What Should Professional Learning for Educators Look Like?

Teachers are really busy people. I would say that 90% of their time if not more is taken up with teaching their students, duty, marking, reporting and following up with parents. Every teacher could add to this very basic list, but I would imagine that most would agree that they have very little spare time.

If you add to this the really important time teachers need to regenerate and connect with their families and the outside world, the amount of time teachers actually have to work on honing their professional skills is very low.

Still, teachers are very engaged in professional development and they are as a group, very motivated to learn new ways to engage and educate their students.

All this leads me to one important conclusion – how can we provide teachers with valuable PD. Teachers’ time is precious and we should never waste it with useless or irrelevant PD. Sadly, from what I have experienced, the sessions planned by education districts often fall into the category of irrelevant.

The reason for this is that there is little teacher choice involved in our PD models. Inevitably, consultants and other board officials make the decisions on what is essential for teachers to learn without asking the learners. When these decisions are made centrally, there is no teacher voice evident.

Within schools, teacher voice is still missing. Many principals seem to believe that they must be the arbiters of what is important for teachers to learn. The principal may not have taught in a classroom for years, but somehow they are experts on what a teacher needs to know.

This system needs to be turned on its head ie. teachers need to be asked what they need. Another thing we increasingly tell teachers is that to be a valued professional, they need to blog or tweet about what they do in their classroom. Again, another assumption made about time and individual preference. Not everyone needs to get on Twitter or start madly blogging. While this appeals to some educators, this needs to remain their choice. If it is imposed on them it falls into the same category as district-mandated professional training.

Choice needs to come first. Along with choice must come time. If we really believe that teachers are capable of making good decisions on what they need to learn, we must give them time during the school day to do this learning.

This can be done, but others have to become comfortable with giving up control. Once educators are given time and choice they make excellent decisions on what they need to focus on.

We have done this several times and the results have been great. Teachers are very happy to work with their colleagues and set their own professional agendas. Sadly, many say they have never been given the chance to do this before.

At one school, we ran a triad system where teachers from three schools worked together deciding who they were going to work with and what would be the focus of their study. As principals, we did ask them to have a plan and to report back to the group, but the rest was up to them. The results were wonderful. Teachers came up with their own inquiries and studied questions that we as principals would never have come up with.

Michael Fullan has done some work in this area, but it doesn’t seem to go far enough. In his video Learning is the Work below does mention that the ‘culture’ of learning has to change, but I never really saw this happen for teachers and I certainly never saw any change in how PD was delivered to principals.

The wonderful Ontario Capacity-Building Series has featured articles on choice in professional learning for years. In 2014, they published an article on principal collaborative inquiry. In 2010, they produced an excellent article on teacher collaborative inquiry that actually outlines the seven characteristics of effective teacher inquiry. Finally, again in 2014, an additional article was published on collaborative inquiry for educators. The article emphasized that everyone should be a learner and that the top-down model of PD was not effective.

CI (Collaborative Inquiry) requires a safe, inclusive environment built on trusting relationships. An open-to-learning stance is a condition of a collaborative learning environment. A culture of inclusivity must be part of the CI mindset when interpreting evidence and studying the student experience. CI promotes a democratic approach to shared leadership and joint responsibility (distributive leadership) for student learning.

To me, the key word here is democratic. This I don’t see. I do see teachers collaborating (not admin), but they still are not in charge of the inquiry – the focus is still carefully guarded by the district.

Both Fullan and the writers of the 2014 piece talk a lot about a change in culture. I agree that this is certainly needed in education. However, until there is true respect for the voice of the teacher in crafting professional development any talk of real cultural change is mute.

10 thoughts on “What Should Professional Learning for Educators Look Like?

  1. Lisa Corbett

    Interesting. I used to think that all PD should be teacher directed, but then I spent some time with some teachers who weren’t interested in PD. I have, for a long time, pursued my own PD. I have taken lots of AQ courses. I have also discovered the value of free PD through Twitter chats, and online bookclubs. I love face-to-face PD sessions! I don’t feel like I have ever had my time wasted, except the time we learned about homelessness is not a problem in our city. (My husband was working on his Master’s in Social Work at the time and I knew otherwise!) Like you, I think the best PD for me has been the stuff that I have had a say in. When my colleagues and I can direct our learning, or when we arrive at a day without a written-in-stone agenda, I feel like I learn more!

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  2. Thanks for commenting Lisa. Very good to hear that your PD has been self-directed. I think you are very motivated and that is great to read about. I do think we need a cultural change where teachers are treated as real professionals and stay in control of their own learning. My experience as an administrator is that much of our PD is directed by others – we learn that this is the way and then we impose this on our teachers. That should not happen.

