Video as a Lens for Mathematics Teacher Learning

By Ed Finkel

Associate professor Miriam Sherin researches how video analysis helps mathematics teachers understand their students' reasoning. PHOTOS BY JIM ZIV

When football players and coaches reconvene the day after a big game, one of their first activities is to gather around and watch film. They fast-forward, reverse and freeze-frame their way through the action, noticing subtleties that often escape the casual viewer in real time: blocks missed, pass patterns not run properly, defensive assignments botched.

Although she's "not a sports person," SESP associate professor Miriam Gamoran Sherin makes the analogy to teams watching game films in describing her ongoing research into so-called "video clubs" for mathematics teachers. These informal groupings, during which teachers watch and analyze videos of one another in the classroom, are designed to contribute to their professional development.

The Value of Video
"There has not been a lot of research that explores, empirically, what and how teachers learn from video," she says. "There's this idea that video is good for helping teachers learn ... but I think we need to move beyond that assertion. We have to figure out why video is useful, and what teachers learn from it."

Sherin's work in this area dates to her doctoral work in science and mathematics education at the University of California-Berkeley, where she received a PhD in 1996, and continued through a project she completed for Educational Testing Service as well as a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation, which she received in 2001.

"I got very interested in how math teachers look at their classrooms and make sense of what's going on," she says. "It's really important for teachers to be able to gauge the pace of learning in their classrooms on a moment-by-moment basis. They really need to be saying, 'OK, what is this idea that the student's raising? Is this idea really going to push the lesson forward? Is this important mathematically?'"

But that's not easy to do in the moment, Sherin says. "You can imagine, there are a million things going on in the classroom at once," she says. "During the moment, in the game, the coach is trying to figure out what's going on and give some pointers to specific people at specific moments. He's saying, 'This is the important thing. I've got to tell him to do this.' Teachers have similar demands."

Coaching With Video Clubs

Wilmette teachers Erin Schroeder, Michal Ricca and Julie Garry demonstrate a "video club."
Yet, while coaches find video useful for going back and taking a closer look, teachers don't usually have the same opportunity. "Teachers often work independently, so video clubs are a nice way of opening up the doors to each other's classrooms."

Sherin's research in exploring how teachers hone in on what's important is informed by the work of the anthropologist Charles Goodwin, who developed the concept of professional vision. "If you're a detective, you get really good at noticing what's important when you see a crime scene," she explains. "I've been applying his idea of professional vision to mathematics teachers: They have ways of noticing and interpreting the significant events in the classroom. ... The focus of my work is, how does video help develop professional vision? So, how might video help math teachers get better at understanding their students' ideas? And how might watching video help teachers learn new ways to figure out whether students understand the math that's in the lesson?"

Sherin's current research draws from a five-year Early Career Grant that she received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2002. With help from postdoctoral fellow Beth van Es (PhD04), Sherin has studied what and how teachers learn in video clubs as well as in other professional development settings that use video. But the club setting has remained the focus of her work.

Mathematics Teachers' Learning Curves
Results from her NSF research show that in the early stages of video clubs, teachers typically talked about pedagogy: "Why did the teacher do that?" or "Shouldn't the teacher have done this other thing?" But over a year's time, "the teachers began to look at the students' ideas that were visible in the video," she says. "There was this real shift from focusing on pedagogical issues to focusing on student thinking."

Teachers also changed how they talked about what they noticed. "First, when they would notice things about student thinking, they would just repeat what a student had said: they would say, 'Eric says graph c is the most realistic one,'" Sherin says.

"After a short time, they got a little more sophisticated in looking at students' ideas. Instead of just repeating what the student said, the teachers would say, 'Just a second. I don't understand Jim's idea. What does he mean when he says 'it's curving'?" she says. "Then later, they got even more sophisticated, where they would compare the ideas that a bunch of students in the video had raised. They'd say, 'Just a second. Are all the kids thinking that the slope was increasing?' ... They would compare and generalize among the student ideas."

Making the Most of Video

Wilmette teachers Jane Dolkhart and Kandace Happ demonstrate a "video club." Sherin's informal groups contribute to mathematics teachers' professional development.

In addition to watching the videotapes of teachers watching videotapes, Sherin and van Es interviewed individual teachers before the first video club meeting and after the last one, showing them several video clips and repeatedly asking, "What do you notice?" she says. "We found the same sorts of changes. In the post interviews, the teachers also looked more closely at students' thinking, and used evidence from the video to support what they said."

Once they better understand teacher learning in the video club meetings, Sherin and van Es will be able to think about how the clubs' design influences those interactions. "For example, we observed a video club that was teacher-designed and facilitated," Sherin says. "In other video clubs, we're the facilitators. That probably makes a big difference." They're also exploring what makes particular video clips especially rich and worthy of ongoing discussion. "Sometimes, we're very successful: We take a clip and it seems to spur a lot of discussion," Sherin says. "Other times, we're surprised by a clip that maybe doesn't seem that interesting to us but reveals something more compelling for teachers."

Going forward, van Es is examining the video club setting more broadly. She studies how the participants interact with one another, how their individual professional interests influence these interactions, and how the group establishes new ways of working together and looking at one another's teaching in video clubs. van Es explains, "It's important to think about how you build community in a video club. Teaching can be so isolating. When teachers finally have a chance to come together, I want to make sure it works." In the fall of 2006 when van Es will begin a position as assistant professor at the University of California–Irvine, she will continue to study the design of professional development programs for teachers.

Sherin is optimistic about the potential of video clubs to improve teaching and learning. "We've already seen that interactions in a video club can influence how teachers talk about classrooms. But the real question is 'Do we see any changes in their teaching?'" After looking at videos of classroom observations from the beginning and end of the school year, van Es and Sherin found some important changes in teachers' practices. "Teachers were calling on students more, doing more probing of student thinking, making sure that they were really listening to what their students were saying. As one teacher told us, 'Watching video has helped me see that teaching is really about looking and listening to what students say, figuring out what they mean, and using those ideas in my teaching.'"
By Ed Finkel