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When Teachers Need to Learn Deeply

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This post is by Ann Jaquith, the Associate Director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), and the author of the forthcoming How to Create the Conditions for Learning: Continuous Improvement in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts, to be published by Harvard Education Press in September.

Even though we know a good deal about what it takes to provide deeper learning experiences for students, we often neglect to provide comparable learning experiences for teachers and those who support them. Maybe this is because constructing deeper learning experiences that effectively integrate content and open-ended inquiry is hard to do. It takes time and attention, requires clear learning goals, and specific knowledge of the learners' needs.

I have studied one district's effort to provide educators with sustained opportunities for learning so that teachers can better educate their students. When administrators in this district saw "all the schools that [were] not doing well in literacy," they took bold action. They hired literacy coaches and assigned them to schools where learning needs were greatest.

In spite of hiring strong teachers to become literacy coaches, problems emerged: not all coaches knew how to coach; not all coaches possessed the same literacy knowledge; some "did things that didn't connect to the district core curriculum"; and some coaches and principals struggled to communicate effectively with each other. In addition, high rates of teacher turnover meant there was a steady stream of teachers arriving into the district who were unfamiliar with the district's approach to literacy. These were real problems. Despite a significant investment of resources, student literacy was not improving as well as desired.

Then, the district made a momentous decision. It put two coaches in charge of coach learning and created a Literacy Coach Network to ensure coaches could better serve the varied learning needs of teachers and principals. These Network leaders began designing professional learning for coaches to deepen their knowledge of literacy and the district core curriculum, to teach them effective coaching techniques, and to support their work with principals.

A multifaceted support network developed, described by one coach as "pretty exquisite." Coaches experienced four intertwined strands of learning focused on:

  • Developing literacy content knowledge;
  • Practicing teaching and coaching in schools with actual students;
  • Getting help developing customized school coaching plans;
  • Receiving regular feedback from an expert coach

A hallmark of the quality of coach learning was how closely the activities matched individuals' learning needs toward achieving a common district goal: literacy instruction that ensures all students can read and write well, analyze texts, and express their own ideas.

Coaches developed an understanding of this common vision of literacy instruction and learned effective coaching techniques. They participated in coaching clinics. These provided coaches with opportunities to practice teaching and coaching with actual kids. One coach explained, "We could practice different coaching methods [and] ... different teaching methods that we could then bring back to our school sites." When professional learning experiences simultaneously meet the specific needs of the learner and are designed with a clear purpose, learning experiences become generative and the capacity for instructional improvement increases.  

A coach described how participation in the network increased her capacity to provide more effective coaching to teachers: "In the Literacy Network ... everything is differentiated. I think that makes a big difference. You get the support you need." Although this coach was selected for her content knowledge and had previously coached, she claimed, "I've really improved my own understanding of literacy instruction; I've also ... learn[ed] the new role of coach and how that connects to literacy intervention." Another coach commented, "The way that the content was delivered to us was ... based on our needs" and with the intention that we bring our learning "back to our sites in order to support teachers."

Coaches valued the content and design of the Literacy Coach Network. They learned specific coaching techniques, such as freeze frame and whisper in. A coach recounted how these techniques work:

The teacher teaching the lesson has permission to say, "Hang on. Time out. Sorry kids. ... I lost track of the lesson...." Then the coach working with the [the teacher] could say, "Oh, I think you need to give the kids a chance to turn and talk or something like that."

As described, this technique emphasizes real-time teacher learning so that instruction is continuously improving. The coaches found using these techniques helped teachers develop instructional knowledge more quickly and in a deeper way. Not surprisingly, teachers reported appreciating these learning opportunities as well. A fifteen-year veteran commented on how the coaching changed the way grade level teachers at his school talk to each other. "The conversation has shift[ed from] how would you deliver this lesson to ... what supports are you able to provide for x student?" In this way, teaching and coaching became much more learner-centric. What does the learner need?

Focusing on teachers and coaches as learners led to conditions in which students could develop the important literacy and sense-making skills that they need to be able to think independently and draw their own conclusions. The provision of carefully constructed learning experiences for coaches enabled them to provide pertinent, individualized learning experiences for teachers, who in turn were supported to provide better and more powerful learning experiences for students. If we want students to experience deeper learning, then teachers and those who support them need these sorts of experiences too.

 

 

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