George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Using Learning Labs for More Engaging PD

In one district, math learning labs are allowing teachers to see how coaches handle complex instructional practices in their classrooms.

April 17, 2024
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You’ve likely heard George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote from his play Man and Superman, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” But anyone who has spent an entire school day teaching knows this statement is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, teachers today are tasked with being content experts, differentiation wizards, social and emotional specialists, and so on.

For this reason, I have learned that teaching is an art form mastered only through effective professional learning and ongoing practice. Author Malcolm Gladwell refers to this type of sustained study as the 10,000-hour rule, which states that it takes 10,000 hours of intentional and consistent practice to master a skill. Therefore, teachers vested in effective professional learning are more likely to master the art of teaching.

The positive correlation between effective teacher professional learning and student achievement has led many school districts to implement ongoing access to in-house, online, and off-site professional development (PD). At the start of this school year, Prince George’s County Public Schools’ Middle School Math Department birthed three middle school math learning labs that math teachers can visit to engage in live, in-depth learning experiences facilitated by numeracy coaches, who are National Board Certified Teachers and doctoral candidates.

During these learning labs, math teachers or administrators can schedule a time to sit in on a class taught by a coach working in the district. The coach doesn’t have to change their lesson plans for these observation days, but their delivery and the strategies they use may change, depending on what the observer hopes to see. Ultimately, these numeracy coaches serve as host teachers to equip visiting teachers with skills, strategies, and tools they can immediately implement to advance teaching and learning.

The Learning Lab Experience

Recently, I volunteered to visit a middle school math learning lab because I am an assistant principal in the district, and I wanted to observe how the numeracy coach explicitly used best practices to teach students how to solve complex word problems and communicate their math reasoning. Math reasoning is a huge part of my school’s performance plan and goals for the year.

The learning lab process consisted of four stages: the pre-brief, the observation, the post-brief, and the follow-up. During the pre-brief stage, I met with the facilitator and the host teacher via a 20-minute Zoom meeting to talk about the focus of the observation (based on the skill that I requested to observe). I also sought to learn background information, establish expectations, and develop a spirit of collaboration. This process made me feel like I was a part of a professional learning community that valued being a reflective practitioner.

I found the observation stage to be highly focused in that it allows the visiting teacher to home in on things we call look-fors, which are observable teaching strategies, outcomes, or products such as these:

  • Focus and coherence
  • Reasoning and sensemaking
  • Formative assessment
  • Lesson delivery
  • Small group instruction
  • Use of academic language

During my visit, I focused on reasoning and sensemaking because many students at my school struggle to solve complex word problems involving math reasoning. During my classroom visit, I was also given a capture sheet that guided my note-taking and made the post-brief more conversational.

Ultimately, the classroom visit was fruitful because it allowed me to observe the host teacher conduct a well-paced 60-minute lesson. She leveraged several teaching strategies to effectively facilitate the students in error analysis and a student-centered think-aloud to begin solving a rigorous state-assessment-like word problem.

Observation Follow-Up

During the post-brief stage, I engaged in four rounds of discussion in person with the facilitator and the host teacher. The first round allowed me to stay low on the ladder of inference by sharing specific evidence of what I heard and saw concerning the focus question and look-for. Round two allowed me to state how the teaching that I observed impacted student learning and achievement. The third round allowed the host teacher to share her perspective on the lesson and respond to my comments by sharing her future goals for instruction and student assessment. Lastly, round four allowed all stakeholders to share their takeaways and next steps. Overall, the process was thought-provoking and encouraging.

My district’s middle school math learning lab was resourceful because it encompassed collaboration for improvement, coaching, follow-up meetings to address teacher concerns, targeted subject-specific instructional practices, practice-supportive materials, and tools to build relationships with students. I have already incorporated the strategies I obtained from the learning lab in my coaching of teachers. I highly recommend that teachers and administrators be open to engaging in a professional learning lab experience or creating one.

Michelle Dyson, EdD, and Beyunka Scates, EdD, contributed to this article.

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  • Administration & Leadership
  • Math

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