Let’s be honest: PD isn’t what it could be.
I’m preparing for a presentation I’ll be giving at the EARCOS conference in Bangkok next week, and the driving force behind my planning was the question: What can teachers take away that is immediately helpful, practical, and concrete so that they can go use it?
I wish more professional development was designed this way. While I would thoroughly enjoy an witty, inspirational talk by the likes of Sir Ken Robinson for a PD day, the truth is I’m likely to get less out of that than out of a unknown teacher who comes in with a presentation that says: here is a great idea, here is exactly how to use it in your classroom, and here are the answers to all the challenges you might face in doing so.
Most of the PD I have attended over the past decade falls into two strands: cool, big-name speakers or admin-driven curricular projects.
The first is often very interesting — it gets people thinking and talking, but that’s it. There is nothing actually done with that interesting information we learned. So if we are lucky enough to see Sir Ken lament the death of creativity in schools and extol the virtues of creative thinking, we will likely find ourselves nodding in agreement, feeling quite personally moved by how he has his finger on the problem — a problem we see in our classrooms every day. But then the pragmatic pedagogue in me says, “But Sir Ken, what is the solution?” This is where the PD seems to end. I’ve never been involved in professional development that really tackled solutions, at least not in a profound way. “We are moving to block schedules, so here is a presentation on block scheduling and the issues you may face next year.” OK. That was informative. We disperse and are meant to think about that information and those challenges, think through some of the ways we might have to adjust our teaching, and maybe we discuss it as an afterthought in a department meeting. But after PD that involves an outside speaker or a big, new initiative, why can’t there be a multi-faceted and thorough follow-up from the top down?
Imagine an approach that has the block schedule speaker come, then has faculty brainstorm and narrow down the 3 – 5 biggest concerns or challenges to the change in schedule. Then the faculty is broken into logically-sorted groups and tasked with coming up with as many solutions or work-arounds to the challenges as they can. These are shared in subsequent faculty meetings. Let’s say one of the concerns for block scheduling is that language and math teachers worry that longer blocks every other day is less conducive to learning their subjects; these teachers worry they won’t be able to cover as much without marching through the text and that the longer classes will result in student boredom. The job, then, is to devise concrete solutions to this problem. Admin says come back with solutions to these next meeting. So groups of teachers go off and creatively try to solve this problem. They might contact other schools that have already moved to block scheduling to survey them on how they might have successfully tackled this. They might brainstorm among themselves that they will break every block class into two halves: content delivery and synthesis/transfer, so that each language teacher commits to using half of the period for content learning (vital to language learning) and the other half for writing and acting short plays involving the new content. They would then share all of their suggestions with the larger faculty in subsequent PD, which inspires new debate and discussion. Admin might then say, alright, for PD next time, each department together, please design a block-schedule class in your discipline or grade level, and one teacher will teach that class to a smattering of other disciplines’ teachers during the next PD session. After every teacher sees or teaches one of these block classes, then everyone will give feedback on what they’ve learned. In subsequent PD sessions, teachers will compare challenges and surprises, and address possible solutions to them.
Can you imagine if that is what PD looked like for every big initiative or guest speaker? Imagine just how challenging, practical, and helpful that would be to all the teachers if the PD process were that ongoing, collaborative and profound. Yes, it would be a lot of work, but not busy work. This would be getting-your-hands-dirty-for-a-reason work. And isn’t that the best kind? In short, it would truly be professional development. Too often an outsider is brought in, often at great expense, and there is no follow-through at all, and almost never with real faculty involvement. This is a mistake. Any initiative worth implementing is worth doing well. And notice that there is no further financial commitment to this kind of approach — just a commitment from the top right on down that this is something we are all going to solve together, as opposed to merely highlighting problems and talking about them enthusiastically. We can often get bogged down in problems in education, but we too rarely practice problem-solving in a committed way.
The second kind of PD is the curricular initiative — introducing student portfolios, designing an MYP curriculum that aligns, devising a common assessment across grade levels and group grading them. These are great and worthwhile initiatives, of course, but they often suffer from a lack of backwards thinking. Why are we doing these initiatives in the first place? Admin often takes for granted that everyone on staff knows and understands the answer to that question. Take student portfolios, and ask the question first to all the faculty: “Why do we want our students to have portfolios?” The answers will come rolling in: to keep a record of all assessments and growth; to help teachers assess that progress and growth, to show parents that growth; so students can learn to self-asses their own growth; to aid in the possible implementation of student-led conferences; as models for teachers to showcase the varied ability in a given grade or class; etc. etc. The brainstorm alone helps get everyone to see the benefits of such an initiative without assuming that they already know them all (they don’t). But the brainstorm alone isn’t enough; it would be helpful to work backwards from the question: “What does a great portfolio look like and how can it help my student?” Asking teachers to devise answers to these questions would be much more conducive to professional development than merely saying: “Here are all the reasons why portfolios are great. Please do them.” Or, far worse, no explanation at all of why, and just: “Do them.”
