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Reflection on Changing the Landscape of Professional Learning

by Susan Moxley, Ed.D.
adjunct professor, National Louis University

The new normal for a school district is to operate and progress in a world of constant change. In fact, it is coming at leaders at a rapid pace which makes it challenging to keep up and maneuver through the change process in a proactive way. Too many times, leaders find themselves in a spiraling circle of reaction after reaction, trying to get out of the reactive mode. Wrapping your arms around the change process is challenging as best. This deals with a management process that is critical to getting the right work done.

Just managing the change process well is not enough. One must focus on doing the right work in order to make meaningful impact on the teaching practice which ultimately should move student achievement forward. Many articles have been written over the years on the topics of student achievement, instructional practice, and professional development (PD). We have found that there is not one simple answer to achieve a high-performing school district with all high performing teachers and every student achieving excellence by meeting proficiency in all areas. We all want to reach this goal and every student deserves the opportunity to attend such a school and be successful.

After a 36-year career in public education serving in multiple levels as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent, my reflections landed on a few topics that I have concluded do and will make significant progress towards meeting such success. The interesting point is that they are common sense topics that are talked about frequently. Why then have we not arrived?

As with all things, the implementation or execution of the plan is less than perfect. When we haven’t met the mark in a short period of time, we commonly cross it off as not working and move on to the next new idea only to have it follow the same path. We must train ourselves to celebrate the little wins along the way while constantly focusing on the larger goal.

In my opinion, it really deals with three areas: instructional practice with targeted feedback, managing the change process, and meaningful professional learning. Sounds simple, right; and yes, we are all doing these things. I share my reflection on what I believe makes a significant difference. Just to put these in context before we go any further, you will not read that I attach teacher evaluation to any of these areas.

While evaluation certainly has its place in any organization, how and when it is used, has great impact on the change needed in educational systems in order to move to our big goal. Unfortunately, many times, evaluation has been used too soon and compromises the safe learning environment needed by adults to understand, practice and achieve the new learning associated with the change in teaching practice. Teachers must feel safe and willing to go about their craft while trying new strategies without the fear of failure or retribution.

Peter Senge 1 in his book, The Fifth Discipline, presented the concept of “learning organizations.” In his book, he further discusses two of the five disciplines of personal mastery and team learning that are important to achieving a shared vision for the organization (pp. 1-300).

In comparison, the educational community should be progressive, innovative and constantly evolving and refining the art of teaching and learning. Professional learning is at the heart of the teaching profession and should be designed to advance the learning opportunities of all students as well as build capacity in the knowledge and skill set of the adults involved in the PD.

Over the years, I have participated in hundreds of professional development activities. Being a lifelong learner myself, I embraced every opportunity to learn new things and build my professional tool bag of skills and strategies to further refine my lessons for students. Far too many times, I returned to my classroom only to get back into the routine and interesting new learning soon became a distant memory in the sea of good intentions.

In March 2014, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation engaged Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to conduct a study on professional development. BCG analyzed data, conducted interviews and surveys of more than 1300 stakeholders and 1600 additional teachers. This study provided valuable feedback on current status and areas for improvement among other various topics.

According to the study, $18 billion is the amount of money annually spent on professional development. 2 This is an amazing amount of money and raises the question of “are we getting a return on our investment?” Better stated is “are we seeing a positive impact on student achievement as a result of refined instructional practices in lesson design and student tasks?”

BCG further reported that according to the interviews “teachers say that too many current professional development offerings are not relevant, not effective, and most important of all, not connected to their core work of helping students learn” (p. 3). This was stated in 2014 and five years later, my guess is that while some progress has been made in pockets around the country, little progress has been made to redesign the system to provide every teacher the access to meaningful and relevant professional learning that is connected to their current students’ achievement.

Many studies have been conducted over the years and the results are similar. Teachers indicate the need for relevancy, sustainability over time, interactive design in context with other teaching experts and delivered in a collaborative, safe environment where risk taking is supported. The uncomfortable feeling one experiences when learning a new skill is both important and positive to building capacity for an adult learner. This is the time and space when we truly grow and build capacity. When we fail to deliver professional learning in this context and professional environment, the result usually ends up with completion in a compliance manner and motivation to implement the change declines. 3

So what can an administrator do to change the landscape of professional learning for teachers? Here is what I have learned over the years and resources that provide research and tools for meaningful and effective professional development.

  • Professional learning should be collaborative in scope and design. No one wants to work in isolation. With the use of technology, collaboration can span beyond the walls of an individual classroom and school. Wouldn’t it be great for a teacher to work with another similar grade or subject area teacher in another state on a particular standard or lesson design? This can be done from the teacher’s classroom during their planning period.
  • Time needs to be restructured to recognize the teacher’s access to collaborative activities both within and outside of the school building.
  • The accountability for a teacher’s professional learning can be documented through their individualized PD plan. Most districts implemented a type of deliberate practice which in concept addresses this point. I believe it fails to accomplish this criterion as it is compliance driven and linked to evaluation. This causes the safe, risk-taking practice environment for teachers to deteriorate and become non-existent.
  • Provide teachers the opportunity to utilize a system to design lessons in a collaborative setting. The system should provide teachers with an opportunity to analyze student data and work products and self reflect.
  • Administrators can seek out and utilize the planning tools developed by Learning Forward to implement the community of practice system within the school setting. Much research has been done in this area and more information can be found on the Learning Forward website.
  • Adopt the “less is more” attitude. Teachers’ plates are heaping with training. Support teachers in identifying the ones that truly change instructional practice and increase learning opportunities for student academic success. With a few to focus on, teachers can go deeper and develop proficiency in their own learning for the betterment of student learning. Compliance trainings are important and can be streamlined using technology.
  • Remember to celebrate teachers and teaching. Our teachers deserve the support, recognition and empowerment of their own learning.
  • By narrowing the amount of professional learning to go deeper, an administrator can partner with the teacher to offer support and provide more meaningful targeted feedback on one or two specific areas. This further supports the “slow to go fast” way of work.

Changing the system to provide meaningful professional learning opportunities takes time and one should be strategic in planning and implementing the change process. According to John Kotter, 4 the first step from his eight-step process for meaningful change is creating a sense of urgency. Teachers, administrators, parents and other stakeholders must feel the sense of urgency to make a meaningful change or it can easily be doomed from the start.

In my experience the other important step in this process is creating the guiding vision. We need to be able to see what the end product looks like. Everyone in the organization should be able to verbalize what the end goal is and what it looks like. It becomes part of the everyday language and way of work.

Finally, as I mentioned previously I believe it is important to celebrate the small achievements along the way as we continue to strive towards the end goal. This way we do not get discouraged that we did not create a major change result overnight, it takes time and commitment. Our teachers and students are worth it and continue to be the heart of our schools.

 

References

1  Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. US: DoubleDay Publishers.

2  Boston Consulting Group. (2014). “Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development.” Washington DC.

3  Arnett, T. (2019). What creates the motivation to change? The Learning Professional. Vol. 40, No. 1. pp.55-58.

4  Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press. Learning Forward website: https://learningforward.org/publications.

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