Based on the looks of it, you'd think that administrators and school leaders believed that teachers are all superhuman learners, the stars of the class, the honors students who do the extra credit work before the regular assignment. A lovely thought, but one that's just not realistic.
This lovely thought is what guides most professional development for teachers however. They are sent off to workshops (weekend, after-school, or perhaps given sub coverage to attend during the school week) or granted access to a website of resources. That's how they're expected to learn more about teaching, improve their practice, and produce stronger student results. Sure, this is a slight oversimplification of all of the ways that teacher professional development happens but, on the whole, it's not far off. The basic assumptions that I'll lay out below still hold true regardless of form.
Now, I've been to some incredible workshops in my time as a teacher. (Have led a great deal too!) I've also seen some incredibly helpful websites that contain everything I'm looking for and more. But I've also twiddled my thumbs through many PD sessions (probably led a few like this...) and logged in to many websites that I never cared enough to even bookmark.
Quality aside (and that's a topic for another post), even the best workshops and websites won't work to change teaching practice and improve student learning in aggregate. They ignore some basic tenets of learning for them to be effective in large scale. Yes, there will always be the rockstar teacher who rises above and provides an outstanding qualitative data point. These are the superhuman learners, stars of the class, honors students doing the extra credit before the regular work that administrators and school leaders believe all teachers can and should be. But in no way can the results of these few high-end outliers be generalized to the teaching population as a whole.
Let's take these one-by-one and dissect why each of these factors dooms workshops and websites for failure.
Self-awareness and the ability to critically self-assess one's greatest needs and deficiencies drive how teachers experience workshops and websites. A certain level of honesty, humily, and reflectiveness is a required entry point to take anything away from the experience. Furthermore, strong understanding of and alignment to a specific vision and standards for teaching are also needed to take away anything meaningful that will improve teaching practice in ways that will improve student learning.
There are challenges to all of these self-awareness requirements from both an internal and an external perspective. Imagine this scenario -
It's Friday afternoon, the start of a beautiful fall weekend. Your friends are grilling out on their porch tonight, the latest superhero movie is coming out, you haven't done anything physically active besides walk to the refrigerator all week and you're dying to go for a run, but you're exhausted from a long week of school. Instead of running to the grocery store to buy hamburgers and a moderately-priced bottle of chardonnay, you're driving to an out-of-town professional development workshop that your principal wants you to attend. All. Weekend. Long.
What sort of mindset are you likely to be in when you are sitting in that freezing cold conference center? How many of your thoughts will be directed towards identifying strategic areas for improvement in your classroom and securing resources that will directly address them? There's school on Monday too - are your lessons ready?
Change this scenario to after-school and you get similar thoughts poking through. Make it a during-the-school-day convention and suddenly you add in the intense excitement of being out of the school building on a week day coupled with the crippling fear of what's happening with the sub back in your classroom. Put this during the summer and you've eliminated many of those worries but now you've only got a group of ficticious (and most likely overly idealized) kids to be planning for. Make it a website and suddenly you're entirely self-directed and can definitely do it later or click through just enough to "get the gist" before catching the 9:00 PM showing of the movie.
These are all external challenges to maximizing teacher self-awareness. The situation itself presents most of them - it's very nature leads to a set-up that fails to prompt self-awareness and honest self-criticism. We can't blame the teachers for entering these situations without the proper self-awareness mindset. The situation creates it.
Even still, minimize all of the external challenges to self-awareness, and there are still the internal challenges that persist. Imagine another scenario -
You're a fourth year teacher, have always gotten really good evaluations and your students do pretty well in your class. You know you're not the best teacher in your school, but you're pretty darn good. Your principal calls you in to her office after she popped into your classroom a few days ago and she says, "I was really disappointed in what I saw in your classroom the other day. Students weren't fully engaged. The work didn't seem rigorous enough. And I expected tighter classroom management from a fourth year teacher. I need you to be great, not just good. So I got you a subscription to [X] website that has a lot of great resources on it. Use this. When I'm back in your classroom next, I'll expect to see much better from you."
Even if the principal had softened the blow a bit, or provided some more substantive evidence, you're on the defensive. You're trying to discern exactly what it is that needs to be fixed because you already thought you were pretty good - your evaluations have said so at least. You're left confused and reeling from the encounter, so you comb through the entire website, looking at every video example you can. But with every video clip you watch, you think to yourself, "I do that. I do that all the time! She just didn't seem me doing it. I don't actually need this..."
Suddenly, all sorts of internal barriers are present that block honest self-awareness when approaching professional learning. In this case, the barrier is defensiveness because the professional development is set up as a punitive experience. Learning is blocked before it can begin because of I-don't-actually-need-this hubris.
