Alan, a district area director, is only ten minutes in to a Professional Learning session he’s facilitating, and he is already disappointed. What he devised as an engaging learning opportunity for 200 secondary teachers has already fallen flat. Scanning the room, Alan sees that that most of the audience are looking at their computer screens and not him. Others watch him with glazed looks in their eyes. Alan knows that he would be concerned if he were observing the same lack of engagement in a teacher’s classroom, so why would he not have the same high expectation for himself?
Alan’s experience is not uncommon. Like many educational leaders who conduct Professional Learning sessions, his vision is true but his execution flops. Wanting to make the most of his time with educators, Alan likely spent time planning long before the session began, perhaps even brainstorming topics with district colleagues and taking good time to pick relevant topics. The team likely discussed how they might engage teachers with the use of technology and provide ample time for structured conversations. But despite best intentions, Alan’s plan had problems. The planning process itself was too time-consuming and decisions about which topics to prioritize and who would present what were difficult for the team to make. Because of these barriers, no time was left to consider how to engage teachers in the learning, resulting in a Professional Learning session that left teachers feeling like the experience failed to miss the mark.
Where Alan Failed
The number one resource that educators lack is time. No one, including Alan, needs to experience another poorly executed Professional Learning session that takes time and fails to give what’s needed in return. Professional Learning has been well researched and documented and we now know what works. In 2014, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conducted research of nearly 3,000 teachers and educational leaders to better understand what teachers seek from Professional Learning. The study explored teachers’ needs and opportunities for improvement within the context of Professional Learning. Annually, $18 billion is spend to conduct Professional Learning across the country. Teachers spend approximately 90 hours a year in Professional Learning. Data suggests this time and monetary investment rarely provides teachers the information they seek in the format conducive to their success as adult learners.1 In one study of four districts serving predominantly low-income students, “Teacher evaluations stayed the same, or declined in the span of 2-3 years, while more than $18,000 of [Professional Learning] money per teacher was spent in these districts.”2 Why is such a significant investment not producing better returns? The answer likely rests in the way this money is invested.
BCG and the Gates Foundation concluded throwing more money into professional development isn’t the solution. Instead, there were identifiable traits that created the ideal Professional Learning experience including, relevance, interactivity, delivered by colleagues who get the teacher’s experience, tied to ongoing learning over time, and structured so that teachers are treated as professionals.3 In short, teachers are just as diverse a group of learners as the students they teach, and their Professional Learning should reflect that.
The sections that follow explore the five traits of effective Professional Learning identified by BCG and the Gates Foundation.
Trait #1: Relevant
The first trait of successful Professional Learning noted by BCG is that the content is relevant. Teachers and school leaders report that the most impactful Professional Learning experiences are relevant. It should not seem like a novel idea that a professional would like training within their subject or grade level. After all, cardiologists aren’t required to sit through 90 hours a year of training on engineering breakthroughs for extracting ore. Yet teachers often get asked to participate in Professional Learning which they feel is not helping them within their classroom.4
Unfortunately, we see such Professional Learning happening all across the country. The problem is that much of Professional Learning is planned last minute and is reactionary to whatever issue school leaders faced most immediately. Having relevant Professional Learning is more than just planning ahead. Teachers want to collaborate and work with their colleagues within their department. The BCG findings admitted that relevant Professional Learning “looks different in every context,”5 which can make planning extremely difficult. However, a few common themes did develop within the teachers’ responses including, specific lessons, developing a particular skill, and aligning curriculum to state standards and school improvement goals.
Trait #2: Interactive
The second trait of successful Professional Learning is that it is interactive. There is a time and a place for the sage on the stage, like a TED talk, but it isn’t great for extended periods of time. (There’s a reason TED talks have a time cap.) Interactivity plays a significant role in learning. It is a huge part of life, in general. Movie theaters, books, games, amusement parks and other facets of life are being redesigned in ways to increase the user’s opportunities for engagement. Think back to the last presentation in which you participated. Odds are, the PowerPoint had been switched out for a Prezi, or some other interactive presentation medium. Maybe the entire presentation was conducted through Zoom, Skype, or something similar. There might have been a website or other interactive module you could access in order to engage with other members of the group. If you were lucky, there might have been “clickers” in the classroom for in-the-moment quizzes.
The point is not that you shouldn’t use PowerPoint. But teachers are people too, and they want to have something to do. In terms of Professional Learning sessions, teachers want to be able to practice new teaching methods, utilize new programs, and work on their craft in tangible ways.6 What they don’t want is to sit in a room and listen to what someone else already knows, they want to learn.
