There is no paucity of articles bemoaning the state of professional learning and providing suggestions as to what to do about this. I have been collecting articles about this since I began the draft version of this post back in August.
Doug Peterson’s post, “Thinking about Professional Learning”, based on Tom Whitby’s post, “Poor Teachers, Who is to Blame”.
Katie Martin’s post, Re-envisioning how teachers learn and two posts by EdSurge about personalized learning for PD. Part 1 and Part 2
Mark E. Weston’s post, Flip the Switch for Professional Learning and Professional Development vs Professional Learning by George Couros.
These are all great reads about the need to personalize learning for teachers. My reflection here provides insight into the models which I have had the privilege to lead and that I believe have been very effective for us in our District.
One of the key components in all of these is that professional learning opportunities I have led are voluntary in that teachers choose to participate.
Many Districts in Ontario have been employing this method of professional development for several years now. The point of a Collaborative Inquiry (CI) is not to come to a session where a District leader gives you a mass of strategies to go and try and then you are on your own. It is a learning process which involves trial and error, co-learning, co-assessing, and reflecting. It is iterative and requires a sustained commitment to meeting regularly. At the end of the inquiry, there are no golden answers, but a better understanding of how to approach a student need.
The basic components of this model of professional learning include:
- developing an inquiry focus to address a student need based on data (including standardized test scores, student work, and observations/anectdotal information)
- unpacking assumptions (both teacher and student)
- experiencing strategies and protocols rather than just presenting them and thinking about what these look like in the context of the student need
- determining and/or developing resources needed
- selecting two or three students to observe closely over the course of the CI
- co-planning, co-teaching, co-debriefing
- observation of student learning in the classroom
- reflection and refocus based on student learning and feedback
For example, a Collaborative Inquiry I ran last year asked the question, “If we give students greater opportunities to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning will they become more self-directed learners?” The question came from a desire for English teachers in my District to address the “Reflecting on Skills” strand in their Curriculum expectations.
And though our journey began with this very broad and lofty question, when we reflected on student work and listened to student feedback we realized we needed to reassess our direction and focus on something more specific: we decided on metacognitive strategies with reading as we noticed this to be the more student urgent need. In the end, the students involved in the inquiry did see a value in metacognitive reflection before, during, & after reading, and became better at planning, monitoring, evaluating their own learning. The teachers with whom I worked felt they had more strategies to address metacognition, and we all came to a better understanding of what metacognition looked like in a high school English classroom.
The Learning Series model is a solution to the one-off PD session which we all know does not work, but is less intensive than the Collaborative Inquiry model (which is fairly time intensive as it requires co-planning, co-teaching, and co-debriefing and ideally works better with a smaller group of teachers). A Learning Series model allows for teachers to come together to address a specific student learning need and meet regularly to address it.
This model includes the following elements:
- establishing Norms for working and learning together to create a risk-free environment
- community building activities and opportunities for sharing and asking questions
- selecting two students of “interest” to pay particular attention to as we move through the learning series
- experiencing a variety of strategies and protocols and brainstorming ideas for how to best incorporate these into the classroom
- trying it out–teachers go back and try the lesson, idea, or strategy/protocol in their class; co-teaching is voluntary
- collaborative assessment of student learning and conversations about next steps
- hands-on integration of technology in the context of the student learning need
- regular assessment of whether or not the series is meeting the needs of learners a re-focus as necessary
- participants (the same group) meets about five times over the course of the school year
- culminates in sharing and celebrating
My Learning Series this year is focused on Reading in the 21st Century. This particular series is also concerned with meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities, so we went through similulations in order to better understand what accommodations need to look like to support those students. Though I do provide the framework for the sessions, these are guidelines only and the sessions themselves are participatory and hands on. If we need to spend more time on one idea, rather than move onto another, then that is what we do. The time spent in community building means that teachers feel comfortable challenging one another (and me), and asking questions.
Last Spring, our elementary Curriculum team (led by Sonia Racco, Annette D’Addese, Yvette Sztorc, and Simone Kennedy) created a professional learning opportunity in the form of Inquiry Carousels as the culmination of some of the Collaborative Inquiries they ran. What did this look like? Essentially teachers who were involved in the CI’s, set up stations and shared their learning journeys including artefacts of student work. Participants (Teachers K-12) were invited to visit each station for sharing and asking questions. It was a great consolidation and sharing opportunity for teachers who had engaged in the Collaborative Inquiry throughout the year, and an engaging experience for people who had never been a part of a CI, but who were interested in learning more about Inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. Most people left saying it was one of the best sessions they had attended. It was organic, fluid, and very learner-centered.
Student Learning Proposals
Our District allots a budget for teachers who are interested in pursuing their own professional learning needs to submit a proposal for teacher-release time. In this model, a Curriculum consultant or program resource teacher’s support may be requested if needed. Primarily the learning happens at the school level and is driven by a community of learners interested in pursuing a common problem of practice.
When one-offs are inevitable
A few weeks ago, my colleague Gina Micomonaco and I had to run a session on Assessment for our NTIP (new teacher) program: A one-off and NOT voluntary like the other opportunities listed here. With only 2 hours and an after lunch time slot, the easiest thing to do would have been to engage in the presentation model with occasional opportunities to “turn and talk” with a partner. We opted for a more constructivist approach. We gave each group a different artefact (student work, an assessment tool, etc…), a copy of Growing Success (our Assesment and Evaluation guidelines for Ontario), and guiding questions about Assessement FOR, AS, and OF learning. The result? Almost the entire session was spent discussing the nuances of assessement in small groups in ways we would never have been able to achieve by presenting information at the front of the room. We strategically and intentionally modeled what learner-centered instruction could look like, even in a very content-driven context and though there were still questions at the end of it, their feedback indicated that they really had a better understanding of assessment by the end.
EdCamps and District-Level Conferences
Let’s face it, the average teacher is not afforded the luxury of attending a conference–it’s just too cost-prohibiitive. So it is incumbent upon District leaders to provide opportunities to teachers to attend an EdCamp and/or an in-house conference, free of charge which is modelled after some of the bigger conference experiences. Teachers can choose sessions that will help them to learn and grow and are provided with the opportunity to network and share beyond the walls of their own classrooms and schools. Best of all, our sessions are facilitated by our own teacher leaders which ultimately buids the capacity of our own talented teachers.
Elements of this model that have worked for us:
- Lead learners from throughout the District facilitate sessions based on successful classroom practices.
- Ignite sessions (by both teachers and students) which provide just the right amount of ideas and motivation.
- Lots of opportunities for hands-on sessions where participants are doing rather than listening, blended with opportunities to pose questions and have discussions about topics that are important to them.
- Providing food and prizes and not charging our teachers to attend
- providing a back-channel for feedback and questions
Is all of the Professional Learning offered by our District this personalized? Of course not. But these are some concrete examples of professional learning opportunities that have worked and that we continue to model as we move towards more learner-centered and participant driven approaches.
This post by Dean Shareski, Professional learning is messy is an interesting read on the topic and suggests that job-embedded practices are top-down, which they can be. It’s worth a read.
What are some of the examples of professional learning models that have really worked for you in your District? What has the best learning looked like for you? Please share!