/ December 5, 2019

Professional Learning that Matters

When you think about professional development in education it is reasonable to picture what most of us have experienced; full day workshops of “sit and get” and a “hope” that what was communicated in five hours will somehow miraculously change our practice. Or perhaps it is the “Wild West” professional learning approach, where one struts out on their own to pursue what they are personally interested in, only to find that alignment to district and school goals, or even educational strategies, proves problematic.  

It is challenging to plan professional development experiences that matter. Money, time, perceptions of success, and competing priorities often push the planning toward the most expedient delivery, but it may not result in the most beneficial learning for adults. Furthermore, completely ‘personal interest-focused’ learning experiences, which can also be laudable and ambitious, often result in unproductive directions for educators.

It is important to strike a balance in professional learning that acknowledges personalized learning goals and that captures the priorities and goals of a school or district.  A professional development system needs to balance approaches, strategies, formats, and directions to adequately support professional learning that matters. A balanced approach should target the following:

  1. Learner Driven and School/District Guided: Professional learning needs to be driven by the adult learner, but also aligned with the direction of the district. It is okay to support choice and have guardrails to support productive learning. A strong, inclusive vision and mission for a district should resonate through every aspect of the learning in the system.
  2. Job-Embedded and Goal Oriented: Teachers need to move forward with improving their practice while actually practicing their craft in their authentic setting.  But it is important that embedded professional development be balanced with goals for instructional shifts in practice. The embedded practice needs to include an overt goal or bigger idea that moves the teacher’s understanding forward, to improve student learning and to push current practice. 
  3. Experts and Practitioners: Teachers want to partner with experts, not be lectured by them.  The best and most balanced professional development involves an expert willing to work with teachers and guide them. This allows expertise and the learning process to drive the advancement of practice. 
  4. Measures and Experiences: Setting goals and measuring outcomes validates and guides the work of improvement. Teachers are not afraid of measures; they are just uneasy about the measures that don’t support learning. Measures must be focused on data that clearly demonstrates  progress in order to keep students at the center of instructional improvement. It is important to balance both formative measures and summative outcomes of classroom practices that impact learning, from the measures that evaluate school structures.
  5. Graduate Credit and PD Hours: Teachers record and account for professional development hours in three-year cycles, yet those hours don’t translate beyond the hours themselves.  Providing the opportunity for educators to balance those PD hours as a part of advancing their teaching credential provides the district with a highly educated faculty team and supports personal improvement and morale as well. Through such a practice, teachers produce action research and projects that advance the field of teaching and learning, improving classroom practice for more than themselves.
  6. Shared and Individual Professional Learning: There is a reason why Professional Learning Communities work for teachers and for advancing professional learning. The structure itself is a balance of shared and individual learning. Building collective efficacy, while also being aware of your individual growth as an educator, creates a healthy learning environment for taking risks and innovating. Taking the concept to the next level, collaborative practice across districts with peers who teach similar grade-levels or disciplines, provides a more extended learning community where teachers can balance their own classroom with ideas and expertise outside their classroom and school.
  7. Leaders and Peers: Professional development often happens informally when teachers reach out to each other to learn and share within their own internal network. It is important to recognize and support teachers as leaders of professional learning as well as learners. Balancing the expertise and knowledge of teachers as well as new knowledge is vital to improving teacher practice. Teachers don’t have to have all the answers, they just need to be willing to ask the questions and sometimes lead the learning for their peers.
  8. Student and System Centered: There is an important balance between supporting the expectations for students and the pace with which a student learns. Professional development for teachers needs to balance both the “inside” and “outside” factors impacting learners, such as how to monitor progress and be nimble in formative practices and still have an eye on the learning targets.
  9. Information and Coaching: There is a time for professional learning to be about information and a time for information to be balanced with follow-up and coaching. Creating a strategy to build up to a new practice through incremental learning balances what is currently in practice and how it can be transformed.
  10. Teacher Goals and District Priorities: The biggest mistake a district can make regarding professional development is to forget to ask teachers what they need or what they think they need to know, to help students. Or the bigger mistake, to not actually create the opportunity for reflective practice to identify needs. Too often district priorities are shaped by limited information, political pressure, flavor of the month professional development, or other factors not reflective of the needs of students or teachers. It is important to balance good professional development based on identified needs and the next steps a district believes they need to take based on solid evidence of good practice and what reflects the vision of the district.

Professional learning that matters balances approaches, strategies, formats, and direction so that teachers emerge with secure skills and the confidence to implement them in new ways, with students at the center. And, in the end, this is what you want from PD  – real transformation that honors teaching as an art, a science, and a skill. This creates meaningful and enduring innovation in education.

Ellen Hume-Howard

Categories: NHLInsights, Research and Resources

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