Last year, I presented a lot on the need to improve mathematics instruction. I had pictures, I had questions, I had effective arguments, and my audience was engaged. I could present like the best of them on some of the ways that we can improve mathematics instruction. What I did not have was effective teaching.

The role of someone involved in professional development for teachers is to help the audience, teachers, improve their practice. It may be that they take part of what you do and use it, and it may be that they attempt to copy your method exactly. The problem is that the typical presentation does little to improve someone’s practice. It may inspire them, it may anger them (I’ve done both), and it may provide some helpful tips, but effective change in practice does not come from someone presenting on their practice. The best you can hope for from a presentation is small, temporary, surface level changes.

Improving one’s practice requires thinking. It requires time spent looking at the context of one’s school, on the way that one approaches one’s own teaching, and on what other practices one can incorporate into one’s own pedagogy. It requires discussion so that the learner can take the ideas they are assimilating and seek clarification and direction.

So instead of spending the entire time I present talking, I give participants much more opportunity to talk. Instead of participants sitting around listening, I give them opportunities to do. The last few workshops I’ve done have been more about conversations. They’ve involved rich, mathematical problem solving activities. They’ve involved teachers having insights, and sharing those insights, often things that never would have occurred to me. I’ve learned much more from my workshop participants than when I was a presenter.

I spent an afternoon talking with my colleagues about computational thinking, how computational thinking really is mathematical thinking, and how if our students get opportunities to program, then they are doing mathematics. My colleagues were working on a particularly challenging problem, and one of them stopped and said, "Okay, I get it. Solving problems is hard. I can see why the kids struggle with this stuff." This kind of insight, not directly related to my objectives, was probably the most valuable insight to come out of that workshop. It never would have happened had I not given participants a chance to think and to do.