Professional Development is Not That Complicated

As a follow up to my previous post on learning, I’ll add this one to the list of things we’ve made more complicated than it ought to be. In a sense it’s much the same as Professional Development is obviously learning too but perhaps needs to have a little more light shed on it.

I was thinking back about 10 years. I attended a three day workshop with several of my colleagues in Prairie South in Portland with Dr. Rick Stiggins talking specifically about Assessment but also Professional Learning Communities. It was really the first time I had heard about the Dufour model and its impact on student learning. We left those workshops feeling very excited about both these ideas. As we thought about the PLC model I pushed very hard that we not tell people what their PLC’s should be centered around but rather let every teacher choose something they wanted to learn about. I then would take all the submissions and allow teachers to self select their groups. Of course lots of concerns were shared about logistics about how we would organize these groups and how would we know it was effective.

But even with those concerns we forged ahead and allowed teachers to chose their topics and create their teams. The results were mixed. Several groups and individuals applauded the opportunity to explore something new and work with like minded colleagues. Others felt it was too unstructured and it was a waste of their time. We had some interesting discussions at the leadership level as to how to make things better. I maintained that it was for most the first time they had had the opportunity to work in groups. It was also the first time that teachers were given time to learn about things they were interested in. Some argued they didn’t know how to work together and needed structure and some argued they shouldn’t learn whatever they wanted since not everyone chose something directly connected to curriculum. I again argued that if we kept at it and made sure they had opportunity to share that eventually bad ideas or lesser ideas would weed themselves out. I lost that argument. The next year teachers were given three topics and had to meet with teams within their schools. The level of success remained the same. Some liked it, some didn’t.

I want to suggest that we’ve made professional development learning way too complicated. Partly because as leaders we want to be helpful, partly because teachers have little experience in owning their own learning and partly because we don’t trust them.

Too often we treat teachers like so many of our students. We want to control what and how they learn. We need to adopt Dan Meyer’s approach and BE LESS HELPFUL. If we want students to take ownership of their learning shouldn’t we want the same for teachers? Inquiry isn’t just for kids. But since teachers have rarely had this opportunity, we’re quick to say they can’t do it. This is what I felt as I watched many teachers for the first time direct their learning. They were awkward and wasted time, unsure what to do. Why would they know what to do given they’d never done it before. We also focus on the few who used the time to grade papers or disengage and worried about how many would not use the time wisely. We feel certain parameters need to be in place to be sure this doesn’t happen. Not only is this focusing on a few but sends a message that we don’t trust teachers. Whether it’s the intended message or not, believe me, most teachers take it that way.

The one mistake I made in not pushing harder to allow for autonomy was I didn’t emphasis the sharing aspect. I suppose back then in 2003 sharing online was more awkward but it still should have been a key component. This is what accountability is: teachers as researchers actively sharing their findings and practice. Accountability in this case is not designed to catch who’s doing it wrong but to share who’s doing it right. Emphasizing this changes the culture.

Professional Learning is not that complicated. There are two things and two things only that it requires. Learning something and share something. That’s it. You don’t need teachers filling out forms or templates that fit into a spreadsheet. That’s not to say that might never happen but I wouldn’t call that professional learning. Leadership then takes on a very different role in supporting teachers but need to do better in trusting the teachers they hired to do good work, learn and share.