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Teachers' Needs Must Drive the Professional Learning Agenda

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

Earlier this week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a research report commissioned from the Boston Consulting Group. Teachers Know Best: Teachers' Views on Professional Development offers insights into the professional learning that teachers and other educators experience. Researchers surveyed more than 1,300 teachers, principals, professional development providers, and thought leaders.

I'm inspired with several ideas as I read this, and I know there is much more to explore in depth for future discussions. As frontline learners in our systems, teachers' needs must drive our overall professional learning agenda. Their satisfaction with and engagement in the learning is directly connected to what they will take away from it. 

I value teachers' voices in understanding and talking about effective professional learning, and I am not surprised that what teachers want and need align specifically with the Standards for Professional Learning

When teachers describe their ideal professional learning experience, according to this report, they say it is relevant, interactive, sustained over time, delivered by someone who understands their experience, and treats teachers like professionals (Boston Consulting Group, p. 4).

One teacher said professional learning "needs to be something that you keep working on for a semester or a year" (Boston Consulting Group, p. 4). As Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning state, "Episodic, periodic, or occasional professional learning has little effect on educator practice or student learning because it rarely includes ongoing support or opportunities for extended learning to support implementation" (Learning Forward, p. 45).

Perhaps the most disturbing data concerned teachers' dissatisfaction with professional learning communities. In earlier reports, teachers cited collaborative learning among their most valued professional learning experiences. Learning Forward lists the Learning Communities standard first because we understand the value of collaborative learning through a cycle of continuous improvement.

Digging deeper into Teachers Know Best, we can surmise that the current level of dissatisfaction with professional learning communities is related to their implementation. The report reinforces the view that not all professional learning -- especially professional learning communities -- is created equal.

Here are three things districts may consider as they reflect on these findings and what they mean for their systems.

Use data to drive professional learning. Giving learners a range of options doesn't solve the questions raised here. While menu-style professional learning seems to offer teacher choice, this can lead to isolation and fragmentation. Teachers committed to collective responsibility want personalized, not individualized, support.

Build capacity to collaborate meaningfully. Providing time is necessary but it isn't sufficient. Learning effectively in community requires skilled facilitators and participants as well as clear purposes and outcomes. Learning communities that are hijacked for administrative purposes are not useful to teachers and will only make it more difficult to sustain the support for time dedicated to substantive team learning.

Include teachers in decisions about professional learning. Effective professional learning systems engage stakeholders from all perspectives in the design of professional learning. Collective responsibility and empowered educators emerge from such a process.

We think we know a lot about effective professional learning, yet we have too few examples of where what we know works spreads and scales smoothly. This tells me we have a lot to learn. What did you learn from the report, and what next steps will you take? Let us hear from you in this column, and join the conversation at redesignchallenge.org.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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