Well-designed professional development solves problems

Dennis Sparks

“I hope I die during an inservice because the transition between life and death would be so subtle.” Unfortunately, that old joke can bring as appreciative a laugh among teachers today as when I first heard it several decades ago.

Professional development is viewed by many educators as demeaning and irrelevant, an obligation that has to be endured if it cannot be avoided. It is perceived as a problem in itself rather than a problem-solving tool, and rightly so given the negative experiences of many educators.

As a result, some critics propose eliminating professional development, at least the “one size fits all” variety that is often the source of so much frustration. To that end they propose differentiating professional development with each teacher independently pursuing his or her own unique learning goals.

But many important schoolwide, grade level, or department goals related to student academic success and their emotional and social well-being can only be achieved through well planned and implemented team-based professional development that occurs within schools.

One of a leader’s most significant and demanding responsibilities is to create consensus in the school community regarding meaningful, stretching goals and the means that will be used to achieve those ends. Put another way, leaders assist the school community in a never-ending cycle of identifying and solving increasingly complex problems, problems that can only be solved through professional learning and teamwork.

The real solution to the problem of low-quality professional development, then, is not to eliminate it but to make certain professional development is well designed and well implemented so that it enables individuals, teams, and the school community as a whole to achieve their most important goals and to solve problems that are unique to their settings.

How do you see it: Is professional development itself the problem or is it an essential part of the solution?

Why doesn’t professional development improve?

Dennis Sparks

During the four decades that I have been involved in the field of professional development my aspiration was that every teacher and principal in every school would learn every day from their colleagues, students, and supervisors.

I wasn’t thinking of the kind of professional development in which an “expert” speaks to teachers, although that might have been a small part of it, but the kind of rich professional learning that arises from the close observation of students, meaningful collaboration with colleagues, and deep, sustained evidence-based conversations about important subjects.

Unfortunately, as I have listened to successive generations of teachers and administrators complain about the poor quality of their “inservice” experiences it is clear that we remain a long way from achieving that goal.

For 40 years I have attended dozens of local, state, and national meetings in which solutions to this problem were sought. But in spite of those good intentions the quality of professional development remains at an unacceptably low level as it is implemented in the vast majority of schools and school systems.

There are exceptions, of course. Some schools are exemplars of high-quality professional learning and teamwork, but they remain the exceptions rather than the rule.

While barriers such as lack of time and other resources are often cited as problems, I think there are four deeper, more fundamental explanations for why professional development has not fulfilled its essential role in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning:

1. Some leaders’ have antiquated “mental models” regarding learning and change that impede progress.

• Some leaders, for example, believe that teaching is “telling” and that leading is “directing.” Therefore, “good” professional development, they believe, only requires a “speaker” who tells teachers what to do.

• Or, some leaders believe that the best way to improve teaching is through a combination of fear and incentives.  As a result, they use various carrots and sticks to “motivate” teachers. “Inservice” provided by motivational speakers often appeals to these leaders.

2. Some leaders don’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of the attributes of high-quality professional learning nor a carefully crafted “theory of action.”

• Administrators and teacher leaders often replicate the past because it is difficult for them to create what they’ve never experienced.

• Some leaders have not done the deep analysis required to create a “theory of action” that explains the steps that will be taken to achieve important goals and the assumptions behind those actions that lead leaders to believe they will produce the desired outcome. Without such an analysis continuous improvement efforts typically fail.

3. Some leaders are resigned to the status quo.

• Some leaders believe that they have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning in their schools.

• Some leaders believe that teachers’ engagement in meaningful professional development is someone else’s responsibility and that nothing can be done until those people assume their responsibility.

4. Some leaders lack the will and/or skill to engage in the challenging conversations that are almost always required to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Leaders are often reluctant to engage in such conversations because they:

• fear conflict,

• have a strong desire to be liked by others, and/or

• lack skill and experience in engaging in such conversations.

Do you agree that professional development for most teachers continues to be of low quality? 

If so, do you agree that these are the primary leadership barriers to significant improvement, or do you have others to suggest?

Leaders write to learn

Dennis Sparks I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another—by reasoning my way in sequential steps to its meaning. I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document—a letter for instance—has clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process. —William Zinsser

Writing is a potent and underused learning tool that provides a method for leaders to acquire a deeper understanding of important subjects and to give shape to their ideas.

Because writing is “frozen thought,” it enables leaders to examine the clarity and logical consistency of their thinking and reveals areas for further exploration and learning.

Writing can also help busy leaders separate the essential from the nonessential.

Today I will use writing to teach myself about a subject of importance and to clarify the next actions I may take related to that subject.

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership, my most recent book, published by Solution Tree.]

 

Do the best that you can…

Dennis Sparks

“Do the best you can with what you have where you are right now,” a large poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom said.

Whenever a teacher-dependent student required it, the teacher would point to the sign as a reminder to consult the student’s notes, text materials, and/or other students as initial steps in finding an answer to his or her question.

I have often cited this poster as a succinct but powerful philosophy of life, a reminder that we already possess the knowledge and resources to live a richer life.

