Sunday, September 29, 2019

6 Ways to Improve Professional Learning

No matter your position in education, you have gone through some form of professional development. In many cases, the act of being “developed” comes in a variety of standard types such as workshops, mandated PD days, presentations, conferences, book studies, or keynotes. Many of these are often the one and done variety or conducted in a drive-by manner. Now, don’t get me wrong; some educators find value in the experiences I have outlined above and have gone on to change their respective practice for the better. However, I would say an equal amount have found little to no benefit. The bottom line is that all educators yearn for quality professional learning as opposed to development that leads to sustained improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership. The image below from Katie Martin sums up nicely what educators want out of professional learning. 



So where is the disconnect when looking at the typical professional development offerings? Some recent research provides great insight into this issue (Darling et al., 2017):
Research has noted that many professional development initiatives appear ineffective in supporting changes in teachers’ practices and student learning. Accordingly, we set out to discover the features of effective professional development. We define effective PD as structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes. Through a review of 35 studies, we found seven widely shared features of effective professional development. Such professional development:
  1. Is content focused
  2. Incorporates active learning, utilizing adult learning theory
  3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
  4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice
  5. Provides coaching and expert support
  6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
  7. Is of sustained duration 
The same focus areas listed above apply to people in leadership positions just as much as teachers, as supported by research. Leaders need consistent support and feedback on all aspects of the position to continually grow and improve, but the most emphasis should be on issues related to instructional leadership that leads to pedagogical change.

Over the years, I have been blessed to be a part of several long-term professional learning projects in schools and districts across the United States. Even though each project is different, each contains an assortment of classroom observations, strategic planning, coaching, and loads of feedback. Through each experience, I open myself to learn, unlearn, and relearn with the educators that I am working with shoulder to shoulder in the trenches. Below are a few lessons learned.

Model what you expect

Adult learners don’t like to be spoken at. Many want to see what a strategy actually looks like in practice and then have the time to apply it. The also really want to see how it can be successfully implanted when aligned with the realities they face. A focus on the why might get educators all excited, but that typically fades when they need more of the how in terms of what the strategy actually looks like in practice. After you model, give people time to apply what they have learned.

Share exemplars

I am always asked for examples of innovative practices in action and what they look like at various grade levels. It is important for many educators to see success through the lens of their peers. By doing so, the task of change becomes more doable in the eyes of those engaged in the professional learning experience. Thanks to being in different schools each week, I have been able to curate so many artifacts that are then used to help others see how a strategy or idea has been implemented successfully (especially from Wells Elementary). Once an exemplar is shared, give educators time to reflect and then plan their activities.

Feedback and more feedback 

Virtually every educator wants feedback, and when delivered the right way, it can lead to powerful improvements to practice. When it comes to ongoing support in the form of job-embedded coaching, timeliness and specificity are critical in the eyes of the receiver. During year two of my continuing work with Wells Elementary, the administrative team asked me to develop videos for each grade level. For example, after conducting walk-throughs of all third-grade teachers time was built into the schedule for me to create a video emphasizing commendations and areas for growth. By the end of the day, six different videos were reviewed by the teachers during grade-level meetings. The goal was then to act on the feedback prior to my next visit.  Always make time for feedback.

Get Creative 

Doing the same old thing the same old way becomes boring not only for those engaged in professional learning but also for the facilitator. That’s why I am always open to ideas from the schools and districts I work with to spice it up. Recently Cheryl Fisher, the principal of Wells Elementary, asked me to create a scavenger hunt. I am so glad she did, as it was a huge success. Here is some more context. The school opened up three years ago, and I have been engaged with them since the beginning.

In an effort to differentiate on this particular day, I was to work with all first-year teachers. After a hands-on workshop with time to reflect and apply what had been learned, I sent them all on a digital scavenger hunt using Goosechase. Several missions were developed where they had to go find evidence of the practice being implemented by one of their peers. Not only did they have a blast, but also we were all able to see how innovative methods have become the standard at this school. Getting creative with professional learning will take a little time on your part, but in the end, it is worth it.

Add some personalization

There is nothing better in my opinion than putting teachers and administrators in charge of their professional learning. I see personalization as a move from “what” to “who” to emphasize a shift to ownership on the part of the educator. For example, I have been working this year with the Corinth School District in Mississippi in a job-embedded coaching role. After spending an entire day visiting classrooms and providing feedback, I then empowered the teachers and administrators to collaboratively plan out their next day with me based on agreed focus areas.

When I was the principal at New Milford High School, I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP). By giving my teachers time during the school day, I let them choose their own path and pace to work on innovative practices. Feedback on what they had accomplished was provided at each end of year conference. In the end, I gave up my time to cover duties, so my teachers could learn.

Time 

Time is critical to success, no matter what professional learning pathway is pursued. As you think about what you want to accomplish in your school, organization, or district, think carefully about how time will be provided. As you have seen above, time is a crucial element in each strategy above.

When it comes to professional learning, either advocate for what you feel you need and deserve, or work to create the types of experiences that educators will find value in.

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

2 comments:

  1. I couldn’t agree more Eric! As educators we are expected to model and provide continual feedback for our students; administrators should be doing the same. I am a veteran teacher, but just coming back after a year off for maternity leave, I seek more coaching, modeling, and feedback, especially as technology initiatives in my district have changed and I am working so hard to incorporate active, engaged, inquiry-based learning in my classroom. Your blog is insightful and reminds me to be the best leader I can be. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The key is to provide professional learning experiences that better reflect the conditions that our learners will or should experience. One and done just doesn't cut it in the greater scheme of things. Interactive, hands-on, movement, reflection, feedback, and thinking all have to be part of the process.

      Delete