Making Professional Learning Meaningful

Cheryl Dobbertin is the director of the Teacher Potential Project for Expeditionary Learning, a research project which aims to increase student achievement and teacher efficacy.  She is the co-author of Expeditionary Learning’s Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work that Matters and the author of Common Core Unit by Unit (Heinemann, 2013).  Both books are packed with models to support meaningful professional learning.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about great writers and what it takes for them to become great.  Great writers are artists.  They study their craft by studying the “masters” – the writers who’ve gone before. They try and fail and revise and struggle; they spend their time producing things that others critique, and they use that feedback to continuously reshape their work until they are satisfied.

Gillian Flynn, the contemporary author of several prize winning novels including the recent bestseller Gone Girl, remembers having Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time “pried from her hands at the dinner table,” as part of her  “good childhood.”   As a voracious reader, Flynn was continuously accessing models of great writing.  William Faulkner told a group of aspiring writers to “get it down.  Take chances.  It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”  Faulkner understood the need for sharing drafts so they could be critiqued.  And John Irving claimed “Half my life is an act of revision.”  Irving realized that acting on feedback – revising the work – was critical to his success.  Great authors have growth mindsets.  They believe that their work is worth the investment of continuous learning.   

Great teachers are artists, too.  Great teachers are also committed to continuous professional learning.  Unfortunately, teachers rarely have sustained, rich opportunities for what I believe is the most meaningful professional learning they could engage in – professional learning that involves models, critique, and feedback, embedded in and enhanced by a culture that celebrates and expects continuous growth.  Great teachers deserve what great writers demand.

One of the biggest surprises I had as an educator came when I first stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of others.  Many teachers didn’t teach the way I taught.  We used the same language to describe the act of teaching, we seemed to share similar strengths and challenges, but when it came right down to it, what was going on in the classrooms of others was in some cases vastly different than what was going on in mine.  Don’t believe me?  Ask 10 teachers to describe exactly what happens during their “reading/writing/math workshop” and see what you get.  That’s because we talk a lot about teaching, but we don’t show a lot.  How many professional development sessions have you been in where someone talks via PowerPoint about a complex set of pedagogical ideas like differentiation or reading instruction without once differentiating or asking you to read?  Exactly.  In order to make professional learning meaningful, we need to ensure access to models of the kind of teaching that makes a difference for kids.

When I think of using models in professional learning, I usually consider a continuum of possibilities that often depends on the setting in which the professional learning is happening.

  • Use the techniques under discussion to teach the techniques under discussion.  This is even more meaningful when real and compelling content is added into the mix, so that teachers are learning more about their subject matter while learning the techniques. Literacy teachers, for instance, could learn more about close reading by studying a text that they themselves find interesting and challenging.

  • Analyze lesson plans or unit plans.

  • Read transcripts of classroom interactions that feature the new learning.

  • Watch videos of teachers and kids at work.

  • “Walk through” a series of classrooms studying a particular aspect of teaching.

  • Engage in sustained visits to other classrooms with a particular focus in mind.

The Power of Feedback

Accessing models, however, is only part of the package.  Professional learning becomes infinitely more meaningful when teachers engage in critique protocols that help them dig into the models at hand.  Critique isn’t naming what you like or don’t like about a particular aspect of the model.  It’s not the same as “criticizing.”  Critique is analysis – approaching your own or others’ work in an analytical way.  There are numerous ways to critique models.  For example, teachers could analyze three different new strategies for which ones are most applicable in their upcoming lessons.  First they might think about the criteria they would use to determine “applicability.”  Then they would analyze the new strategies against those criteria. In a final step, they would share or report out which of the new strategies they are planning to use, naming the aspects of the strategy that make it a “best fit.”  Another option is for teachers to look at strong and weak models of lesson plans designed to help students learn to solve a problem in a new way.  They would determine the aspects of the lesson plan that would be critical for its success – let’s say they decide the lesson plans that engage the most kids in problem-solving for the most amount of time are the ones most likely to lead to success. They would then use that criteria to determine which lesson plan would engage the most students in problem-solving for the most amount of time, and justify their choice with evidence from lesson plans themselves.

From these examples, you might have picked up four critical aspects of critique:

  • Models, which can be both strong and weak.  There’s a lot to be said for comparing really strong models with less strong models.  That helps shine a light on what might be missing in someone’s understanding or work.

  • Clear criteria.

  • Analysis.

  • Sharing, with evidence or justification.

Being clear on what critique is can help teachers move from professional analysis of “anonymous” models (i.e., lesson plans, commercially made videos, or transcripts) to live models, as can be accessed by visiting each other’s classrooms.   Again, the point isn’t to judge each other, but to see a model of something and analyze it against clear criteria.      

Creating habits of mind around critique can bridge professional learning from theory to action by introducing the most powerful learning tool available to us — feedback.  Teachers tend to see “feedback” as evaluative, and that’s because most teachers only receive feedback sporadically, and from supervisors actually in evaluative mode.  It’s interesting to note what a solitary profession teaching is, and how infrequently most teachers actually work with others while engaged in the act of teaching.  It’s hard to imagine any other profession – and certainly this isn’t true of artists – where feedback is so infrequently provided.  These factors together – the evaluative nature of feedback in teaching and the infrequency of feedback in teachers’ work – have created a cultural norm that feedback is bad and to be avoided.   It’s time to just acknowledge that and get over it.  Only when we have harnessed the power of feedback will professional learning become truly meaningful.

The Three Keys to Constructive Feedback

Of course, in order for feedback to be heard, it has to be well delivered.  In our Expeditionary Learning Schools and through our curricular materials and professional development practices we teach that quality feedback is:

  • Specific – This links feedback into the professional learning cycle with models and critique.  When engaging in professional learning (just like when you’re teaching students), keep your work focused on a specific point, or target.  If the focus on the models was on different classroom management techniques for ensuring that students are attentive, and the criteria developed included “ensuring that all students can hear the teacher,” then this isn’t the time to comment on specifics related to other pedagogical concerns.

  • Kind – Use kind words, tone, and body language.  Be present when offering feedback, be mindful of the words you’re using and the way you’re speaking.  There’s a big difference between “I noticed that when you started the class you waited until about 90% of the students were quiet before you started speaking,” and “Why didn’t you wait until all of the students were quiet?”

  • Helpful – But not bossy.  Feedback doesn’t always mean telling someone how you would do something, although suggestions are often part of feedback.   Sometimes asking a question is the best form of feedback (“What might have gone differently if you waited until 100% of the students were giving you their full attention?”)

This brings me to my final point, which is about the culture in which professional learning has the potential to be the most meaningful.  When I sat down to write this blog post, I wondered for a while whether to advise education professionals to try to address their attitudes toward professional learning prior to using models, critique, and feedback or to let culture be influenced by using models, critique, and feedback.   I finally decided that the changes in culture that we need around professional learning will occur as a result of changing our professional learning practices to include the use of models, critique, and feedback.   Many people need to see something different before they believe something different.  Certainly it is hard to imagine Faulkner rolling his eyes at the thought of learning more about his craft, or John Irving shuddering at the fact that he “had to” dig into revising his work.  That’s because there’s a culture of craft that surrounds great writers; ongoing revision is an accepted component of the work.  Until we educators experience the power of that culture of craft, until we believe in its power to improve our work, until we embrace it as a necessary and vital source of improving our work, we won’t fully realize how meaningful professional learning can be.

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