I will confess that the single most helpful PD I have ever had is what I call “stealing tricks.” It’s the speaker who comes in and says, specific to your age level and discipline, “Here’s what works, here’s how to do it, now go ahead and do it.” I’m talking about the nitty-gritty details. Ten years ago we had a brain-based learning speaker at one of the schools I used to work at and I don’t remember a thing he told us about the brain. But I vividly remember an activity he asked us to do, which was to break into small groups, decide on a fairy tale that we all knew, and re-write it using certain rules. One group’s rule was to not use any nouns. Another group couldn’t repeat any words at all. Another group couldn’t use verbs. It was a very specific activity that was highly engaging and funny, but it addressed certain skills that were relevant to my discipline (parts of speech practice, avoiding repetition in writing, the art vs. science of communication). I have used it, and my own iterations, many times over the years, and always with great success. It was useful because it was practical and immediate — a trick I could steal.
Here is my PD fantasy: that the majority of PD schools spend their time on is not about initiatives or speakers at all, but about the capital right in the building: its faculty. Watching other teachers teach has been far and away the very best PD I have ever, ever received. I think it’s hugely underrated in terms of benefit (not to mention cost benefit!). In Models by Design, an approach I’m designing that uses models to enhance teaching and learning, one of the key “models” is our own colleagues. They are a wealth of PD right next door, and we almost never knock to go in and see. Why not?
So here are two conrete, pragmatic, and immediate suggestions for PD over a school year:
1. Teachers pair up with at least one other teacher in their discipline or grade level and they agree to observe each other in class a minimum of five times throughout one school year. Each time, the observer will take notes and afterward share informal feedback. This can be kept between the teachers and doesn’t need to be reported to admin, but it would be helpful to fill out a self-assessment form at the year’s end that asks each teacher to state what he or she has learned, if anything, from watching his or her partner and from the partner’s feedback. In addition, it would be ideal if each teacher could be paired with a teacher outside his age group or discipline as well (a first-grade teacher with a sixth-grade one; an AP math teacher and a grade nine English teacher) and do the same observation at least twice a year, also with feedback. It’s absolutely amazing how much we can learn when we get outside our classroom bubble, especially in a discipline that is unfamiliar to us. Some of the best feedback I ever received was from a colleague when she and I were paired up in this way. PD time that is built into the week could be used for feedback between pairs and the year-end self-assessment so that teachers feel that this is a priority for them and the administration — they aren’t asked to do this all on their own time.
2. Institute three PD days a year called Teachers Teaching Teachers for which each teacher will have to teach a forty-five minute class on something relevant to other teachers– How they have used technology in a new or useful way in their classroom; how they devised a new approach to assessment and how it’s working; or how they use Essential Questions in their teaching. Each teacher would do one of these a year and are audience members for the other two days when they aren’t presenting. This is the fastest, cheapest, and most effective way to spread good ideas and best practice in a school. It’s a great use of PD. I can’t understand why not every school does it. And, in addition, I imagine a similar exercise that is slightly different: a day in which teachers teach a class that is related to his/her discipline but of his/her choosing. The physics teacher might do a “Physics for Dummies” session; the grade 1 teacher might do a class on the life cycle of butterflies; the Spanish teacher might do a lesson on the poetry of Pablo Neruda; the PE teacher a yoga class. The main objective of this kind of session is not to spread best practice or good ideas, per se, but to give and get feedback on how effective and engaging you can be in your teaching. I, personally, would really try to up my game for a discerning teacher audience and think carefully about how best to engage them; this could start many conversations about how well we do this with our students. It’s also just a cool way to see another side of our colleagues — their passions with regard to their discipline — and how we might better tap that passion in our daily teaching.
Ultimately, the test of PD should not be whether or not we all sat through something for the allotted amount of time; all too often, this is the only criteria for PD. The better use of that time and money is to work backwards, to make it deep and ongoing, and to tap into the biggest resource we have already, our own experts.