Even worse, and in most cases, professional development is given no reason at all other than compliance. "You need to complete 25 hours of professional development this school year. So go to this one because it counts as 8 hours. And then do this online course because it will only take you 2 hours to zip through and counts as 10." It takes a truly self-aware teacher to move out of the compliance zone and into productivity, especially considering the external pressures encroaching as well.
To continue forward, let's assume that a teacher was able to overcome the self-awareness factors - both internal and external - and they approach the workshop or website with exactly the right focus and mindset for real, meaningful professional learning. For professional development to influence results, what is learned must be applied in the classroom setting. There is no quality control for application into the classroom setting once knowledge has been distributed via workshops and websites. There is no assurance of transfer from the modality of the learning to the real-world where it is needed.
Typically, one of four scenarios will occur following a professional development experience:
What is learned is left behind and never brought back to the classroom.
The teacher tries to apply it a limited number of times, doesn't apply it correctly or consistently, concludes that it doesn't work, and never picks it up again.
The teacher applies it incorrectly and keeps applying it incorrectly assuming that that's what they're supposed to do, never fully knowing they're not doing it right.
The teacher applies it perfectly on the first try and keeps using it to its desired effects or is such a critically self-aware teacher that they are able to troubleshoot and adjust after any initial hurdles to reach a place of strong, consistent application of what was learned.
The hope? #4. The reality? #1 and #2, probably in equal measure, with a dash of #3.
This is the superhuman learner, star of the class, honors students who does the extra credit work before the regular assignment mentality creeping in again at its finest. We cannot blame the teachers for falling victim to scenarios #1, #2, or #3. It's not their fault. The situation leads them there because there is no attention paid to the important work of application.
Application is where the true learning takes place. You cannot know how you are doing with a skill until you try the skill. Workshops and websites focus so much on distributing the knowledge, structures, and systems of great teaching that they ignore the more important skill-based components - the practice of teaching.
Some workshops (I have yet to see a website that is able to do this well) focus on practicing skill components with the intent of easing application into the classroom. By nature though, these are "layup drills." They are concocted situations meant to replicate the real-life scenario, but only practice isolated skills in controlled environments.
No matter how many times a basketball player practices a layup, the first time they have to do so in a game, with a defender in their face, after just receiving a poor bounce pass from a teammate, with the team down by one point and two seconds left on the clock, their performance in the layup drill at practice fails to predict how well they'll be able to make the layup they're about to take. No matter how many times a teacher delivers clear, sequential "What to Do" directions to the other teachers sitting at their workshop table, the first time they have to do so in the classroom, with Aaron continuing to ask to use the bathroom, when Alicia has her head down on her desk, and most classmates refusing to participate because Marcus always has his hand raised and gets the answer right before they can even think about the question, all while trying to concisely explain how to determine the theme of The Outsiders, the teacher's performance during the workshop fails to predict how well they'll be able to deliver those same "What to Do" directions.
Don't get me wrong - learning the mechanics of a skill in isolation is incredibly important, essential even. I need to be able to make a layup without any of the other distractions before I can sink one when the game is on the line. Application goes well beyond this though. Teaching is a continual series of game-winning shots, yet we treat it like an endless layup drill. There is a lot more hard work, reflection, feedback, and further practice that goes into moving from layup drills to buzzer beaters.
Workshops and websites stop at the layup drill, at best. This leaves teachers to fend for themselves for self-analysis, critical feedback, additional practice, motivation, and full application of what they have learned. Re-enter self-awareness as a factor and begin that battle all over again.
For an interesting summary of some of the scholarly research on this subject, check out the "Teaching the Teachers" report, produced by the Center for Public Education. (Please note: The Center for Public Education does not promote or endorse Fulcrum Education Solutions or this blog post. I simply found their report to be a good summary of academic research regarding many of the key issues I am attempting to convey.)
So what, then, will work?
All hope is not lost for workshops and websites, but we can no longer rely on them as the sole means of instructional development for our teachers. The self-awareness and application factors are inherent challenges of their models that ignore fundamental aspects of how people learn and develop new skills. These challenges are not ones that can be overcome themselves (apart from the rare superhuman learner, star of the class, honors student who does the extra credit before the regular assignment...which we all definitely are not).
In my next post (cliffhanger!), I'll break down the prevailing paradigm of thought that guides our decision-making about how teachers develop. I'll also introduce a new paradigm of thought - one that respects teachers as people and professionals capable of improving their practice throughout their teaching careers and continually lifting student achievement.
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