In part 1 of this 4-part interview, Harvard GSE researcher Heather Hill talks about why to skip professional development focused on content knowledge for teachers.

– Welcome to another PLtogether Lounge Talk, I’m Adam Geller, Founder and CEO of Edthena. Today we are joined, again, by Heather Hill. She is a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and she is also someone who has an interesting claim to fame. She’s potentially observed more classrooms than anyone else in the United States. Has anyone broken that maybe Guinness World Record yet, Heather?

– Oh, I have one associate who I think looks at more classrooms than I do. But yeah, I’ve seen a lot of classrooms.

– Okay, so you’ve relinquished the title.

– I will always choose to spend my time looking at classrooms if I can.

– Well, that’s what we’re here to talk about is what’s happening in classrooms of course. And how to have a bigger impact with students. And today we’ve been talking about research findings that challenge assumptions that educators have. And so I want to talk about if you are a school leader or a district leader planning a PD, and you’re trying to pick the direction to head to have the biggest impact with students, that maybe you don’t want to plan a professional development that’s focused mainly on increasing teachers’ content knowledge.

– Mm-hm, yeah. Okay, well that’s,

– Tell us more.

– Your face is actually my face when I started to realize this, even just a couple years ago. So, I started my career really looking at teachers’ content knowledge in mathematics in particular, and the idea and the sort of theory of action that we had back then was something like this, a lot of teachers don’t have the content knowledge that they need to teach, K-8 teachers in particular, because they’re not comfortable teaching math, they weren’t, you know well-trained when they were in school with regard to the mathematics that they are now teaching. And what we need to do is increase that content knowledge in order to improve instruction and then improve student outcomes. So a lot of federal money went into and a lot of district money went into these kinds of professional development programs where teachers would learn math, usually absent the context of classrooms, usually absent the context or sometimes absent the context of, you know what kids were doing with math or what the curriculum materials look like. And so a lot of teachers probably remember sitting sometimes in sessions led by mathematicians or led by people that were just, you know explaining fractions to them. So 20 years go by, we do a lot of studies, some colleagues and I start looking across these studies. And one of the things that we asked the data was so, first, professional development does seem to impact student outcomes. There’s a positive impact on average across, we found about 90 programs in this particular meta analysis. But then we said so which programs seem to be the ones that are working? So like, can we say something about the features of effective programs? We approach that two ways, the first thing that we did was to say, “Okay, so what kinds of program content seem to lead to better student outcomes?” And we broke this up into roughly, well two buckets, three buckets. One is programs that only focused on changing teachers’ instruction, sometimes through content knowledge, sometimes through just changing instruction. Programs that focused on curriculum materials only, and then programs that focused on both. So teachers are getting curriculum materials, they’re learning how to use them, they’re rehearsing them with colleagues, they are working through the problems themselves. So like you know, doing the science investigation or doing the math. So what we found in that sort of cut at the data was that the those programs that combined professional development with curriculum materials were more effective than programs that only did those things separately. So when teachers had chances to really study and learn their curriculum materials, those student outcomes looked, I think four percentile points, four to six percentile points better than programs where they were doing one on their own. And it’s kind of cool to think about, you know if you think about developing teacher expertise. It’s sort of like if you know, if you practice doing something, if you study how to do something, you’re gonna get better at it. And I think that that’s what we’re looking at in some of these studies in the first cut. The second cut goes back to your question about the content knowledge. So we also said, “Do programs that increase teachers’ content knowledge”, because many of them measure content knowledge, “Or do programs that increase teachers’ instructional quality”, you know, the amount of standards aligned instruction for instance, “Which of those tend to produce better on average student outcomes? Where do you see correlations between improvements in teachers’ knowledge or their practice and those student outcomes?” And we found that actually the correlation between teachers’ content knowledge improving in these programs and student outcomes improving was zero. So the pathway doesn’t seem to be through those content knowledge, the pathway instead seems to be through improving teachers’ practice. So it was a really interesting and I think for the field kind of counter-intuitive finding because 20 years ago people were all about improving content knowledge as a sort of abstract thing. But now it looks like what you’re gonna need to do is improve that knowledge in the context of lessons and units that teachers are actually teaching.

– It’s interesting, I was remembering my experience being a science teacher and thinking about okay, you know, there’s so many content heavy things in science, especially you know, middle school where I taught I was introducing a lot of topics for the first time. What I was imagining was I remember learning about, I live on the west coast now, but growing up on the east coast, you never learned about earthquakes in anything you did. And I was a teacher in Missouri and we had a earthquake one year and like how different that was to take what had previously just been some random book knowledge that I had to learn related to becoming a teacher and then suddenly having to figure out, okay, how do I apply this specifically in the context and how much more powerful it would have been if I had learned about teaching P waves, I remember there’s something about P waves with earthquakes and how do you teach kids P waves? I don’t remember, I have no idea, but I bet you if I had had that PD that brought both of those together, but actually doing the teaching about those concepts, I feel like that’s what you’re saying where we should be investing our time and our resources.

– Yeah, and also if you have a curriculum, I think a lot of PL that doesn’t have a curriculum associated with it, if you talk to teachers after that experience they say, “Well, I love the PL like terrific ideas, I really want to do that but, I don’t have anything to do in my class on Monday, you know like I don’t have a way to implement that in my class.” And so the curriculum materials always give you a chance to sort of bring those ideas back to your class and give them a try and hopefully implement them with high quality.

– Well and then opportunities for reflection and talking about that and in other professional learning after that. Well Heather, we are going to take a break. Thank you so much for joining us for PLtogether. If you’re just finding this conversation shared somewhere on social media, make sure to head to for the rest of this series of conversations, as well as many others. Heather, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thanks, Adam.