The Freakonomics of Professional Development: How Do We Put the “D” Back in “PD”?

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Yes, Allen, I am talking about practice.

On my drive back from NorCal to Venice, I listened to some Freakonomics podcasts.  My head exploded.  I’d like to tell you about it.

They’ve been doing a series on the research about self-improvement, productivity, growth mindsets, and grit.  In a sense, what does it take to expand and maximize your potential talent?  Since I spend a bulk of time in the professional development field, I’m always interested in the science and research about adult learning, especially as it relates to perfecting a skill or talent.  How can we maximize our talents as math educators, speakers, facilitators, coaches, and support providers?

Teaching (or more specifically:  the act of instructing) is one of the most cognitively demanding tasks to master.  The sheer amount of meaningful data a teacher needs to absorb, sort, and evaluate in an hour of instruction is staggering.  I would love to see a chart about careers and the number of meaningful, consequential decisions a professional needs to make in a day.  How high on the chart would teaching be?

As a result, teachers need a significant amount of professional coaching, collaborating, and calibrating in order to improve their craftsmanship at the art of instructing.  Likewise, teachers must continue to have a growth mindset and gritty view of their practice if this professional support is going to lead actual, measurable, and enduring professional growth.

There are obviously many obstacles to navigate on this battlefield (school boards, unions, funding cuts, local/regional/state/federal politics, crappy textbooks and a crappy adoption process, standardized tests, shortsighted leadership decisions, poverty, unequal access and equity to good math instruction…).  I don’t intend to address them here in this post, and I’m intentionally setting them aside.

I’m just asking:  How do we best maximize the professional development for teachers (and our own development as PD providers)?

What I would like to share are a few excerpts from the podcasts and my take on how this relates to creating successful professional development opportunities.  My analysis is at the bottom.  As per usual, it’s a rambling journey until then.

I want to start with Nigel Richards.  Maybe you saw this pic floating around Twittersphere:

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What Nigel did was very impressive.  I don’t mean to take anything away from him or come across as diminishing his accomplishment.  I am suggesting that what he has accomplished is a tremendously difficult DOK1 task.  The task (memorize the French dictionary) was not complex, but it was very difficult.  (Check out Robert Kaplinsky’s own thoughts on DOK and complexity here.)

Many math teachers commented on Nigel’s performance by suggesting that we have a national history of teaching math with the same mindset to our students.  We don’t need to teach kids the art and utility of the French language; we just need to get them to memorize a bunch of French words without attention to context or meaning.  We could get students to “win” against a DOK1 standardized test, but they couldn’t speak the language or use it in any meaningful way.  Here in California, the old standardized test was so simple and so low on the DOK scale, teachers could (sort of) successfully game the system and get mathematically illiterate students to show a “false positive” on the California test.  (Check out David Foster’s work on the topic.)


This isn’t news to many people in the math education world.

What I’m suggesting is that much of the PD that math teachers have received for years has taken the same shallow approach to the skill development of teachers.  In other words, PD DOK has been at level 1, and we need to shift it to levels 3 and 4.

So how do we create meaningful and purposeful DOK3/4 PD for math teachers that leads to growth in how we teach math?  How do we help teachers create new meaning and new understanding about the art and craft of teaching math students?

That’s where the Freakonomics podcasts come in.  You can find the full transcripts here, here, and here.

In an interview with professor/author/researcher Anders Ericsson, Stephen Dubner (host) dives into what the research says about how people become exceptionally good at something.

Basically, it comes down to practice…purposeful, deliberate practice.  And a lot of it.

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Ericcson continues later:  “There are several components to deliberate practice, but generally, it’s about using good feedback to focus on specific techniques that will lead to real improvement.”

My key takeaways:

  • Deliberate practice requires focus on a goal.
  • It requires a teacher/coach/colleague to help collect and provide good feedback on progress to that goal.
  • Most importantly, deliberate practice requires maximum effort and being outside your comfort zone.
  • Sometimes deliberate practice is genuinely not enjoyable.
  • The last comment by Ericcson sounds like the backbone of all good professional development whether it is lesson inquiry, co-teaching, videotaping, etc.

Every day, we ask our students to commit to deliberate practice.  How do we create professional spaces for the adults that work in schools to do the same thing?  Because it’s really important that we include all adults, at all levels, in all roles, regardless of experience in the culture of deliberate practice.  Just because we’ve been doing something for years, doesn’t mean that we can excuse ourselves from extending our comfort zones.

