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.