Last week I had the opportunity to participate in multiple sessions at the annual Common Ground conference (formerly known as MSET) where professional learning was the featured topic. Though approached in different ways, several themes around successful implementation of professional learning consistently arose:

1. Communicate clear vision and expectations. When Joshua Starr, Superintendent of Montgomery Schools, and Rebecca Thessin, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at George Washington, shared insights they learned from implementing professional learning communities (PLCs), they focused on the importance of leadership communicating clear expectations and vision.  Initial attempts at creating professional learning communities in their first project in Stamford were inconsistent because the expectations weren’t clearly established. When expectations were established for group norms, frequency and outcomes, all schools were more successful.

One point to remember: Every participant should be able to clearly articulate the goals of the professional learning and his or her role in any PLC.

2. Ensure that school leaders have the training needed to plan and implement professional learning initiatives. Again, Superintendent Starr shared that the PLCs become much more successful once training was in place for school administrators. Simply asking them to create PLCs wasn’t sufficient because many weren’t sure what was expected. In practice, there are many different PLC models, so even experienced administrators may still need support. So much emphasis is placed on training teachers that we often neglect training leadership.

3. Focus professional learning on specific targets that align to larger initiatives.  Jim Knight’s work on creating impact schools connects nicely here. The focus of a PLC should connect directly to a desired outcome—this could be increased student engagement, more content knowledge, shifting to problem-based learning, improving formative assessments, infusing Common Core State Standards, or making instruction more culturally responsive.  To have the greatest impact, the professional learning should connect directly to a major school or district initiative.

To keep everything aligned and meaningful, administrators should focus their walkthroughs on providing feedback that connects directly to the professional learning. It should go without saying that the target should connect to student achievement.

4. Create a collaborative process for ongoing professional learning.  We’re ingrained to need some element of choice and input in our professional lives. When participants are involved in designing different stages of the professional learning process, there’s more faculty buy-in. Even more importantly, teachers know their school’s student population and have a sense of their own professional needs and learning preferences, so their input tailors the professional learning experience more appropriately.

5. Make professional learning relevant and immediately applicable.  As much as teachers love to interact with one another, they value their time more and don’t respond well when they feel professional development doesn’t relate directly to their work. None of us do. All professional learning should be connected to practice. As much as possible, professional learning should also be job-embedded. Teachers should not leave sessions feeling overwhelmed by how they should be infusing the new learning into their classroom instruction; they should leave knowing how.

6.  Be creative about the “how and when” around the time and place for professional learning.  There are many options available: faculty meetings, workshops, synchronous and asynchronous webinars, wikis or other online discussion forums, Twitter, professional articles, mentoring, observations, flipped professional development.

In fact, there were at least 3 sessions specifically on flipped professional development models, including the workshop Nicole and I ran on using lessoncasts as a focal point for collaborative discussions on improving instruction. (See Nicole’s blog.) In one Frederick County, MD model, Anthony Bollino asks his participants to watch demo videos for one of two technology tools of their choosing before they come to the workshop. This preparation allowed more time for questions and discussion. Adam Carney, a Baltimore County teacher, shared a similar model.  Teachers may watch a video, read an article or try out a tool before they come together for professional development, instead of all of the learning taking place during a session.

Teachers are able to use their limited collaborative time to share implementation strategies. Providing a focus for in-person discussions often moves the conversation forward more quickly toward implementation, making more efficient use of time.

I’m excited to see that so many educators are thinking more carefully about what kinds of professional learning have the most impact on instruction—as Superintendent Starr quoted, “We don’t have a student learning problem in the US, we have an adult learning problem.” Let’s keep fine tuning how professional educators learn best.