Filling Gaps: Buy a Program or Help Teachers Grow?

This post actually started as a rant as I was sitting through meeting after meeting with really nice people trying to sell products to “Fill the Gaps.”  So, if it has a rant-y feeling, just know where I’m coming from.  If no one really likes this, that’s ok.  At least it’s out of my system for now.  You see, when you’re “invited” to attend meetings to raise student achievement, you really need to show up, or who knows what will  happen.  So, in the effort to stand up for teachers and students, I attended all of them.

Man shouting, pulling hair

These were really nice people presenting to us, and they were very passionate about their products.  I even largely agree with several of them on their basic philosophy.

At least one of the people listening with us in the room was sold on many of the ideas before we even started these meetings.  Every slide or picture shown was met with a “That’s good!” or a “That’s really good!”  I think if they showed us a shiny, new penny, this person would have said, “This is what our students need!” with the same reaction!  The pictures of bulletin boards showing concept maps and vocabulary word walls and even students working may be good – or may not.   Really, there’s no way to tell – especially with the picture of the students working.  What were the students saying?  Were they discussing mathematics?  Were they using the vocabulary on the bulletin board?  Were they making connections to the concept maps?  Did they give and receive feedback about their work?  Let’s see some video, so I can see how this is really working.


Again, philosophically I agree with their framework of instruction.   However, the product is not really necessary if the PL these companies are willing to provide is effective.

Now, on to the PL.  Lots of good strategies offered here.  And more pictures of students “engaged.”   My question:  what are the students engaged in?”  Are they engaged in the mathematics or the product?  My initial response to this self-posed question was:  Does it really matter?  The students are working.  After  thinking about this for just a few seconds, though, I can say without a doubt that it does matter!

Engaging students can be tricky.   A passerby, seeing students working silently in their seats, might conclude student engagement in a task.  A passerby, seeing and hearing students discussing a task, may conclude non-engagement in a task as well as lack of classroom management.  Really it’s hard to tell, in either case, whether there was any engagement or what kind of engagement there was.


Students in the sixth-grade Harlequin Team from Paris Elementary School work on a math problem. Clockwise, from front left, are Abby Steeves, William Dieterich, Annie Choi, Katerina Crowell, Halie Page and Sebastian Brochu.

So, what does engagement mean?  It depends on what you want.  One of my goals year after year is to engage students in the mathematics they’re studying.  When I first started teaching, I wanted students to just be engaged, no matter what.  As I think back, they were engaged – probably in my educational “performance.”  I was the “fun” teacher that did crazy math lessons.  As I grew professionally, my lesson focus evolved to take the students’ engagement away from me and toward the mathematical content.  So, why is it so important?  If students are engaged in creating the product (creating a poster, making a presentation, etc.)  they may be learning mathematics, but how do we know.  I’ve seen students engaged in creating beautiful products and walk away with little mathematical understanding.  I’ve also seen students engaged in mathematics and creating not so beautiful products, but beautiful understandings and mathematical connections.

So, for all of the professionals in the room thinking this (or any of the other presentations we’ve seen) is the silver bullet. . . It’s not.  The only silver bullet out there that’s going to raise student achievement is teacher PL grounded in  understanding mathematics conceptually and building teachers’ pedagogical understandings and strategies.  If we want high achieving students, we have to help teachers achieve their greatest potential.  No program out there will do that, but if you really want to become a better math teacher, Twitter and the #MTBoS are a great place to start!


    1. Thanks Graham. The next step is pushing for and achieving the sustainable fix, since many of those making decisions are looking for the quick fix rather than the long term goal of improving mathematics teaching overall.

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