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The Big Aha: Conditions for Effective Professional Learning

Frederick Brown image
Frederick Brown

Earlier this week I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a few hours with the Standards Board Committee in Ohio as that state considers the adoption of new standards for professional learning. As part of our conversation, we watched a video showing a learning team from Ford Middle School in Allen, Texas. After watching the video, we explored two questions:

      • What are the attributes of this learning team that you would aspire to put into practice in Ohio schools?
      • What would be the building and district conditions necessary to do so?

The video itself was an inspiration to the Ohio group. They saw a learning team that was focused on a clear continuous improvement process. The teachers in the video appear to be responsible for their own learning and are using student and their own performance data to determine their collective learning needs. The teachers also set up a schedule to visit each other's classrooms so they can support each other as they practice their new strategies. Because this learning team is so focused on ensuring implementation of their learning, viewers of the video have great confidence their new practices will be sustained. If you've not seen the video, it's definitely worth a look.

After talking through what the folks in Ohio liked about the video, we tackled the next question. What kind of conditions would be necessary at the building and district levels to ensure this type of professional learning becomes the norm? Here's what came out of that discussion:

  1. It would be necessary to have a culture of trust where all teachers worked collaboratively to support their students. It would also be necessary to have the work of this team aligned to school and district goals.

  2. This team couldn't function without the support of a strong and supportive building principal. It was agreed that the principal of this school (as well as the superintendent of this district) was most likely a strong advocate of professional learning. The consensus was that the principal most likely had a strong sense of instruction and recognized his or her role in developing the leadership and instructional capacity of the staff.

  3. There was a lot of discussion about the fact that this learning team also couldn't function at the high level seen in the video if they didn't have the time to meet regularly. It was assumed the principal or designee created a building schedule that allowed for this type of collaboration. Also, the team had access to the expertise of the skilled facilitator seen leading their discussion.

  4. Early in the video, the team references a districtwide data system. They also discussed data about their own performance. You got the sense all these data were driving their actions in the classroom as well as their professional learning strategies. Having access to all these types of data was determined to be a necessary condition.

  5. One of the most powerful aspects of the video, according to our group in Ohio, was the fact that their learning seemed so natural. Everyone was engaged, and it appeared as if each member on the team understood her role in supporting the collective. It was hard to imagine any workshop or conference session changing the practices of these teachers in the way their learning team discussions and next steps would. The group felt the design of the team's process was in itself a key condition.

  6. The group also discussed how important it was that the team in the video was so focused on implementing new strategies. They appreciated the way teachers were willing to provide the necessary feedback to each other to support that implementation.

  7. Finally, it was agreed that this team of teachers must have had some framework that was guiding their practice. Perhaps the district had adopted a model of effective teaching for mathematics or was focused on some specific areas of the National Council for Mathematics (NCTM) standards.

After discussing all the conditions necessary to make the kind of professional learning they saw in the video come alive in schools throughout Ohio, the group had a big "aha" moment. Without realizing it, they had just talked themselves through the seven Standards for Professional Learning. The standards themselves ARE the conditions necessary to bring about the kind of professional learning that will change practice, increase educator effectiveness, and ultimately, improve student outcomes. 

One of my Ohio colleagues mentioned that teachers today are working harder than ever before. The standards can provide a roadmap to ensure this hard work translates into educator effectiveness and improved results for all students.

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development, 
Learning Forward

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