As educators, we know that “sit and get” professional development (PD) isn’t the best way for campuses to institute change in teacher practices, yet it’s still the primary method of delivery in most campuses across the United States. Right before the pandemic, as part of my grad school program, I was an instructional coach. Tasked with interviewing stakeholders at the campus, I needed to learn what teachers wanted out of professional learning.
Teachers consistently stated that they wanted something that was collaborative, was relevant to their specific students, allowed them to quickly apply their learning, and was within the school day. Interestingly, all of the research-based practices that we promote for students are really just best practices for learners of all ages, including adults. One way to meet teachers’ requests is called labsite learning.
What Is Labsite Learning?
A labsite is a highly effective professional learning model that takes place in a classroom with students during the school day. It consists of a specific learning piece and modeling of a teaching strategy, followed by teachers’ applying the new learning with students and then debriefing to discuss the learning experience and get feedback.
There are many different ways to approach setting up a labsite, depending on whether or not it’s possible to get substitutes to cover classrooms while teachers are learning and on what makes the most sense for the topic at hand. Regardless of the structure you choose, the “learning zone” is a crucial element. Learning this way requires vulnerability, risk-taking, and being completely in the moment, which can be uncomfortable.
5 Questions to Consider During Planning
1. How do you choose the learning topic? Looking at the data for your campus, what’s the most pressing issue? Is there a teaching strategy that can be used across content areas? One example of this in our district has been responding to data in small group instruction.
When looking at data from any given classroom, there has been a large range in mastery of essential skills, where students need more differentiation than ever. As we were thinking about how to support teachers in meeting these varying student needs, it was determined that many teachers need support in analyzing student work in order to group students and then create lessons that target specific student needs.
As you look at data for your own campus and hear teacher concerns, write down the trends you notice. What is a specific skill that teachers need to develop in order to increase student achievement in the problem area?
2. Who will facilitate the learning? Do you have an instructional coach? Do you have a teacher who’s an expert on the skill you want to cultivate in other teachers on campus? Does your district have a curriculum coordinator, a behavior specialist, or a professional learning department that can partner with you in creating this learning experience? It’s important that whoever brings the teachers along in this learning has extensive knowledge of the topic. Ideally, this person would have a relationship with the teachers in order to create a safe learning space.
3. Are substitutes needed to create this learning environment? There are ways you can do it with or without substitutes, but there are pros and cons to each method. If you can get subs for a certain amount of time per grade level, you could schedule two hours per team and get to three teams within a day.
Although this event requires very detailed scheduling, there are many benefits to this structure. When teams can experience the learning together, they hear the same message and can envision what this learning can look like for their team. Teachers can benefit from being vulnerable together in new learning that encourages them to be more open to giving and receiving feedback from each other, problem-solving together, and creating common goals for students and themselves as teachers.
Another benefit is that you can use one of the teachers’ classrooms as the labsite classroom, or pull some students out of their classrooms for the other teachers to practice new strategies with their own students. If your campus can’t get substitutes, you can create a schedule where each teacher gets time with the presenter. The direct learning piece would need to happen prior to this day during a staff meeting or be shared in a video to give the teacher background about why they’re receiving this learning, what it is, and what to expect in the labsite experience.
During the teacher’s designated time, the presenter would model the strategy with a small group of students or half of the class while the rest of the class worked on something independently. Then the teacher would apply their learning by trying it out with a different group of their own students. The benefits from this structure include the teacher not having to write sub plans, they get individualized learning, and each teacher gets the opportunity to ask questions in a one-on-one environment specific to their own students.
4. What logistics need to be solidified before the labsite? In order for the day to go smoothly, there are some details that need to be thought through beforehand. What documents will teachers need from the learning to support them as they try this new strategy? Will they need a printed article, a flowchart, student work samples, etc.? When the labsite starts, where will the teachers be located in the classroom? Is there a recording sheet or checklist they’ll need in order to focus on the aspects we want them to notice? What will teachers practice in the classroom? How will they be partnered or grouped? Who will be giving teachers feedback as they practice? How will the feedback be provided?
In this part of the process, it’s helpful to create a document that establishes roles for each person during the planning stage.
5. What happens after the labsite? Immediately following the labsite, the facilitator prepares a way for the teachers to reflect on their learning from the day and to create a plan to implement it within their classroom. I usually ask questions around what was difficult and what benefits they observed using the new learning with their students. I also have them write down the steps they will take to implement this learning. This is a great time for the campus leader to establish what support of this new learning will look like going forward. Even though labsites are a highly effective way to learn a new skill, teachers still need support and coaching beyond this experience in order to implement and sustain their new learning.
The previously mentioned questions can be used to help put a plan in place to check in on learning and determine exactly what teachers might need as next steps toward mastery of a particular skill to increase student achievement. Then, follow through with the coaching and feedback, which can be the trickiest but most vital part of the learning process.
Whomever is giving the feedback can be specific and positive and can suggest a particular next step. For example: “You were very clear in your teaching point with the student and stated it several times throughout your small group lesson. This will help students to remember when they should choose this strategy. As a next step, you could put more of the thinking on the student as they solve. Giving them time for this can help you truly see how much support they will need going forward with this skill.”