But as I have thought more about this “philosophy” over the intervening decades, I have realized that there are times when it is important to change what we have (for instance, our belief system or professional understanding), the relationships with which we surround ourselves, and/or where we are (for instance, the job we have) to improve the quality of our lives.

Put another way, we need not be resigned to “what is” when seeking solutions to important problems or in achieving significant goals.

We can learn new ways of thinking and acting, we can form supportive relationships, and we can change the path upon which we are walking.

So, in this moment do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now.

But if this is not creating in the long term the work or life you want, you need not be resigned to the status quo. All of us have options….

The power of stories to influence

Dennis Sparks

Here are three things I think are true.

1. Human beings like stories and are often profoundly affected by them.

2. When school leaders attempt to influence others they almost always rely on “facts” to change minds.

3. A well-told story or two can be more influential than a tall pile of research reports or an endless procession of PowerPoint slides. (That does not mean, of course, that professional literature cannot be influential when judiciously used.)

Here are some examples of stories that can be influential:

• a story about a student who learned something because of a new teaching method he or she was previously unable to grasp,

• a teacher who had reservations about a new practice, experimented with it in her classroom, and is now enthusiastic about its benefits for students,

• a personal story about learning something important and challenging, a story in which you move from initial resistance to experimentation to mastery, and/or

• a time during which you struggled and failed to learn something and the lessons you drew from the experience.

While personal stories are usually more effective, generic stories can sometimes be useful in making an important point.

Here’s an example provided by Lolly Daskal, the details of which could be tailored to fit many circumstances.

What kinds of stories do you find most effective in influencing students, colleagues, and supervisors?

We are introverts…

Dennis Sparks

We are anti-social. We are “in a shell.” We are shy, withdrawn, and may even have social phobias. At least that’s what others often think of us.

Who are “we?”

We are introverts, and according to various estimates we compose one-third to one-half of the population. (When I ask educators in various groups how many of them consider themselves introverts, a third or more typically raise their hands, although sometimes a bit reluctantly as if they were admitting a character flaw.)

As an introvert, I was eager to read Susan Caine’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Quit Talking, which helped me understand why I prefer the types of conversations I described in my previous post.

“Introverts,” Caine writes, “… are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling” and “extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves.”

A primary distinction between the types is that introverts recharge themselves in solitude while extroverts restore their energy in social activities.

“Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party and laugh generously at your jokes,” Caine observes. “They tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say….

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation…. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Caine describes how the notion of the “extrovert ideal” evolved over time, a perspective that promotes “winning personalities” who are outgoing, dominant, forceful, and charismatic. This ideal has influenced  parents’ and teachers’ views regarding desirable personality traits, how job applicants present themselves in interviews, and common perceptions about the desirable attributes of successful leaders.

Because many educators are introverts, and because introversion is often maligned, it is important that both introverted and extroverted administrators and teacher leaders appreciate the strengths that introverts bring to their work and to the school community and the problems that can occur when it is suppressed in classrooms and schools.

For example, because the notion of the “extrovert ideal” is so strong, many introverts try to fake extroversion, which almost always causes problems.

“[M]any people pretend to be extroverts,” Caine writes. “Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event—a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like—jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.”

Caine contends that there can be unintended consequences of this charade, though: “Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health.”

While many school leaders are introverts by nature, they have learned how to excel at the one-to-one and group social interactions required in their work.

In addition, effective leaders who are introverts have learned how to cultivate within the school community their best qualities—slowing down and deepening conversations, listening carefully, thinking before they speak, creating a rich interior life through solitude, and being quietly influential.

These leaders do so through personal example, the careful selection of protocols and learning designs for use in meetings and professional development that tap the strengths of all participants, and by recognizing and honoring individual differences.

Successful leaders—whether they are introverts or extroverts by nature—help shape school communities in which everyone is encouraged to bring their best selves to school each day and to continuously develop qualities that enrich their lives.

Do you view yourself as an introvert, and, if so, how have you used the strengths of this disposition to make you a more effective administrator or teacher leader?

I prefer conversations that…

Dennis Sparks

Long ago I realized that I quickly lost interest during meetings that are essentially serial monologues — speaker after speaker pontificating at great length with few if any opportunities for meaningful, engaging conversations.

As a result, I resolved that whenever possible I would help create professional conversations in meetings and elsewhere that would be meaningful and intellectually stimulating for me and others.

As a starting point to creating such conversations I reflected on my own preferences. I prefer conversations:

• that deeply examine a small number of subjects to those that skate across the surface of many topics,

• in which participants spend at least as much time listening as they do talking,

• in which there is openness to the perspectives of others rather than defensiveness about one’s point of view,

• in which participants learn something important about themselves and each other,

• that strengthen relationships through candor and celebration rather than undermine them through obfuscation and negativity, and

• that use professional literature, research, and other forms of intellectual stimulation as a starting point rather than relying solely on personal opinion and experience, although they may help inform the discussion.

What have I missed?


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,344 other followers

Archives

Categories

Recent Twitter Posts


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,344 other followers