Schools are institutions of learning, and teacher quality is regarded as one of the most important factors that influence student learning. Logically, then, most schools have schedules that provide for continuous learning for teachers. Yet, the quality of learning for teachers very often has a poor reputation. I find this strangely ironic. After all, aren’t educators learning professionals? Highly qualified, trained professionals who study and design learning and lead learning for others? Shouldn’t the designers of stellar learning experiences for students also be the recipients of their own stellar learning experiences?
Ensuring deep, enduring, transferable learning experiences for all students, from preschool through high school, is the strategic work that my school focuses on. We refer to it as our collective all-in move. Inspired in large part by the work of Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine in their book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, our teaching and learning department’s theory of action is predicated on the belief that in order to achieve this kind of learning for our students, we must also achieve this kind of learning for our teachers.
This is sometimes described as “best practice” or “good modeling,” but we prefer to borrow from Mehta and Fine and refer to this concept as symmetry. Symmetry in learning is a necessary condition for all learners in school, no matter their age or experience. Because we believe that the most powerful learning experiences for students are personalized and responsive, then what we offer for teachers must also feature those qualities.
Formulate Experiences With the Principles and Practices of Deeper Learning
In 2020, our teaching and learning department was charged with developing a professional learning experience for teachers that would be centered on the principles and practices of deeper learning for their students. In the process of articulating the content and learning outcomes for our work with teachers, we also knew that we needed to plan our delivery model. How our teachers learned was just as important as what our teachers learned.
Two members of our team had been trained in design thinking methods, and they helped us to develop an empathy interview process to gather information from teachers within our school. We were interested in hearing directly from teachers about what was important to them in their own learning. In partnerships, the eight members of our team spent a few days meeting with individual teachers who represented a cross-section of our school. We invited them to respond to one prompt: “Tell us about a time when you engaged in professional learning that made a difference in the way you taught in your classroom.”
Our teachers had a lot to share. It was as if no one had ever asked them a question like this before. Well, because it was true—no one had ever asked them before.
We heard about a number of prior experiences related to the following:
- How professional learning is scheduled
- Privileges and opportunities afforded to some teachers but not others
- Decision-making about the topics prioritized for professional learning
- School administrator involvement
- The ability of teachers to learn and work together
- The amount of support after an initial session or event
- The need for professional learning to be relevant and applicable to the grades or subjects taught in school
- Feelings of nervousness and excitement about trying something new in the classroom
- A combination of relief and pride when students responded to practices and achieved the desired results
Analyze Feedback to Design Teacher Learning Experiences
When our team of eight convened to debrief, we had much to consider. As our work was happening during the pandemic and remotely, we posted our interview results using Mural, a digital whiteboard. During this process, themes and big ideas that felt important to our teachers began to emerge. Then something unexpected and wonderful happened as we began to group and name them. A clear set of professional learning design principles emerged.
In our attempt to understand our teachers, what developed was a cocreated set of foundational beliefs and values about how the professional educators in our school experience their own learning. Those principles guide us as we create and deliver professional learning for our teachers. This cocreated list is a part of our team’s playbook for planning. From its first use, we expected it to serve as a meaningful checklist, helping us create something impactful for our teachers and our students.
The design principles’ unintended uses, it turns out, are equally as valuable to us. Though we set out to apply them to the 10-week course we designed, we’re continuing to find that they are transferable to a range of professional learning experiences. They apply to short, weekly faculty meetings just as well as they do in extended learning sessions and everything in between.
When we changed the formatting of the principles, that inspired us to create a single-point rubric, which prompted us to reflect on our agenda design, to look at the quality of our implementation, and to set growth goals as teacher leaders and adult-learning facilitators. This reformatting also led us to include rating scale questions on our session feedback forms and enabled us to gather invaluable information directly from our teachers about how well we’re doing in terms of helping them learn and grow.
Our team built our “Deeper Learning Foundations” course for teachers using these principles. As we near the end of one year offering that course, we’ve seen measurable differences in both teachers’ and students’ levels of metacognition. Anecdotally, teachers have shared that they’ve never been as satisfied with another professional learning course in their career. Students are reporting a broader use and understanding of learning strategies.
Nothing about these design principles is static or subtle. They’re active, informative, and central to the learning of the expert professionals in our school. Our professional learning is having a positive impact.