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Intellectual Courage: Making Professional Learning Matter

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This post is by Cheryl Becker Dobbertin, the Director of the Teacher Potential Project at Expeditionary Learning.

Imagine this scene. Several students are huddled up over a workspace, taking steps to solve a real world problem. They are questioning, probing each other's thinking, seeking resources, and using feedback to check their understanding and refine their approach. Is this a high school physics class?  Nope, it's a professional development session.

This kind of active and engaged professional learning is standard practice in Expeditionary Learning schools, where I work, and in hundreds of Deeper Learning Network schools all over the country. It happens when teachers display the same kind of intellectual courage that they desire in their students--the courage to take the risk of admitting that there's always more to learn about teaching; the courage to share, discuss, seek and reflect upon feedback; and the courage to reject "sit and get" PD.

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Admitting our vulnerabilities as education professionals takes tremendous courage. As a teacher, coach, and leader, I have been on the frontlines of this change for the past two years, helping teachers develop, use and adapt Expeditionary Learning's Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum. When we first learned about the Common Core, we, like many, thought adjusting our work to meet the rigor of new standards was not going to be difficult. After all, we had a 20-year track record in providing teachers with professional development that put them back in the role of learners and in developing engaging and rigorous curriculum. Boy, were we wrong.

The best thing we did was to admit that we had a great deal to learn. We dug in and took on the challenge of change. Our learning curve was steep and sometimes a painful intellectual climb. Our own experience exemplified what Carol Dweck has named a "growth mindset." It's one thing to have a growth mindset about the things we all find challenging, like Organic Chemistry, but another to maintain the intellectual courage to confront what you deeply believe to be true about your own capacity to be good at your job. So much of what we do as teachers involves our hearts and our instincts. When we acknowledge that we have new things to learn, we are actually saying we are finding new ways to be. That's hard. That's courage.

Opening ourselves up to continuous, deeper learning is just the first step toward making professional development meaningful. The next test of our intellectual courage comes in the actual act of professional learning. The human brain learns in the same uncomfortable way throughout our lives: by seeking to resolve cognitive dissonance through additional input. Teachers engaged in high-quality professional development experiences see their work as a cycle. The cycle moves from dissonance and disconnection to learning, to integration of new ideas and practices, then back to dissonance as the next challenge arises or is identified.

This cycle is put into motion when teachers take the risk of sharing their particular and unique "sticking points." Naming them out loud is often a humbling, yet necessary, act. When a teacher can move from naming the general sticking point to the specific, it can be a simple but transformative act of courage: "I am pretty good at establishing a productive classroom culture (general). I establish expectations well and my students know I will follow through (specific). What I could do better is give more precise directions (specific)." It is the hallmark of a good teacher to name and pursue precise professional learning goals.

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What we often forget or overlook when participating in professional learning that we only become the best teacher we can be when both the mind and spirit are deeply engaged. In fact, we have to participate, not just attend. Deep engagement for adults looks much like it does for children. Learners are active--their minds, their mouths, their hands are all about the work. They feel safe to take risks in public, to make mistakes, to try challenging tasks and be able to critique themselves and others.

As professional learners, just as with students, we must summon our intellectual courage to apply what we have learned to our practice. Often we confuse what happens in a "PD workshop" with what happens when a professional seeks and uses feedback to improve his or her practice. Workshops may improve our knowledge, but meaningful learning involves integrating that knowledge into some kind of decision ("I will write out my directions before giving them") and getting feedback on that decision. ("Before I wrote out my directions, students asked as many as 10 clarifying directions about what they should do. After I wrote out my directions, the number of questions ranged from zero to two.")

Over time, professional development has earned a troubling reputation as something to be stoically endured. We have all had that "bad PD" session where the leader of the work talked instead of modeled, where a PowerPoint replaced a protocol-based discussion, and where compliance and "PD hours" stood in for real learning. Let's insist on working together--with the guidance and support of an "expert other" some of the time--to solve authentic problems, to question and probe, and to seek and use feedback in order to refine our work and in service of students. Let's find the intellectual courage to insist that real learning--the kind that invigorates and supports us all--be part of every education professional's work every day.

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