I hope my doctor agrees with me because this research shocked me:

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My key takeaways:

  • How do we know if we’re making mistakes?  How do we know if we’re not?  How do we know what types of refinements we need to make?
  • Improvement only comes from processing feedback and data through reflection and the help of others.
  • Experience is not the same as practice.
  • Once a level of automaticity is reached, skills can actually decrease.
  • Teachers who say “Observing others or being observed is a waste of my instructional time; there’s nothing new for me to learn” are correct, sadly.  They have nothing new to learn because…
  • …deliberate practice also requires a growth mindset.


In what ways are teacher “evaluation tools” like the old DOK1 standardized tests?  How can we create more meaningful and more formative opportunities for teachers at DOK3/4?  Because if we’re setting the bar at some walkthrough checklist once a year, it’s very easy for a teacher to “pass the test” but never come closer to maximizing their talent.

Let me be very clear.  I’m not suggesting we need longer or more frequent checklists for teacher evaluations and walkthrough tools.

I’m suggesting that if we want to move math instruction, we need to shift the dialogue about teacher professional growth as something entirely different and separate from the machinery of teacher evaluation (and for what it’s worth, SBAC data).  We don’t need a more robust summative assessment for teacher effectiveness.  We need a 1000 more formative assessment opportunities rooted in the elements of deliberate practice and embedded in a cycle of reflection so teachers and leaders can calibrate and improve how to maximize their potential as educators.

At least that’s my interpretation of what Ericsson’s research suggests and what Malcolm Gladwell suggests below (in a different Freakonomics podcast):

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My key takeaway:

  • Deliberate practice without reflection is useless.

Without reflection, there is no professional development or growth; effort and practice will bear no meaningful fruit.  Reflection requires positive school culture, growth mindsets, and trust.  The depth and value of the reflection is limited by these factors.

Creating positive culture requires deliberate practice for school leaders; they need to create a culture of what Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”

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My key takeaways:

  • Nobody is born with a quota of “grit.” That’s fixed mindset thinking.
  • Grit is something that we can intentionally cultivate in ourselves and in others that we care about.  That’s growth mindset thinking.
  • Grit can be taught.

According to Duckworth, there are four key components to building grit:

  1. Interest and passion for something.
  2. Focus on deliberate practice.
  3. Purpose.
  4. Hope.

You can read all about it here.

My analysis:

If we want to create successful, gritty math students, we need to cultivate passion with interesting math tasks and compelling problems.  Deliberate practice gets tedious and boring; humans crave novelty.  To maintain and deepen student interest and passion, we need to leverage nuances in our classroom.  We need to put students in situations where they are encouraged to find another level/dimension/application to their thinking.  In other words, we need compelling and interesting sequels as Michael Fenton suggests in this great Ignite! talk.  Furthermore, the math work we ask students to do must have a purpose beyond “you need to know this for next year…”  The purpose of math assessments is to make math authentic and meaningful.  If the purpose of a math class is to “pass the test,” then most students, even the ones with the highest grades, will not develop a sense of grit and perseverance.  Lastly, students need to have hope that no matter where they are in their math journey, there are going to be problems and mistakes that they need to bounce back from.  Hope of future success is why we get up from the current failure.  Mistakes cannot erode hope.  Mistakes should build optimism, not pessimism.

If we want to create successful, gritty math teachers and school leaders, we need to cultivate passion with interesting and worthwhile professional tasks like lesson inquiry, co-teaching, coaching cycles, filming, observation and reflection etc.  Deliberate practice gets tedious and boring; teachers and leaders crave novelty even if they say they don’t.  It’s nice to be on auto-pilot because we’ve taught the lesson 40 times over the years, but that permits us to be bored.  And our boredom will be conveyed to our students.  It’s nice to have our PD plan “dialed in” after being a leader for a decade, but teachers will feel our boredom and flatness and will most likely imitate our lead.  We need to put ourselves in situations where we can find nuances in our work with others and our students.  (And this means venturing beyond the boundaries of our comfort.)  We must work together to create our own sequels.  The purpose of professional assessments should make our work more authentic and meaningful.  If the purpose of evaluation is to make sure we “get those boxes checked,” then we will stunt our own growth and never fulfill our potential.  We will lose our sense of purpose to our work.  Lastly, we need a culture of where professional struggles and instructional mistakes are reflected on and celebrated as evidence of learning and professional growth.

We all need to remain optimistic and hopeful in the face of our many daily failures.  We must cheerfully engage in our own productive struggles because students deserve inspiring instruction from passionate teachers.  Similarly, teachers deserve professional development that is rooted in deliberate practice and fosters grit and rewards growth mindsets because teaching math is really friggin’ hard.  How else are we going to get students to go beyond their comfort zone and take risks and celebrate mistakes if we don’t model it for them?

Thank you for listening to my thoughts and rambles.  I appreciate you.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments and help me further the dialogue.



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