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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Deeper Learning Blog Carnival: Six Questions for Better Professional Development

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

After last week's carnival (see below for previous entries), we now digging into what makes effective professional development. Allison Rowland from Envision Schools describes her and Envision Schools approach to late night fun -- planning deep and engaging PD!

What Makes PD Stick?

The night before I run professional development, I can't sleep because I'm excited about the plan. I thought that I would rest easier when I stopped being a classroom teacher, but I still stay up with familiar butterflies. The tossing and turning at 1:00am stems from feeling the huge potential for PD to do something big. I could develop educators' ability to change students' lives, or on the flip-side, I might not change much at all. I better get it right.

As a leader of PD, I continually ask: What makes professional development stick? What actually changes practice? After all, PD is about moving people -- moving what they do, and often what they believe. And, let's face it: people are complicated so moving them is equally complicated.

Over time, I have come to the realization: excellent PD is excellent teaching, not so different from classroom teaching. No wonder I still have butterflies at night; I'm still a teacher. Adults seem like they should need something different, but remember that we're asking: what makes learning stick? How do we help adults achieve deeper learning, too? A lot of research has gone into effective teaching; adults need much of the same.

Thus, I prepare for PD like I'm preparing for a class with students. The questions below guide me:

1. Are PD leaders modeling integrity and cultivating a healthy professional community?

Want to get off to a good start? Get this right. As PD leaders, we set the tone for the professional community. This is the first thing adults (and students) notice. We intentionally, or unintentionally, give permission for others to act, talk, learn, reflect, and collaborate based on what we do. What we model as leaders will come right back to us in the adults we work with. In service to PD and a healthy culture, then, I pay attention to things like:

  • Being open to feedback
  • Careful listening
  • Holding high expectations
  • Staying positive
  • Being explicit about managing my emotions and not putting them on others
  • Owning my mistakes
  • Insert your own goal here. (You know your own tendencies.)

Do these sound like agreements in a strong classroom culture? Adults need the same. Actively cultivating community and trust allow us to be vulnerable and learn deeply.

2. Is the PD backwards planned from a purposeful organizational goal? How will we assess success?

After a mammoth day of teaching, educators need coherence to make sense of their learning. Excellent PD clearly maps to high leverage student learning goals that adults believe are important. Strong classroom teachers, who get to see their students daily, always map backwards, and check for progress. As leaders of PD with minimal time for adult learning, we must do the same. Start with measurable student results and then plan connected adult learning goals. Measuring progress towards the goal creates motivation, and then you can adjust mid-stream. Sound like your teacher education program? Good teaching applies here, too.

3. How will PD be deeply engaging and relevant to adult learners?

For adults to be willing to engage, they need to believe they will get something from PD and that it matters. Ideally we engage their hearts and minds. Engagement and relevance arise from touchstones of strong lesson planning?an engaging launch, scaffolding, urgency, measurable outcomes, collaboration, etc. I focus on two strategies here:

First, scaffold teacher inquiry. Protocols and consultancies structure inquiry and build powerful ways for teachers to learn from each other without needing additional leadership training. Protocols lead to new strategies, but also can shift mindsets or beliefs. Changing beliefs cascades through so many of the decisions an educator might make; it's a PD to celebrate when this happens.

Educators also learn from doing the work at hand when they have a chance to reflect. For example, Envision teachers lead and implement inter-disciplinary projects that culminate in an evening exhibition of student learning. Significant amounts of PD time are dedicated to this process and result in enormous teacher learning. This is a different kind of PD than sharing best practices or a protocol. Together, teachers dig into the urgent work at hand with framing questions and a reflective process to guide learning from each other.

4. Are the adults doing the heavy-lifting of learning, rather than the facilitator?

Too often the voices of teachers who actually teach are missing from PD. To ensure that the adults are doing the heavy-lifting of learning, make sure they learn from each other. Teachers, who are in the midst of the work, elbow-to-elbow, have a lot -- if not the most -- credibility and expertise.

5. So how do we best set up teachers to best learn from each other?

I suggest two ways to do this:

A. Lead teachers at Envision schools are among the most powerful instructional leaders in our organization. They have the ability to set the standard for high quality practice and champion improvement with their teams. A caveat: lead teachers initially struggle with the role saying, "I don't feel comfortable leading adults, it's not the same as it is with kids." Do not give up! Prepare these teachers to become your PD leaders! We have to acknowledge that facilitating adults is a new skill set, if we want it to work.

B. The brightest spot in my most recent PD day featured sessions led by expert teachers who modeled relevant, project-based learning instruction. Teacher participants raved about what they planned to implement the next day. Equally important, the teacher facilitators felt valued for their expertise. How often do teachers get an opportunity to really teach other teachers and strut their stuff during their PD?

6. In the end, what happens when PD leaders are excellent teachers?

I knew that we had done something right with PD when a teacher said to me, "I now believe students can be transformed by what we do as school, because I have been transformed by what we do." Now this is a goal worth losing sleep over, because deeper learning for teachers means deeper learning for students. Let me tell you, too, that the night after a big PD, I rest much easier when I know I've made a difference.

So...What do you think makes adult learning stick?

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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