Trait #3: Delivered by Someone Who “Gets It”
A ubiquitous truth in education is that learning occurs most when there is a relationship of trust. Teachers do not want to be taught by someone they will only see once, who has never taught in a classroom, and they certainly wouldn’t want to sit through a lesson delivered by someone they actually did not trust. For Professional Learning to be received in the way that makes it most effective, it has to be delivered by someone who works alongside the teachers. This can be done in several ways:
- Leverage a presenter who has had similar experiences as the teachers,
- Spend time getting to know the assets and opportunities within the teachers’ classrooms,
- Use data that is objective of the situation and respectful of the work the teacher has put in.
Building relationships of trust takes time, and it requires work. Among all of the duties district and school leaders have, it is difficult to nurture the types of relationships which will be most advantageous. Some schools have found it advantageous to hire full-time coaches, or partner with knowledgeable outside organizations to help.
Trait #4: Builds Over Time
A successful trait of Professional Learning is that it builds over time. Educational leaders achieve this best when they create opportunities for follow-up, and when PLCs are established and have opportunities to create a culture of cooperative learning outside of the session.
Professional Learning often seems to occur within a vacuum. The session happens once, and then never spoken of again. Thomas Guskey and Kwang Suk Yoon analyzed numerous studies and identified that every study found positive correlation between the amount of follow-up to Professional Learning sessions and student achievement.7 This type of follow-up allows teachers the ability to track data over time, and work on skills in meaningful ways. To maximize the effectiveness of Professional Learning Educational leaders should schedule follow-up sessions that re-examine the practices and skills from previous sessions.
This follow-up doesn’t have to occur in large groups. Rely upon the PLCs. These groups provide greater opportunities for teachers to work together with their peers. Educational leaders will see Professional Learning sessions having a greater impact when they spend more time establishing a culture of cooperative learning rather that extends beyond a single session than compiling last-minute slides on relevant topics for podium-delivered Professional Learning.8 Whenever possible, Professional Learning opportunities should occur over a span of a semester, a school year, or beyond, and be focused on the implementation of new learning. Professional Learning sessions that build over time have an overwhelmingly higher impact than a traditional “sit and get” method of learning.9
Trait #5: Designed for Professionals
The BCG study found that teachers often feel demeaned in Professional Learning They leave after having been “treated like children.”10 Good-meaning presenters can inadvertently conduct a Professional Learning in which the faculty are not treated in a way that honors their experience, knowledge, and position. This happens easily, often, and mostly occurs when the presenter begins to extrapolate solutions form disparate situations. Like an overbearing second uncle you only see at reunions who has the solution to everything from your commute time to the health care system. This poorly-conceived advice is rarely ever correct, often misplaced, almost always unwanted, and ignorant of the situation. To avoid this pitfall, or to counteract it, Professional Learning presenters should ensure that
- Teachers’ time is respected
- Agendas are used, and followed
- Objectives are clear, and are relevant within the classroom setting
In addition to these guidelines, Professional Learning should be designed with teachers. Allow the teacher—who is with the students all day, has the best insight into their needs, and is most familiar with their specific content—to act as partners in determining what would be most beneficial in their situation.
Hopefully, something about these five traits is surprising. Hopefully, some voice inside our head says, “Well this is exactly what I would expect out of professional learning for myself.” These five traits show that the Professional Learning can be fixed easily. Creating Professional Learning that is relevant, interactive, and contiguous might require educational leaders in schools and districts to shift how they approach their planning. But fortunately, it opens up opportunities for educational leaders to include teachers in more ways, from developing and designing to actually presenting.
Alan’s New Professional Learning
After Alan’s unsuccessful Professional Learning session, he decides to do some self-reflection to make sure he never runs into this problem again. Reflecting on what worked, and more importantly, what didn’t, Alan sets out to create a plan for his next Professional Learning session that is more closely aligned with what teachers need and want. Alan begins by asking different principals to survey their PLC teams to identify what supports they feel they need to implement their school improvement plans. When the data comes back, Alan finds that several PLCs identified similar needs. Alan invites a colleague from a neighboring district with expertise to present a portion of the Professional Learning. With several teachers, Alan helps design time for collaboration and ongoing learning after the session and honors the teachers as lead learners. Once his plan is on paper, Alan reviews it to ensure that the activities are highly engaging and relevant to all participants.
Effective Professional Learning is within the realm of possibility for most schools. Begin by speaking with the teachers and find out what they most need in their classroom. Not only will that make the Professional Learning relevant, but it also contributes to the sense that the teachers are professionals. Additionally, the need they identify will most likely not be something that can be resolved immediately. This creates opportunities to conduct multiple Professional Learning sessions. Next, identify how the identified need is going to be measured, and how to best practice in a context outside of the classroom. These are easily accomplished tasks that will transform the efficacy of your Professional Learning. Lastly, identify who is going to help lead the sessions. The ideal candidate might be a teacher on your staff, or a team of teachers from a neighboring school. Or maybe your staff would prefer to have a more objective presence. Identify that person or group that best meets the needs of the school, and invite them to join in the Professional Learning development and delivery.