Time For Reflection – What I Learned About Professional Learning This Year
I began this school year with both excitement and trepidation. After much soul searching, I left the classroom and took on the role of Curriculum Consultant without being entirely clear on what a Curriculum Consultant actually does. I was pretty sure that it had something to do with Professional Development though. Over the years I’ve become quite curious about professional development. As a province, we spend a fortune on PD! It’s big business. But how successful is it? How do we measure that success? Why are some teachers always so open to trying new things and why are other teachers so set in their ways? How can we move teachers forward when they are so clearly resistant to change? I don’t believe that the way we currently do business in education actually prepares students to successfully navigate the 21st Century. But if we want to change education, we have to change teachers. So I thought perhaps if I looked at our current way of providing professional development to teachers and examined what was working and what wasn’t working, I could initiate some change. Hopefully this change would result in greater success for students.
In reflecting on my own personal growth this year, it seems I’ve developed more questions than answers. Here is what I’ve learned and what I wonder about after my year as a Curriculum Consultant:
- We know that students learn better if they are active participants in the learning and not just passive recipients of information. The same holds true for teachers. Sitting in front of a Power Point or Prezi rarely results in new learning for teachers if we define new learning as change in teacher practice. This means that we have to stop talking about “Professional Development” and start talking about “Professional Learning”. Professional Development is something that is done TO teachers while Professional Learning is something that is done WITH teachers. So if the Power Point doesn’t work, what should professional learning look like?
- We know that all students are not the same and we need to differentiate according to their needs and interests. The same should hold true for our adult learners. Different teachers learn at different rates and they each have a different set of skills and strengths to draw upon. A one-size-fits-all approach to professional learning does not work. How do we provide multiple entry points and choice for professional learning?
- We know that student engagement is critical for learning to happen. How do we engage teachers who seem resistant to learning? After a year of working with teachers and listening to them, I’ve come to the conclusion that ALL teachers want to do what is best for students. Many of them, with reason, have become very wary of professional development opportunities – they don’t find they learn from them. They don’t feel supported by them, and they don’t believe in their messages. So they are reluctant to buy in. Many teachers believe that what they are currently doing IS what is best for kids. If they see a need, they will seek a solution. So how do we get teachers to see the need for change? And frankly, if the change is seen as requiring too much work or effort, teachers are reluctant to attempt it. They have to believe that teaching differently isn’t just good for kids, in the long run, it will be good for themselves as well.
- Students learn best when they receive guided support that scaffolds their learning. They need descriptive feedback that they can use to set their own learning goals. Teachers need this too. Teachers need opportunities to practice new strategies and to make mistakes so that they can reflect and learn from them. They need opportunities to discuss with a “knowledgeable other” what is working and what isn’t and they need descriptive feedback. In other words, they need on-going support if we want permanent change in teaching practice; otherwise, teachers will default back to what is known and what is comfortable. How can we provide this without spending a fortune on professional learning?
In the 2012-2013 school year, I taught Grade Six using a blended learning format. An exciting side effect was that students began to take responsibility for their own learning. Using a blended format empowered them to set their own learning goals and follow their own interests. As I contemplate how professional learning needs to change, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we need is a blended learning format that includes face to face sessions, online support, choice, webinars, opportunities for reflection and networked learning.
I also believe that we need to redefine how we measure student success and support teachers in developing their assessment skills. The fact is we assess what we value. If teachers are assessing students’ rote learning, they may never see a need to change their practice. We have to help teachers understand the skills students need to be successful in the 21st Century, and then we have to help teachers learn to assess those skills because our current standardized tests don’t measure them. Should we be focusing on student achievement or on student learning?
It is a very exciting time in education. Professional learning should foster that excitement in teachers and empower them to be leaders of change!