, providing information only when solicited from students and helped them use/troubleshoot PowerPoint without touching the mouse or keyboard (This was something we had modeled and focused on in our professional development activities). The teacher had integrated technology into her class in such a way that the tool propelled students to collaborate and learn from one another. The teacher gave her students the space to learn. She was the model of a guide, a coach, a facilitator.
  • In an Integrated Physics and Calculus class at another high school, students gathered acceleration and velocity data using marbles, input their data and graphed results in Excel, and then explained the process using Publisher. In that same school, the 11th grade US Government teacher, realizing how dry the topic of post Civil War Reconstruction can be, asked students create a video of the textbook chapter on Reconstruction. Students created costumes and props; filmed in black and white and at night to create the proper ambience for events; and played roles as diverse as Klan members, freed slaves, Union soldiers, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant. They edited their video using free video editing software and premiered it for the class. Their video was well done, comprehensive and entertaining. Never before had I seen students so enthralled by the topic of Reconstruction.

Content focus

While the elementary school allows for a more holistic organization of general knowledge, the high school certainly emphasizes specialization and division of learning. Thus, mindful of teacher reaction toward our interdisciplinary approach, we consistently, throughout the year, solicited their feedback regarding this lack of content focus. To a person, teachers replied that they appreciated the respite from their own content area, welcoming a chance to learn something different. In addition, they told us, they really enjoyed learning about their colleagues' subject areas. By participating in cross-curricular activities themselves, they told us, they gained a better understanding of the way in which subject areas intersected and ideas for potential collaboration.

We observed examples of a more subtle interdisciplinary focus throughout the school year. For example, in one high school history class, the teacher, in a unit on the Great Depression, incorporated creative writing and art as part of student study on this topic. At another high school, the reading and computer classes collaborated on the tale of King Midas, in which students read and discussed the story in reading class and created an animated digital version of the tale in their computer class.

We had asked teachers, as part of this project, to create one activity with colleagues that they would do with students. What was so surprising was how many of these activities were interdisciplinary.

Of these activities, one in particular stands out. Two math teachers, two reading teachers and the family science teacher engaged students in a supply and demand activity concerning their school. In the reading classes, students created and administered a student survey in which they asked their peers what classes and clubs they would like to have at one school. Students then graphed survey results in Excel and discussed their findings. Armed with this information, the school schedule and school blue prints, students in the two math classes calculated the area and perimeter of the school, and average class size, and attempted to figure out how much space and time would be available to accommodate such demands. In the family science class, where there are a number of computers, students elaborated their findings in a PowerPoint presentation, which they then made to the principal.

"You can lead a high school teacher to a computer but you can't make her group"

In all of our professional development activities, teachers worked together in groups and discussed the benefits afforded by this type of social and collaborative learning. Throughout the school year, and particularly in the 2003 observations, we saw widespread evidence that teachers were extending this practice to their classes in the forms of both cooperative and collaborative activities. I repeatedly saw groups of 4-5 students huddled over a computer creating documents in Publisher, graphing data in a spreadsheet, or creating web pages. Collaborative grouping also occurred when there was no technology in use.

Most of this grouping did remain rather traditional however — that is, small groups of students working together on the same activity. However, there were a couple of exceptions to this. In one of the reading classes the teacher organized her class of 25 into 5 groups, each working on a different activity, some involving Inspiration, some manipulating blocks of text in a sequencing activity, and others on a writing exercise using the computer. And teachers working in one high school computer lab often turned off several computers and had groups of students work together on one computer each. "The kids really collaborate a lot more. They learn more from each other instead of interacting solely with the computer," explained one of the computer teachers.

Math teachers

If there was consistently any one group that proved most enthusiastic toward adoption of new practices, it was the math teachers. Almost immediately following the first two staff development sessions, collaborative grouping became a norm in many math classes and PowerPoint, Front Page, the Internet and Inspiration joined the graphing calculator and overhead projector as indispensable math tools. Most notable was how teachers readily adopted and adapted the project- and problem-based approaches we had modeled in our staff development. Instead of dry math problems, I noticed more and more scenario building in classes. There were linear equations involving housing prices, there was learning about trend extrapolation through a car sale activity, and there was understanding perimeter and area by using software to create floor plan for a student-designed house. And these were just some of the projects that replaced the previous approach of following along in the chapters of the text.

In one math class, students worked in groups calculating how they could afford their dream house, car, etc. They used graphing calculators, the Internet, spreadsheets, and poster boards. Students were engaged, motivated and completely on task. In another, students used Inspiration to create tessellations, which they then pieced together. In a third math class, pairs of students researched a career of their choice and used various spreadsheet formulae to determine how much money they would earn in a given year. Using the statistical functions of Excel, each pair determined at what point both persons would be earning the same amount, i.e., the point of intersection.

Finally, in one Algebra II class, the study of Pascal's Triangles incorporated a study of some of Blaise Pascal's philosophy and a study of Jansenism and religious tolerance in Europe. Students created their own videotaped play of Pascal's life.


The mythology surrounding high school teachers speaks more to the structure of high schools themselves: their compartmentalized curriculum with its preponderant focus on content and therefore knowledge specialization. Certainly, this structure poses its own unique set of professional development challenges. Nonetheless, as the Active Learning with Technology project at United Independent School District proved, the myth of the resistant high school teacher is one that needs re-evaluation and re-telling. Like their elementary and middle school counterparts, high school teachers are willing to embrace the changes wrought by technology and adopt learner-centered approaches under certain conditions: especially when such innovations occur in professional development environments that help teachers understand how social collaboration and technology use can deepen content knowledge and overall student productivity. This in turn can help teachers to connect their individual content to the larger body of high school curriculum.


  1. I was the facilitator at one school and visited classrooms on a monthly basis. In terms of the second school, I returned only once, in March 2003, for post-professional development classroom observations.
  2. For an explanation of Pascal's Triangle, visit: Pascal's Triangle

Email: Mary Burns



Image placeholder title

Professional Development

The great news on the PD front—at least from the districts who presented at the second School CIO Summit Conference this June—is that we’ve moved far away from the days of drive-by PD in which socalled experts come in once a year to show teachers how to use product X and expect them to begin using it perfectly by the very next day.

Myths and Facts of Learning Technology

What is Learning Technology? Learning Technology, Educational Technology, Instructional Technology, E-Learning, Computer Assisted Learning (CAL), Computer Based Training (CBT). One or more of these closely related terms seems to occur in almost every discussion on education and learning these days. But what do they

Image placeholder title

Professional Development

The great news on the PD front—at least from the districts who presented at the second School CIO Summit Conference this June—is that we’ve moved far away from the days of drive-by PD in which socalled experts come in once a year to show teachers how to use product X and expect them to begin using it perfectly by the very next day.

Professional Development: 21st Century Models

Never before has the pressure been so high to find ways to support successful teaching and learning through effective professional development. With the U.S. education community, driven by No Child Left Behind, focusing on standards, accountability, and pledges to see that every child is taught by a certified and

Between Technology and Teacher Effectiveness: Professional Development

As new technologies permeate our society, they are also becoming more and more of a factor in today's classrooms. The promise of technology in education is significant. Technology offers the potential of individualized instruction for every student as students become actively engaged in and responsible for their own