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  3. mmeroweteaching

    Hi, Paul! I think that teachers often know what they need to learn more about to better facilitate their students’ learning. Requiring teachers to attend PD sessions that don’t result in valuable learning that can be implemented in their classrooms does seem like a huge waste of time. Being a teacher candidate, I haven’t had the opportunity to participate in very many PD events, but I have experienced the feeling of jumping through mandatory PD hoops without learning anything that applies to my teaching philosophy or my subject. There have been several events where I could choose which session to attend from a list, which provided me with some choice (even if the ended up to be misleading). Did you check out the M.A.D P.D event that took place last weekend? Is was an online PD event with over 60 speakers from all over North America. The sessions were hosted over YouTube live, and participants could drop into the presentation at any time to contribute. It was great because it could be done from home, you could jump between sessions or you could watch the presentations later. I like the idea of directing your own learning in PD, but I don’t know what I don’t know (ya know?). Do you think it’s more difficult to be introduced to a new idea, tool or strategy if teachers direct their own PD?

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    1. No, I don’t think it is hard to be introduced a new tool if PD is self-directed. Most of the useful things I have learned have been through self-direct PD. This should include conferences that I have chosen to go to and edcamps. There are a number of very effective ways to direct your own learning and I think we should always take advantage to these when they come up. I took part in MADPD last weekend. I thought this was a really good way to offer PD to teachers, I just wish there had been more participants. This is where conferences may still win out. You need to make a time and financial commitment when you go to a conference and therefore you tend to get more buy-in. Flipping from session to session on Youtube may not lead to any significant increase in the knowledge base of the participant.

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  4. Kaarina McLaughlin

    I agree, Paul and Lisa! I find my best P.D. experiences are self-directed. I especially enjoy when I can do them at my own pace. I have been involved a few different ones this school year and as a result of the positive effect that they have had on me, I have decided to try out genius hour next year. I have learned a lot this year when I am choosing the opportunities that I feel will be valuable and add to my teaching. I can now see why a genius hour would have a similar effect on students. However, like Lisa, I have also enjoyed most P.D. opportunities offered to me. Ok, maybe that is being slightly too generous. I haven’t enjoyed them all but I always try to take something away from each one. It may be something new I want to try, something I want to learn more about, or something that I know that I will never do! I hope that P.D. during school hours will become more self-directed but, until it does, I will keep my “take one thing away” philosophy!

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  5. Asima Vezina

    Hi Paul et al,
    Enjoyed reading the blog and the responses it generated. As we think about professional learning for educators (I use this term to be inclusive of everyone in education ECEs, EAs, teachers, principals, system leaders, parents, students etc), I agree – learning, is always a much richer experience when it is tied to the individual’s interest and current need.

    A question I am pondering as I read through the blog and the responses to the blog is as follows: how might we adopt a stronger stance around surfacing ‘our’ learning needs from the ongoing student assessment data in the classroom/school/ or system? E.g. if significant numbers of students are struggling to decompose and recompose number throughout a division in a school, what might be surfacing in terms of a professional learning need for the educators in that particular set of classrooms? Sometimes, what I have noticed is that when we leave this piece out…..we have a whole lot of learning going on but not a lot is changing for the students in the classrooms. As an addition to earlier thoughts in this blog, I add the following for contemplation – How can we support educators to examine student assessment data on an ongoing basis and to use that student data to drive their own professional learning and changes to classroom practice – which in essence, if research based, will lead to improved learning outcomes for students? I should qualify this statement by saying….I don’t think ALL educator learning needs to be tied to the student data….but I do think classroom teachers, principals, system need to have this as a key piece of the professional learning planning.

    On a related note, as we work through this ‘notabookstudy’ approach/structure… I find myself (as a system leader) in a new and exciting place in my thinking around professional learning structures…

    As we experience notabookstudy….I hope others will see an opportunity here for systems to be creative and innovative and to think in new ways – using collaborative technologies (such as those being used in the structure of the notabookstudy) to increase educator access to researchers, expertise, resources… to support educators (en masse) to design their own quality learning opportunities/experiences (access to expertise, research, other educators studying the same area)? While we are scratching the surface with the notabookstudy and other learning structures emerging in the province and quite frankly – in the world…..I believe there is significant potential to enhance educator learning opportunities across our sector -very exciting.

    Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the ideas in the blog and to contribute some thinking….I look forward to the continued conversation.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Asima. This is a great question: “How can we support educators to examine student assessment data on an ongoing basis and to use that student data to drive their own professional learning and changes to classroom practice – which in essence, if research based, will lead to improved learning outcomes for students?”

