Archives for category: Professional Learning

Every Monday, Tioki interviews a teacher that’s doing innovative  and inspiring work to affect change and make a difference. I was honored to have been interviewed last week!

Click here to watch interview


Varied Needs-appeared on SmartBlog for Education on December 5, 2012

When recently presenting at the Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was struck by how much things have not changed, especially in terms of professional development models. In discussions around education reform, we have begun to recognize that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for all of our students, yet there’s little conversation about differentiating PD for teachers, despite differences in experience, content areas taught, and learning preferences.

The traditional model doesn’t work

A typical PD calendar usually includes a full day of PD in August (when teachers would rather be setting up their classrooms and planning) and usually another day or two in the middle of the year.

Faculty meetings can serve an important role for PD, but too often the same material is presented to the whole faculty in the same way, despite the expectation that teachers are then expected to implement these strategies to meet the needs of their specific students in their content areas.

When individual teachers attend a workshop or conference, there’s little expectation for how that newly learned information will be implemented or shared with colleagues upon their return.

Sometimes a school or district will bring in an expert. This approach is expensive, and in my experience, many experts aren’t willing or able to tailor the professional learning to meet specific school needs, which means teachers and administrators must still take this information and translate it for their content areas and for their specific students.

Though I love versions of the EdCamp model for professional growth, it assumes that teachers know what they need to know and how they need to change their practice to meet the needs of their students.

Instructional coaches have been shown to have an impact on teacher practice, but most schools can’t afford the number of coaches necessary to support all of their teachers in changing practice, especially in these tight fiscal times.

What does work: One story

There have been numerous research studies citing that professional development should be sustained, ongoing, focused on student learning and meaningfully integrated into the daily life of the school. The real question is how?

In order to successfully implement new practices and improve student learning, a learning community needs to 1) focus its efforts, 2) work collaboratively, 3) be willing to reflect and examine what’s working and 4) be willing to make adjustments when they aren’t seeing the desired outcomes for students. A school or district can’t wait until end-of-the-year assessments to evaluate whether or not the efforts are helping students grow. They have to be willing to update the plan and change direction if need be.

What can this look like in practice?

1. Focus efforts. Instructional leaders need to clearly articulate not just the desired outcome but also how to get there. Teachers need professional learning that is immediately relevant, job-embedded and chunked so that change is manageable.

At our AMLE session, Nicole Tucker-Smith shared the story of how she used teacher-created, short 2-minute videos to focus professional learning on improving reading at her large middle school. Different content and grade-level teachers received slightly different versions that used examples from their curriculum.

2. Work collaboratively. Once teachers have a shared understanding around a particular strategy, they need time to collaborate on how they would implement these strategies with their particular students. Initially teachers watched the short videos together, but they quickly asked to watch them on their own, providing them more time to share ideas with each other during planning times. This also allowed teachers to learn at their own speed—they could watch the videos multiple times, pausing and rewinding when desired.

In our AMLE session, a principal asked how we were able to monitor whether or not teachers watched the short teacher-created videos before participating in collaborative planning sessions. While we had the technical ability to track this information, accountability shouldn’t be about whether or not a teacher or administrator participates in a professional learning experience — accountability should focus on a change in practice.

To successfully change practice, everyone who provides feedback to a teacher needs to recognize what the implementation of a particular strategy should look like. The short video format allowed all administrators and teacher leaders to have a shared reference. In addition, for each strategy included several “lookfors,” specific teacher and student behaviors that would indicate successful implementation of a strategy. It’s important to note that these lookfors were not designed to be evaluative — they were to be used to provide specific feedback to support teachers refining their practice.

3. Reflect and examine what’s working. After teachers implemented strategies, they need time to share what works and what didn’t with each other. Small adjustments can make a difference between reaching all students and only reaching some.

4. Make adjustments when not seeing desired outcomes for students.Sometimes a desired change in practice doesn’t lead to the desired student learning. When teachers and administrators are focused on a specific, chunked strategy, it allows them to drill down to see what might be impeding student learning. At Nicole’s school, it became clear that while students were mastering the reading strategies, they needed more vocabulary strategies to be successful.

As we collectively continue to think through changes in educational practice, let’s make sure that we’re also rethinking how we provide professional learning for our teachers. If we’re not meeting the needs of our teachers, they’ll struggle to meet the needs of our students.

adult learner

Adult learners have different needs than our students, so we need to design professional development differently.  (Think andragogy vs. pedagogy. This piece, focusing on Malcolm Knowles, will be the first of several that examine different theoretical lenses about teaching the adult learner while keeping them practical. )

When designing professional learning, I try to consider the following five adapted from Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions (in italics) about the adult learner because they still feel relevant today:

1. Adults need to know the reason for learning something (relevance). Teachers and administrators need to know from the beginning what and why they should take the time and energy to learn something new. For example, how will it make them more effective teachers? Are there new professional expectations, such as the Common Core State Standards?  Will this new learning help them understand a new evaluation system? Will they be able to reach more students than they did before?  The context for professional learning should be shared upfront and should be clearly relevant.

2. Adults are interested in learning content that has immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives (readiness to learn and orientation to learning).  Early in life—during college years for example—people are more comfortable learning information that they may use later. Adults, on the other hand, need their learning to be immediately applicable and practical. Adults live complex lives with multiple responsibilities, so they don’t feel they have the luxury of learning lots of theory without direct application.

When designing professional learning, make sure it connects directly to classroom use. I always ask myself, have I given them everything—the what, why and how, and the resources–that they need to be able to implement the strategy being introduced and/or adapt it for their students?

3. Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning process (experience). It’s important to remember to acknowledge the range of experience in the room. Going further, we need to design multiple opportunities for educators to share their experiences in meaningful ways during professional learning. Adult educators can enrich professional development experiences for all participants if given the opportunity.  The collective wisdom of the room far outweighs any one individual, including the presenter.

4. Adults are more self-directed in their learning (self-concept and motivation to learn).  Knowles’ discussion of mature learners becoming more motivated by internal incentives applies to professional learning in that we should provide opportunities for choice and for participants to work out aspects of the learning for themselves. Allow time for participants to problem-solve during the professional development session. Adults don’t respond well to having others tell them what they should do instead of involving them in the process.  Whenever possible, I also try to involve participants in defining the goals of professional learning initiatives during initial planning stages.

5.   Adults need a collaborative, respectful environment.  Children need collaborative, respectful environments as well, but it’s important to establish an environment where teachers feel that their expertise is respected and where there’s a high comfort level with sharing and expanding on each other’s ideas, a place where it’s also safe to admit not knowing the answers. Most adults crave a social aspect to their learning; so much of teaching is solitary that teachers appreciate the time to learn and collaborate with their colleagues.

Essentially, we need to provide professional learning opportunities that are relevant, collaborative, immediately applicable, job-embedded and make extensive use of the rich experiences participants bring. 

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.