Mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching

Dennis Sparks

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener – without going through the minds of either. – Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler succinctly describes the mindless learning that follows mindless teaching.

Visualize a continuum with that form of teaching and learning at one end. At the other end place the kind of teaching that produces high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills. (A good share of the teaching students experience each day falls between those two extremes.)

The professional learning of teachers and administrators can be placed along a similar continuum.

To update Adler’s description, at one end of the continuum the PowerPoint slides of the presenter are passed to the tweets of the students without going through the minds of either. At the other end is professional learning with qualities that closely resemble those described above for students—high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills

In my experience, the kinds of teaching/learning processes used in professional development have a profound effect on the teaching/learning processes used in the vast majority of’ classrooms. Put another way, mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching. And vice versa.

The remedy is simple, but not easy: It’s essential that teachers’ professional learning resemble as closely as possible the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

That means that teachers will:

• spend much of their time in small, interdependent groups collaboratively solving important instructional problems;

• gain a deep understanding of the issues and their remedies through intellectually-demanding learning processes—the close reading of professional materials, writing that extends learning, and dialogue;

• acquire and regularly apply complex cognitive skills in identifying and solving meaningful problems; and

• experience firsthand the value of the methods they are expected to use with their students.

Through mind-full experiences like those, teachers will continuously improve their practice for the benefit of all students.

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6 Responses to “Mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching”


  1. 1 Donna March 5, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Great column. I’m sharing it with the dozens of people who are designing sessions for our summer conference.

  2. 2 Nat March 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Concrete ideas to share with those teachers. Using this as a justification for creating participatory action research teams.

  3. 3 Richard Askey March 10, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    In mathematics, and I suspect many other areas, solid content knowledge
    is needed. Read Liping Ma’s book “Knowing and Teaching Elementary
    Mathematics” to see some of our current shortcomings in this area, and
    some knowledge which should be possible with better education in schools and universities and better textbooks.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks March 10, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      I appreciate your addition to this conversation, Richard, and agree with you about the importance of content knowledge, particularly pedagogical content knowledge.

      • 5 Richard Askey March 10, 2013 at 8:51 pm

        Pedagogical content knowledge has to build on content knowledge.
        Recall that in his Presidential Address in which he introduced the
        phrase pedagogical content knowledge, Lee Shulman started with
        content knowledge, which he called the forgotten part of education.
        Have you read Liping Ma’s book? If not, please do. If you have
        maybe you can tell me how a teacher who cannot successfully
        compute 1 3/4 / 1/2, explain how this can be done so that students
        know why a procedure they may have been told works, and also
        make up a story which leads to this problem.

        While this problem was developed by Deborah Ball many years ago,
        things have not really improved. In a question from TIMSS-2011 for
        eighth grade students, more US students claimed that one computes
        1/3 – 1/4 by (1-1)/(4-3) than by the correct method, and only 29% of
        U.S. students picked the correct method out of 4 choices compared
        with 37% internationally. Finland, by the way, only had 16% of
        their students pick the correct method.

  4. 6 Dennis Sparks March 10, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I think that we are in agreement, Richard, although I have not read the book you mentioned.


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