Across diverse districts I have asked teachers how they like to learn and what they want out of their professional learning opportunities. Over and over I hear the same kinds of responses and wishes for how they could learn. There is a deep desire to develop their practice, not just be talked to but be inspired, valued, and pushed to take their practice to the next level. To help teachers shift their practices and make learning experiences for their students the best they can be, these are the desired characteristics of professional learning that shifts practices:
- Purposeful- There is nothing worse than sitting through a meeting without having a clear understanding of what the purpose is for the meeting or what you are supposed to do with the information. Clearly defining the purpose of learning and how it connects to the larger vision is critical.
- Goal-oriented- Second to not understanding the purpose is working on a task without and clear understanding of the desired outcome or goal. This is an easy oversight but makes a huge difference if all stakeholders develop a shared understanding of the common goal and structure the time and activities to meet them.
- Inquiry-based- Inevitably, when learners are posing questions and seeking answers, they are more invested than if they are being told what to think or do. Structure professional learning to allow for educators, as professionals, to question, observe and find resources and create new solutions to solve the problems they are facing.
- Applicable- Too often for the sake of “convenience” we mandate professional development for all when it only pertains to a few. Ensure that the learning is connected to the content, experience, and resources of those in the rooms and connects the students they serve.
- Safe– Creating an environment where teachers have permission and feel encouraged to take risks in pursuit of learning and growth rather than perfections is absolutely foundational to shifting practices.
- Models- To teach in new ways, teachers have to have models and experience learning in new ways to visualize new and different possibilities.
- Learner-centered- Focus on teachers as learners and connect to their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers have to begin as learners themselves and engage in desired learning experiences to understand the resources and opportunities available for their students.
- Collaborative- Creating opportunities for educators to work together allows for new and better ideas to emerge. When we are exposed to diverse ideas and perspectives, we grow in our own practice and impact others as well.
Personalized- We need to allow for diverse paths and outcomes to support learners to move forward from where they are. Diverse contexts and areas of expertise require flexibility to meet the desired goals and support individuals along the path.
Action-oriented- Engage learners in experiences that allow them to solve a challenge that is meaningful and relevant to their context. Empower learners to devise a solution and take action to make a desired improvement .
These 10 characteristics likely do not come as a surprise as they align with much of what we know about the power of purpose, motivation, and empowerment in learning. The problem is that they so rarely represent how teachers learn despite what we know. Why?! Well, most often because it requires leaders and designers of these experiences to trust the learners, be flexible to meet their needs, allow for diverse pathways and be open to new ideas. Often pressed for time and trying to fit it all in, many take short cuts to ensure that they have covered it all rather that engage in deep learning. Another challenge is that many have not truly experienced this type of learning in their formal education, which makes it hard to imagine how to create new and better experiences. Without new models, people tend to revert back and recreate their own experiences.
One step that many districts and individual schools are taking is moving from one large session and allowing learners choice in a variety of sessions. This is a good start but if we continue to perpetuate the same type of learning experiences in each of the choice sessions we are not doing enough. There is a time and place for learning new information, we need to gather new ideas through reading, listening and observing but we also must allow learners to make sense of what they are learning. If we never create the space for teachers to learn, synthesize ideas, and put the new ideas into practice, we will not see the impact of the new learning translate to better outcomes for students.
This is the first of 5 part series on the 10 Characteristics of Professional Learning that Shifts Practice. Check out the rest of the series: