Dr. Carol Chanter is Senior Vice President, Professional Learning Services at Scholastic Education Solutions. Here, she shares her lessons learned from her time as a school principal and explores the essential components of powerful professional learning.
Our children have missed countless invaluable learning opportunities during the pandemic. Right now, accelerating student achievement is urgent and to accomplish that, we must have powerful professional learning that is quickly incorporated into classroom practice. The question is, how?
During my time as a principal, I could never quite figure out why I rarely saw the content from professional learning sessions put into practice when I walked the classrooms. If I did see any evidence of application, it seemed to vanish within a few months. Was the learning experience itself sub-par? Did the teachers not buy into the practice or pedagogy? Or was it something else? Years later, and after much study, I realized that it was all of these things, but especially the “something else.” Here is what I learned:
Emphasize the Why
Yes, to begin with, the teachers must buy in. Adults are most motivated to adopt new practices when they understand the value of what they are learning. The probability of learning increases if the rationale for learning makes sense to the participants. Teachers will invest in the mechanics of new instructional techniques once they understand why they are learning the new information and how it is relevant to them. So as an administrator, it is my job to do the upfront work of sharing a rationale for what teachers are about to learn, why it is important, and how it connects to the broader education landscape.
Put Student Learning First
This may sound ironic, but as an administrator it is also my job to make sure the professional learning experience focuses more on the students than the teachers. Teacher professional learning is more effective when the focus of the session is on student learning outcomes, and when there is a direct and explicit connection made between student results and instructional techniques. Students show the most growth when teachers attend professional learning sessions that require them to precisely describe what new skills students must learn, define what mastery looks like, and identify areas where students will struggle.
As educational leaders, we can help teachers make these important connections between adult learning and current student achievement by providing opportunities to analyze and evaluate student work, notice common student errors, and connect student needs back to the newly learned instructional solutions.
Make Learning Active
In addition to clear rationale and student centeredness, professional learning sessions must of course be of high quality and designed for engagement. It is no surprise that adult learners, just like students, benefit most from active, rather than passive, learning. Research from Linda Darling-Hammond, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner, 2017, indicates that active, self-directed learning is even more important in andragogy (adult learning) than in pedagogy (student learning). Collaborative and active learning can take a variety of forms in the professional learning space, including modeling, lesson study, lesson planning, looking at student work, observing and evaluating lessons, or even collaborative sharing of best practices.
Commit to Deliberate Practice
And what about the “something else” that was missing from the teachers’ professional learning? From my observations, the key element missing most often is practice. According to Malcolm Gladwell, 2008, it takes 10,000 hours to reach expertise in anything. More recent research (Lemov, Woolway & Yezzi, 2012) clarifies that it is not only the amount of practice, but what we do in practice that has the greatest potential to close the “get it/do it gap.”
As learning leaders, we can creatively find and provide time dedicated to deliberate practice—practice that is intentional and pre-planned, focused on one specific, discrete skill with a clear criteria for success, and combined with immediate feedback and repetition to encode success. When leaders model their own willingness to practice and receive feedback, they are helping to create a professional learning culture that values the same.
Set Aside Time for Reflection and Evaluation
Finally, no quality learning session would be complete without time for reflection and evaluation. Evaluating professional learning sessions allows us to measure how well the session met the learner’s needs, what new knowledge and skills they have learned, and allows us to reflect and improve learning experiences over time. This evaluation time also offers participants the opportunity to reflect on their learning and plan next steps for applying what they have learned. Research demonstrates that one-day sessions are not as effective at changing instructional practices unless coupled with follow-up coaching, reflection, or learning community meetings. Leaders who are active participants in the coaching partnership (leader, teacher, and coach) model the language of coaching and the coaching process. They support teachers and coaches in planning actionable next steps that will lead to lasting change.
After months that have challenged all of us in more ways than we ever thought possible, accelerating student achievement is critical. We can’t afford time for professional learning that does not yield results. Through thoughtful planning, clear communication about rationale, keeping learning student-centered, and structuring engagement and practice, leaders can ensure that teachers’ learning experiences have a lasting effect in the classroom and build thriving cultures of learning for all.
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