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Achieving Expert Instruction on a Large Scale

This post is by Stephen Anderson.

There is no shortage of teachers implementing promising instructional programs and practices in schools. There is a shortage of teachers implementing them with sufficient skill to achieve the kinds of learning outcomes that those instructional interventions are intended to produce. With more than a half century of research on school and classroom improvement you would think that the challenge of how to develop and sustain high quality instruction across entire school systems would be solved by now. Yet, here we are in the second decade of the 21st century still struggling to overcome the phenomenon of mediocre instruction in large numbers of classrooms and schools worldwide.

The problem begins with the premise that the instructional methods that teacher employ can and do make a difference in the quality of student learning outcomes. While I accept this premise, informed by my teaching and research since the 1980s, the question is not whether high quality instruction can make a positive difference, but under what conditions is high quality teaching most likely to happen on a large scale? Is it when teachers implement well defined, proven instructional programs and practices, or when they creatively experiment with alternative programs and practices as an ongoing part of their professional work? I vote for the former as the more practical alternative on a large scale, but believe that the conditions of teachers' work need to enable the latter to flourish on a more individual basis and to be accompanied by organizational systems that will enable the propagation of the products on a wide-scale.

If the vast majority of teachers are not likely to act as creative composers of effective lessons and inventors of new methods of teaching, then what is the most cost effective way to help them become expert implementers of ideas, practices, and lessons they borrow from elsewhere (e.g., in-service workshops, courses, internet sites, professional magazines, commercial program materials)? The characteristics of effective "training" in the use of new instructional programs and practices are no secret. Most of us interested in teacher development can recite the professional development mantra of theory, demonstration, practice, feedback, and in-classroom coaching articulated by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers in the 1970s. The challenge is how to replicate and sustain the characteristics of effective teacher learning in policy and in the norms, practices, and funding for teachers' ongoing professional learning across the system.

In my experience, the wide-scale dissemination of promising instructional programs and practices continues to dwell mainly on providing teachers with initial awareness and knowledge about those innovations, perhaps coupled with some actual or virtual demonstrations, but falls short of operationalizing the practice, feedback, and coaching elements of effective support for mastery of instructional programs and practices that are new to teachers. Those elements are better conceived as conditions that need to exist within schools where new ideas, programs, and practices come into play in the classroom.

The contemporary idea of teachers working together as professional learning communities, the idea that emerged from the 1980s research of Judith Warren Little and Susan Rosenholtz, is conducive to both implementation of external programs and practices and to the school-based invention of innovative practices. The essential requirement is that teachers collectively determine what areas of student learning to improve and what instructional practices to implement, and that they gather and use appropriate student learning and implementation data to study, question, and refine the use of chosen practices. Teacher access to external knowledge about promising teaching practices is a vital source of ideas to supplement teachers' creative ideas. However, deep expertise that leads to wide-scale quality instruction is only likely to be achieved through institutionally supported professional learning communities in schools.

Creating the conditions in schools to support teachers' ongoing professional learning focused on instructional practices that have demonstrably positive impacts on student learning remains a key challenge for policy makers and stakeholders implicated in the governance of teachers' working conditions. How are external and in-school supports for teachers' professional learning effectively integrated in your school? What changes would enable the practice of PLCs to be institutionalized in the professional working conditions and culture of your school? What are the most promising ways to improve teachers' instructional expertise across your school?


Stephen E. Anderson is a professor of educational administration at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
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