      There is always just so much you can get in one blog post. One point that I did not emphasize is teacher research. For really effective teacher inquiry to take place, teachers need to base their inquiry on what they see as the learning needs of their particular group of students. What I found while observing the teacher triads was that educators had a very good idea of the learning needs of their students. This may have happened simply through observation in combination with on-going assessment. The particular triad of teachers then agreed on what conclusions their observations were showing them. Then, and only then did they develop an inquiry question. For example, one group of junior math teachers decided, based on observations and data that their students had a poor understanding of the concept of zero. They then developed an inquiry to assist students develop a better understanding of this concept. This process might seem pretty slow – this inquiry took several months of conclude, but it was certainly authentic and it had total teacher buy in as they had done the real work. I think we need to do more of this teacher-directed work and trust our teachers and administrators to come up with processes that put educators in the driving seat when it comes to professional development.

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  6. htheijsmeijer

    I think you hit the nail right on the head (or in this case, many nails right on the head!). Having been in a co-ordinator role this year, I’m seeing first hand that the best learning a teacher can do is the learning they WANT to do. The same can also be said of students! 🙂

    We have done a lot of work with collaborative inquiries for the first time this year, looking at how teachers not only plan and act, but also assess and reflect on their practices, the latter two tending to be newer processes. There is no one right way to do this (ie. blogging, twitter that you mention), but the sharing & celebrating is important. I’m still wrapping my head around the best way to approach this with teachers who are unused to having others see what they’re up to.

    I wonder how we better balance addressing the greatest teacher learning need (as you mentioned), with the greatest student learning need? Or are the two often intertwined?

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

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  7. Hi Paul;

    Thanks so much for sharing your thinking about professional learning, especially since you have been in the role of a learning leader in a school.

    Much has already been said, soI want to focus here on a stance to learning, the idea of “content delivery’. Once, this was the pervasive way we thought about learning in the system. Teachers prepared content and planned carefully it’s delivery to students. Principals planned “PD Delivery” to teachers.

    But as we rethink this, we are working to move from a culture where learning is provided to a culture where learning is sought – at all levels.

    This takes time. We have, in many cases, “trained” kids to think of school as a place where they sit and get, and we have “trained” teachers to spend many of those precious hours preparing that content to be delivered (see ‘Teach Less Learn More here: https://fryed.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/learning-from-singapore-pak-tee-ng-and-the-focus-on-teach-less-learn-more/). Then, teachers often expect their PD to be similarly delivered to them!

    As we instead begin to own our learning, we must also develop the skills to critically think about the VALUE of the learning we engage in. There is a lot of fluff online. I see “activities” promoted endlessly by social-media-savvy self-promoting educators whose long range plans consist of nothing but the high-profile opportunities to sign their class up for and get themselves noticed. Learning and individual student learning needs are conspicuously absent.

    The content-delivery PD, then, might be more about developing educator digital literacies, specifically critical thinking about what is worth learning online.

    As well, we have to consider that none of us know what we don’t know. As an educator, I would have wanted to learn about better ways to make algorithms stick, having no idea about the importance of students developing their own understanding of number sense, had I not started #notabookstudy. Education leaders have to ensure that precious educator time is spent learning what kids need most.

    Similarly, as educators, we have to give agency to our classroom learners and help them learn to distinguish truth from fiction, marketing and identity tracking.

    It’s a big shift, and it requires that digital literacies are valued in the leadership and educator toolkits. We are a ways from this yet, but as more valuable learning opportunities are provided online, the work we did in #ossemooc will come to be understood as essential to allowing educators to own that learning and to access the learning they need to ensure the best learning for our students.

    Keep thinking and sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Donna, lots to think about.
      This comment made me think: The content-delivery PD, then, might be more about developing educator digital literacies, specifically critical thinking about what is worth learning online.

      How specifically do we do this? While I worked hard to give educators in my school choice and time to learn on their own, to be honest, I believe much of the process was still directed by me as principal.
      How do we develop educator digital literacy and really give them ownership of the learning? Is it a matter of giving educators excellent learning tools? Should we be developing new learning models that give more choice to develop digital literacy? I am not sure but I would like to explore this topic.
      I agree with your comments regarding ‘fluff activities’. These are everywhere and we need to get better at discerning what is valuable and what is simply self-promotion. We have examples of really valuable learning experiences like #ossemooc and #notabookstudy – we need more authentic learning experiences and less fluff and of course, less sit and get.

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