Create conditions for the productive growth of everyone in schools

Photo/Dennis Sparks

To create and sustain for children the conditions for productive growth without those conditions existing for educators is virtually impossible. —Seymour Sarason

What type of school would you create if you didn’t know what role you would play in that school—student, teacher, or principal—and you would stay in that role forever? I like this question because it asks us to think deeply about schools from every point of view and to thoroughly consider the features of a school that would make it inherently meaningful, interesting, and valued by everyone.

This month’s issue of EL on the theme of “meaningful work” provides at least a partial  answer to that question. In her introduction, Editor Marge Scherer notes that “purpose, relevance, student choice, and ownership are the keys to making learning meaningful.”

Contributors to the issue stress the importance of students “solving problems that count,” of instruction that moves “beyond one right answer,” and of project-based learning through which students engage in “an extended process of inquiry, critique, and revision.

If all students are to acquire deep understanding by solving important and challenging problems in sustained collaboration with others, it is essential that those same qualities be a significant part of all teachers’ professional learning and daily work life. Likewise, principals whose professional learning enables deep understanding and meaningful teamwork as core aspects of their professional lives are far more likely to value and create those conditions for teachers.

In the last decade many schools have made significant progress in improving teaching and learning through the development of well-functioning professional learning communities or teams and the introduction of skillful instructional coaching. But we have a very long way to go before we can say that all or even most teachers are the beneficiaries of such processes. Unfortunately, a good share of teacher and principal professional development remains superficial and episodic, and too few teachers are members of purposeful teams or professional communities.

To ensure schools in which all students experience quality learning each day and are surrounded by supportive relationships, it is important that leaders do an honest assessment of the “cognitive demand” imposed by teachers’ professional learning to determine if it is sufficiently rigorous and sustained to produce deep understanding of important new ideas, to develop and sustain new habits of mind and practice, and to build strong, productive teams that ensure continuous improvement. In my experience, leaders almost always underestimate the amount of discussion, practice, and feedback required to achieve those ends.

While NSDC’s Standards for Staff Development can be a valuable tool for engaging in such an assessment, a simpler, more direct assessment can be made by asking the school’s leadership team: Would we be pleased if teachers’ instructional methods and the quality of their students’ learning mirrored the methods and outcomes teachers experience in their own professional learning and work with their colleagues?

If the answer is “no,” then a fundamental leadership responsibility is the creation of a school in which students and educators alike are the beneficiaries of “the conditions for productive growth” that Seymour Sarason advocates.

5 Responses to “Create conditions for the productive growth of everyone in schools”


  1. 1 Mike September 13, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Right on! I would add that teachers should design classes that they would want for their own children or classes that they would want to attend themselves. But even the best classroom will be sabotaged by poorly thought out policies, lack of support, and lack of rigor in professional learning, as Sparks’ comments suggest.

    Sparks’ ideas make sense but seem remote from plans such as “Race for the Top,” which apparently assumes that teachers and principals are lazy and need bribing or firing to get them to perform well.

    Sparks’ ideas will lead to improvement in schools; “Race for the
    Top” will not.

    Mike

  2. 2 Sybil September 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Each time I read your blog or your other writings, I just wish more educational leaders would be exposed to these thoughts and consider sharing them with their staff. The concept of considering what you want for your own children and then providing that experience for every child is so simple. Why is it not happening in so many educational settings???

  3. 3 Kent Peterson September 14, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Dennis makes several very important points about professional development. I particularly resonated with the notion of “cognitive demand” for staff learning. Everyone–students, teachers, principals–should take on the complexity of their own learning and do it for the sake of every child. Assisting in the learning of children requires a deep understanding of the wide range of resources, tools, and conditions in a classroom. This is and always will be cognitively demanding. Finding ways to make it cooperative and at times fun can help.

    This blog always makes me think…..

  4. 4 Katharine Weinmann September 15, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I appreciate both Dennis’s thoughtful writing and the comments from the field. I especially like your question, Dennis, about student learning mirroring professional learning. For me that translates to how we design what I call “embodied” or integrated learning experiences that invite all of who we are into the set. Whether in staff development or leadership coaching and mentoring, it supports adaptive learning, and team-community development.

  5. 5 Nicolas Rivas September 27, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I strongly agree with the fact that all parts inside a learning community should have the same opportunities to learn. For example in my school we re required to analize the results of a standarized test that kids have been taking for 4 years now. Only this year teachers are learning what it is, how to interpret the results, how to use them for diferentiate instruction, etc. As you can see if this had been done the other way around, it would have been much better for everyone.


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