Professional learning is an essential piece of any district’s school improvement planning efforts, but exactly how much and what type of professional learning is needed? How do we make sure that the stretched professional learning funds we spend impact classroom instruction? How do we make sure that precious out-of-classroom time makes a difference for our students?
What the Research Says
According to a study by Linda Darling-Hammond, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner (2017) called Effective Teacher Development, there are specific characteristics of professional learning that, when employed, have an impact on student outcomes. First, the professional learning has to be centered on the content that participants are responsible to teach. It also has to include active learning. For example, there should be opportunities for teachers to build meaning by examining practices they will use and chances to try out those practices. While these two characteristics are essential, it is important to note that professional learning that impacts student achievement goes beyond these two characteristics. Professional learning associated with positive changes in student achievement must also:
- Strengthen teacher collaboration during the daily rigors of teaching.
- Use models of pedagogy that create a vision for effective practices.
- Include instructional coaching from experts, who are skilled in pedagogical practices and facilitation.
- Provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on their work, elicit feedback, and implement new learning.
Even if a plan for professional learning has all six of these characteristics, it will likely not have positive effects on student learning unless it is sustained for a sufficient duration. According to Linda Darling-Hammond (2017), professional learning that had the greatest impact on student achievement, was sustained learning, where the educators engaged in an average of 49 hours of professional learning throughout the year!
What Professional Learning Can Look Like in Your District
Although I don’t mean to imply that 49 hours is the magic number, for the sake of our discussion, I will use this number as a benchmark for sustained duration. The first question that might come to mind when thinking of sustained professional learning is probably: What does 49 hours of professional development look like? Do teachers need to spend 49 hours in professional learning workshops? The short answer is, no.
Let’s begin by looking to see if the conditions of effective professional learning from the study are present in professional development workshops and comprehensive professional learning plans. This comparison will help determine what might be missing if teachers only participate in workshops.
This table clearly shows that professional learning in the form of workshops alone, fails to address several vital components.
To begin thinking about what each of those 49 hours might look like, let’s first recognize that many schools give teachers opportunities to work in learning communities. These learning communities can play an important role in sustained professional learning and could be a part of the 49 hours.
According to Learning Forward, there are three considerations for learning communities to best impact student learning. They need to remain focused on a continuous cycle of improvement. They need to work to ensure the responsibility of student learning is shared collectively amongst teachers, support staff, school system staff, and administrators, and most importantly, their efforts need to align to school improvement plans to diminish the possibilities of fragmentation (Learning Forward, 2019).
If the focus of the comprehensive professional learning plan and the work of the learning community are aligned to the school improvement plan, the hours spent in professional learning communities are considered part of the total 49 hours of professional learning.
Below is a sample of a comprehensive professional learning plan that utilizes an external partner to support a learning community and its individual teachers. The goal of the plan is to sustain the momentum of any initiative being implemented. It includes 29 hours of professional learning from an external partner in addition to the 20 hours teachers might work in their learning communities for a total of 49 hours. This aligns with the findings from the Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner study (2017).
In addition to learning communities, you might have a site-based instructional coach at your school. What would a plan recognizing the work of learning communities and a school-based coach look like? There are two conditions that should be considered. First, it is imperative that the site-based instructional coach has the pedagogical expertise to offer support in a variety of formats. Second, the site-based instructional coach needs a sound coaching framework, sufficient time, and a collaborative approach that engages teachers as they strive to improve student learning.
To meet these conditions, instructional coaches may need to strengthen their own skills. Like the teachers, they may need coaching, expert support, opportunities for feedback and chances to reflect on their practice. In these cases, an external partner might be used to strengthen coach effectiveness and build capacity.
In addition to professional learning for teachers, the next example includes professional learning for the site-based instructional coach. The coach participates in the professional learning workshops alongside the teachers and shadows the external professional expert coach during site-based meetings, as models of effective practice. The coach also receives coaching from the expert with opportunities for feedback and reflection. At times, the site-based instructional coach might co-facilitate professional learning events or instructional coaching with the expert as a guide. The site-based instructional coach is also expected to facilitate professional learning on their own.
The Most Effective Professional Learning Occurs When Everyone is Supported
As you can see, the hours spent in professional learning are not the only predictors of success. There are a number of other factors that affect the quality of professional learning. While 49 hours throughout the school year might seem overwhelming, these examples illustrate how professional learning can be customized and designed to offer sufficient opportunities for learning in many forms throughout the year. Time spent in workshops and professional learning communities combined with internal and external support create sustained professional development which supports everyone, and impacts student learning.
Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Learning Forward. (n.d.). Learning Communities. Retrieved from https://learningforward.org/standards/learning-communities
Sweeney, D. & Harris, L. S. (2017). Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.