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For Deeper Teacher Learning, Follow the Teachers' Lead

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This post is by James Noonan, project director, School Quality Framework, for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment and a research affiliate for the Justice in Schools Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Mention "professional development" to a teacher and you are liable to be met with a groan or a grimace. Generally speaking and not entirely without cause, PD has a reputation among educators as something to be dreaded, avoided, or endured.

For decades, researchers have assiduously sought to understand what works in professional learning and to identify promising practices that could, if adhered to, make it more effective and presumably less groan-inducing. And indeed, this effort to uncover essential design features has borne fruit. Many researchers today would likely agree that there are a small number of "best practices" in PD: it should be active, job-embedded, sustained, content-focused, collaborative, and coherent with district priorities, among other characteristics. Recently, Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the most steadfast champions of teaching as a learning profession and teachers as learners, contributed her own synthesis to this research. Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at the Learning Policy Institute reviewed 35 experimental studies on PD's impact on teaching practice and student learning and identified seven features that generally corroborated what has come before them.

Taken on their own merits, these PD best practice features are hard to quibble with. Generally speaking, active learning is better than passive learning, job-embedded learning is better than isolated learning, sustained learning is better than one-shot learning, and so on down the line.

And yet, these features are also constraining and give us a false sense of confidence about what could improve PD. Best practices are communicated at the "on average" level, but learning is experienced at an individual level. After all, within any single PD, there are as many unique learning experiences as there are learners. What may be a transcendent experience for one teacher is just another Tuesday to her colleague sneaking a look at her smartphone under the table.

Learning happens in unpredictable ways, unpredictable even to learners themselves, and the gap between what individuals find valuable and what the consensus says is valuable may, at times, be quite large. But even though a majority of learning experiences for teachers are ho-hum or worse, most teachers would admit that learning does sometimes happen in PD. One teacher I spoke to as part of my own research put it this way: "If it was a pie chart, [PD] would be like 85 percent bad. But there's 15 percent good."

To find that 15 percent, we need to ask teachers about what Australian researcher Ann Webster-Wright called "the lived experience of learning." Instead of looking across learning experiences and asking what design features they share, we should look across learners and ask how they understand their work and themselves. Asking these questions would give us valuable insight into teachers' professional identities, which I'd argue is a more powerful factor than any PD best practice in determining whether or not a teacher learns from PD.

As part of my dissertation research, I asked 25 public school teachers to reconstruct their most powerful professional development experiences. Notable departures from the PD norm and surprisingly diverse in format and content, these experiences seemed to say as much about the people telling the stories than they did about what works in PD. Some learning experiences were sustained over years, others were a few hours on a single day; some were content-focused, others were abstract; some were embedded in their classrooms, others took place thousands of miles away from their classroom. And yet, in each case, the experience left an indelible impression on the teacher long after the it was over. Knowing who the learners are, then, is critical to understanding what works.

In many cases--like that of Brynn, a middle school math teacher in her fifth year--the learning experiences seemed to reflect personal beliefs about teaching and learning that were a bedrock of her professional identity. A self-described "math nerd," Brynn said she wanted to become a math teacher in part to help people not fear it and maybe even come to love it as she did. Her powerful learning experience was a series of math-focused courses in which teachers sat at tables and worked through problem sets. As they worked, facilitators would circulate, asking probing questions and selecting participants to show their work to the whole group. For Brynn, these courses--and their focus on helping teachers anticipate the mistakes students make--reinforced an essential belief about teaching and learning shared by researchers: namely, that teachers need to have deep and enduring content knowledge. Brynn explained, "Often math has the stigma of, 'Well, I need to teach middle school math, so I don't need to know calculus.' But you really should, to see all the connections. One of the main goals of this course is really just getting people who are responsible for teaching kids math better at math. ...[It] mirrored a philosophy I already had."

On the one hand, there were aspects of this experience that reflected PD best practices--for example, it was content-focused and at least somewhat active--but there were also aspects that contradicted PD best practices. For example, it was isolated from her classroom and even though teachers sat in groups most of the work was not collaborative. But these non-best-practices did not matter to Brynn's assessment of it as powerful. In fact, Brynn recalled being one of a small number of voices in the group who actively tried to orient the group away from reflection and collaboration, calling reflection "this kind of meaningless process." Instead, she said, "the most powerful thing was to be able to just do the problems [and] focus on the math."

Importantly, what mattered to Brynn--a deep appreciation for calculus--likely did not matter to other teachers in her school, at least not in the same way. The same was true of teachers across my sample. In stark contrast to Brynn, first-grade teacher Carolyn thrived on collaboration and communities of practice, and her powerful learning experience reflected that: a partnership with another first-grade teacher in her district through which they jointly wrote a literacy curriculum guide. For Alex, a middle school social studies teacher, neither content nor community seemed as important as an appreciation for a good performance. He believed that effective teaching was to a significant degree about "intangible" factors and so what he most admired in PD was an exemplary model of good teaching, which he found in a weeklong training about middle school advisories led by someone he effusively and repeatedly called a "great adult facilitator." In what they value and who they are as teachers, Brynn and Carolyn and Alex stand well apart from each other. But when it comes to what they value most in professional development, who are we to say they're wrong?

The unique perspectives and experiences of teachers like Brynn, Carolyn, and Alex--and the many other teachers like them--may seem like hard-to-scale personal idiosyncrasies, but in fact the markers of teachers' professional identities are durable and influential filters through which they understand their work, their students, and themselves. And if we do not acknowledge variation across teachers' identities and the ways teachers' identities may shift over time or according to context, then we risk alienating them as learners.

To be blunt: best practices are not enough. A PD could be thick with best practices--active learning, content-focused, job-embedded, stretched out over years--but if it is anathema to how a teacher understands herself and how teachers improve, she still will not learn.

Accounting for teachers' professional identities in the design of professional development does not mean entirely personalizing learning for all three-and-a-half million teachers in the U.S., but it does mean shifting our mindset about who knows best when it comes to professional learning and shifting the locus of control accordingly. Such a shift would require first that teachers understand who they are and what motivates them to learn so that they can advocate for their learning needs more effectively. Reciprocally, school and district leaders--with an eye toward better meeting teachers' learning needs--ought to regularly solicit feedback about what teachers want to learn and how. With this information, schools or districts could craft more nimble and responsive approaches to professional development.

Finally, I would add that a more responsive approach to professional development does not mean that teachers should only ever learn things that affirm what they already believe. Some degree of coherence is essential for building learning communities, and moreover some topics are too important to avoid altogether. For example, conversations about race and class and equity are essential for teachers and students, as many recent posts on this blog have amply demonstrated, but because they may be difficult conversations they may not be ones teachers would choose for themselves. And yet, having no difficult conversations about race is not a viable option. There must be a middle path.

Taken together, an approach to PD that relied less on generalizable best practices and more on a responsiveness to teachers' identities and values would be a concrete demonstration of professional respect--an acknowledgment that teachers come to their work with valuable perspectives that deserve to be taken seriously. In adopting such an approach, we would affirm teachers' professional identities, in turn opening up new possible futures for professional development.

If we follow their lead, the next generation of teachers can be learners, too.


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