George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Starting From What Works: Positive Professional Development

March 13, 2015

I've been a school coach for a really long time. which means I've been on the receiving end of the "we need you/ can you come on Thursday/ do you know how to..." phone call about 10,000 times.  It's all good - that's the gig, and I knew what I was getting into when I signed up, and it's fabulous, rewarding work that I'm proud to do.  But recently I was asked to work with a faculty group with the express goal of helping them see what they were already doing well so they can continue to grow.  

Let me say that last part again: helping them see what they were doing well.

In the 20 or so years I've been doing this, that's a first for me - and it really struck me.  Most professional development begins with a problem.  It's deficit-based.  School leaders start with a belief that "our teachers don't know how to do X" and they ask me to fill in that gap.  Usually I find that the assumption we're building on isn't 100% true.  Typically, only some of the teachers don't know how to do X and the rest have some degree of theoretical or practical knowledge on the topic.

But when I started with the assumption that the faculty was awesome, and that I wanted them to look at their awesome through this other lens so they could see it in a new way and grow?

Oh. My. Gosh.  We had the best day.  They felt energized and honored, I felt like the bearer of great news, and we still accomplished the secondary goal of finding new ways to push their work forward.  

I think there's something to this.

I think that starting with what we do well not only works with what we know about the way the brain works (sticking new learning onto existing experience is the best way to put the new ideas into action), but also the way the heart works.  If someone tells me that I'm not doing it right (whatever "it" is), I'm going to be defensive no matter how much I want to be on board.  The deficit stance brings fear and anxiety- neither of which is a good way to prime the brain for learning.  The opposite? I'm pretty sure it makes for more receptive learners.

So I think there are three key ideas here:

1. Start with "here's what's going right." That could be a Success Analysis Protocol (I like the one from the School Reform Initiative) or it could just be an informal reflection and review of the ways that we're actually doing a lot of things well. 

2.  Let imaginations run wild.  After reviewing what's working, ask the team to think bigger.  What if we had unlimited resources? More time? More money? What if this were a movie about a great experience- what would the story line be? How can we make this AMAZING thing even better?

3.  Now that we've "built our castles in the air," as it were, let's put some foundations under them.  What do we need? How can we get it? Let's make some concrete action plans and figure out how to get what we need not because we're deficient, but because we're awesome and we want to be awesome-r.

I'm sure I'm missing some stuff here- this is still a new idea and I'm pretty jazzed about it.  What am I leaving out?

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