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Professional Learning

From Brooklyn to Jakarta: Teaching Teachers Well

November 27, 2013
Photo credit: Karali Pitzele

What if all professional development modeled the pedagogy that school leaders ask of their teachers? If we would use principles of PBL, cooperative learning, differentiation, and the workshop model every time we conduct a professional development (PD) or hold staff meetings, teachers might gain a clearer understanding of these approaches, and have the scaffolding and collegial collaboration they need to master them.

This is not difficult to do. After all, we are pedagogues ourselves, and thinking in lesson plans is second nature, isn't it?

Seeing Adults as Learners

When we try to change teachers' instructional practice by simply telling them what to do, and then assessing their work in a summative way in observations (or not at all). We are going against everything we know about how people learn, and missing huge opportunities to build the professional learning community. By using all of the methods we are seeking to have them integrate, teachers can see how it all fits together and get excited to try it themselves.

Many times we have precious little PD time with our staff, and we feel compelled to cram it all in, but we have to remember our own admonitions to teachers to "show don't tell" and the cardinal rule of depth versus coverage: it is better to teach fewer things well, than to teach it all poorly.

We already know that poor teaching is wasted time -- as a friend of mine says, "Teaching by mentioning is not teaching at all."

If my voice took up 90 percent of the airspace in a PD when I was principal at the school I founded in Brooklyn, I knew I was likely overwhelming my staff, or, just as likely, putting them to sleep. I also knew that my teachers needed a lot of reinforcement about the methods they had learned in previous trainings, and that using them myself on an ongoing basis was the best way to maximize the value of our meetings.

Putting it into Practice in a New Setting

Recently I presented to a group of 125 K through ninth-grade teachers at a school, Sekolah HighScope Indonesia, located in Jakarta. I had only an hour and a half to work with them, and had been asked to explain how to make project-based learning the main instructional vehicle and to teach them a critical friends protocol. This was definitely overload, and to get to it all I would have to go really fast and do most of it through handouts, which would likely, I knew, have little effect on instruction.

After grappling with it for some days as I did a longer training with the school's leadership and coaching staff, I came up with a streamlined solution: I would use the focus question (= driving/essential question), as a microcosm for project-based learning, and the critical friends group as a vehicle for understanding it.

Using the Teacher Toolbox with Teachers

We started with activating background knowledge in pairs, teachers discussed a project they had taught that had powerfully motivated students, and why it had. After some pairs shared out, I revealed the topic of the presentation: "Powerful Focus Questions Lead to Powerful Projects," and my focus question was, "How can your focus question get students excited to learn?" I explained my objective for what they would know and be able to do by the end of the session.

Evaluating Exemplars

Then I shared why it is important to have a well-designed focus question, and the criteria for effective focus questions that the school's coaching staff and I had crafted for their new instructional design rubric, based on the models of Buck Institute for Education and Understanding by Design.

I discussed intrinsic motivation, a concept already valued at this school, and how complexity, debatability, and personal relevance create the conditions for it. I also explained how a strong focus question could drive and connect all of the learning in the unit. Through these topics, I talked about expanding the role of the project to be the centerpiece of the unit, rather than simply a fun exercise or an application.

We then looked at examples of focus questions together, and they worked in pairs to evaluate them on the instructional design rubric.

Build Understanding and Collaboration

Once I felt that teachers understood the rubric, I introduced a 30-minute discussion protocol, which we called the Constructive Friends Protocol. At this school, teachers introduce their units with a "Project Mission," a call to action that explains the project students will complete in the unit, including the project's setting, problem, and objective, students' role, and the focus question. Twenty-five of the teachers had been asked to bring early drafts of their Project Missions, they would be presenters in the protocol.

During the protocol, one person presents a piece of work, and a problem or question, and the group has timed intervals for sharing warm and cool feedback, then the presenter reflects, and finally the group shares resources. This was the first time this staff had used a this type of process, known as a tuning protocol. It was also the first time they had used a rubric to evaluate each others' work, and for most it was the first time they'd used a rubric in a non-evaluative way at all.

Deep Discussion

As I listened to the tables discuss their colleagues' work, I noticed a high degree of engagement (some tables spoke in English, and others in Indonesian, so at times I was just listening for a quality of engagement). Every teacher was actively involved. Teachers were referring back and forth from the presenters' work (in one case presented on a smart phone being passed around) to the rubric, discussing the quality of the wording, project-design, and really thinking about the implications of the new criteria.

In the middle of the protocol, one of the coaches approached me and told me that there were teachers participating actively that he had never seen speak in a training session before, the rubric was really scaffolding their participation. Another coach said that she was amazed teachers were giving each other such quality feedback, and that the protocol created the safety to offer feedback in a culture where direct criticism is avoided.

Debriefing and Reflecting

At the end of the protocol, we debriefed the experience, discussing how it supported metacognition and cooperative learning and made them feel more confident to apply the new criteria. Finally, I referred back to my original focus question and objectives, asking them to reflect on their learning during the past 90 minutes.

As the coaching staff wrapped up the session, they handed out a new planning template incorporating criteria for focus questions and project design, and also let the teachers know that there would be more protocols to share their work as they completed their plans.

Moving To Action

The idea that administrators should use the pedagogy we value is not new. I can recall several engaging and challenging PDs as a participant, however, most meetings and PDs still seem to consist of announcements and PowerPoints; most of my professional learning as a teacher came through informal interactions with other teachers and through one-on-one coaching with a skillful mentor.

If we want to see new teaching methodologies take hold in the classroom, and the blooming of a professional community that embraces shared practices, we need to offer teachers experiential training, and ample planning time punctuated with collaborative feedback. It is important to provide models, clear criteria for success, and opportunities to reflect on their progress toward meeting those criteria in a supportive "formative" environment. We have the tools -- protocols, methods, and materials -- it is time to use them at every level to create a real renaissance in education.

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