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Effective Professional Development: Creating Communities of Adult Learners

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By Jeff Heyck-Williams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Two Rivers Charter School

As we reimagine schools for the next generation, we also have to reimagine what adult learning can and should look like in schools as well. The traditional model of 'sit and get' professional development where an expert presents the latest strategy with the intention of teachers implementing the strategy next week, doesn't work. In fact, The New Teacher Project's (TNTP) 2015 report, The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development found that many other professional development activities for teachers also aren't particularly effective.

The reasons behind ineffective professional development are complex. However, as The Mirage report found, one major issue is that the professional development that we offer teachers is often a step or more removed from outcomes of student learning. In addition, even when there is tight alignment between student learning and development activities, there often isn't sustained attention to implementing strategies at a high level. Teachers have complained for years about the tendency for school systems to move from one new initiative to the next, and there doesn't seem to be a collective will to slow down and push toward excellence in specific practices.

In response to these challenges, at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., we have discovered that the most effective professional development requires three core components: 

  1. A sustained commitment to driving initiatives toward excellence in student outcomes;

  2. Motivating our staff to make change; and

  3. Opportunities for our staff to work collaboratively toward solutions.

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Committing to a Common Instructional Focus 

One of the most enduring features of professional development at Two Rivers is our commitment to a single instructional focus, which defines the professional development thrust for our network of schools. While we analyze numerous data sources and obtain the perspectives of multiple stakeholders annually to decide the instructional focus, often we maintain the same instructional focus from year to year with the intent of driving toward excellence and resisting the urge to jump from initiative to initiative.

Focusing on a single instructional focus defines our priorities for our learning community and acts as a filter. For example, over the past year we have focused tightly around classroom management to meet all of our students' social-emotional and academic needs. This has meant that we have not concentrated on improvements to our math or literacy programs that also need attention. We recognize that by prioritizing around a singular area of practice, we improve as a whole network and cement lasting meaningful change in student outcomes.

Motivating Staff to Make Change

In his 2011 book, Drive, The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us and his viral whiteboard animation, Daniel Pink argues that to achieve greater results in any work requiring more than rudimentary skills, people must be motivated by something beyond rewards and consequences. Instead, we need purpose, autonomy, and an opportunity to work toward mastery. These ideas about motivation are particularly relevant within the context of professional development, where teachers are asked to make adaptive changes to their practice in order to achieve greater results for their students.

At Two Rivers, we have sought to balance purpose, autonomy, and mastery in the professional development experiences we provide for our staff. However, these motivating factors are not all equal.

We begin and end with a shared purpose. Specifically, as in the terms of The Mirage report, we "define 'development' clearly, as observable, measurable progress toward an ambitious standard for teaching and student learning." At Two Rivers, this includes standardized measures of student growth in core content and basic skills, but goes beyond these definitions of student success to include development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as social-emotional learning outcomes like the development of collaboration and communication skills, and the development of personal character.

In addition, the goal of all professional development, without question, is to develop mastery of the art and science of teaching in order to improve student outcomes. Professional development experiences need to provide opportunities for teachers to perfect their practice throughout. Beginning with a set of clear criteria for exemplary practice of a specific strategy, our teachers work on implementation of that practice by observing each other, providing feedback through protocols, and sharing what they have learned to be effective.

Last but not least is our approach to autonomy. While essential in professional development opportunities, we see autonomy as in service of our shared purpose. We have found that we gain the most traction as a learning community when we focus our professional development around common, narrowly defined best practices. Inevitably, this means teachers give up some of their autonomy in choosing what they are working to improve in their practice. However, individual teachers have the flexibility to adapt the common strategies, find innovative ways to reach their students, and ultimately achieve shared goals for student success.

Providing Opportunities for Meaningful Collaboration

Which brings me to the real power of a school as a learning community. We have a saying at Two Rivers that 'We learn better together.' This is no truer for the students in our buildings than for the adults. By working together to tie educational theory to our classroom practice, teachers are able to innovate and improve their skills to better reach all students.

What does this look like? Envision team meetings where staff review data and refine instructional strategies to better meet student needs; professional development cycles where we analyze broadly defined student data for clues to where students are succeeding, and where they need support; regular opportunities to observe each other teaching and providing peer-to-peer feedback; and informal partnerships between teachers where they puzzle over a problem of practice.

Creating Communities of Adult Learners 

If we want to change student outcomes, we need to take one of the most powerful levers for change we have in schools seriously: the professional development of staff. Driving that professional development with a clarity of focus around student outcomes, motivating staff, and empowering them to collaboratively develop solutions to the most persistent problems in our profession has been one of the most powerful levers of change at Two Rivers.

To learn more about our approach, check out this short video about professional development at Two Rivers and this spotlight on our protocol looking at student work from Edutopia.

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