6 foundational assumptions for professional development

Dennis Sparks

Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. —Peter Senge

Professional learning and teamwork, in my view, are the primary means by which schools achieve their most important goals.

And while valued professional learning can occur in a number of ways, its primary but exclusive method is team-based learning focused on the goal of improved teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Here are six foundational assumptions offered in the spirit of dialogue:

1. Professional development is to professional learning as teaching is to student learning. Professional development may or my not lead to professional learning in the same way that teaching may or may not lead to student learning. Well-designed and implemented professional learning leads to professional learning just as effective teaching leads to student learning.

2. For professional learning to occur professional development must be sufficiently robust to literally physically change educators’ brains. The acquisition of empowering beliefs, deep understandings, and new professional habits requires that new neural networks be created and existing networks strengthened. Such physical changes require the brain to be actively engaged in its own alteration.

3. A core element of professional learning that is intended to alter educators’ brains is a relentless focus on a small number of clear and measurable goals for student outcomes guided by various types of evidence.

4. The vast majority of teachers’ learning takes place within school-based teams (sometimes supplemented by cross-school or cross-district subject-matter teams) guided by the assumption that the solutions to most issues of teaching and learning already reside within the school community and the team.

5. While carefully chosen consultants, courses, and workshops can enrich and support team learning, they can never replace it. Teachers are encouraged to pursue individual projects based on their unique responsibilities and challenges as well as participate in team-based learning.

6. Teachers’ learning occurs as close to classrooms as possible through instructional coaching and in team conversations focused on the core tasks of teaching—planning lessons, teaching lessons, determining the effectiveness of lessons for all students, and using that information to improve future lessons. For the most part, teachers and administrators learn while doing rather than acquiring abstract knowledge that they may someday use.

What would you add to or subtract from my list?

9 Responses to “6 foundational assumptions for professional development”

  1. 1 justinbaeder June 18, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I appreciate the focus on teams and on solving problems together. Great list!

    Personally, I would emphasize professional practice—the part we’re trying to get better at—without a requirement that student evidence be the ultimate measure of that practice, because honestly, sometimes there’s not a direct connection. Much of what we do that’s absolutely critical won’t show up in a measurable way.

    I think we had about 15 or 20 years of excessive focus on student data in our profession, and that blinded us to the value of other types of information about how we’re doing. In many cases, we ignored obvious indicators of how well a practice was working, because it didn’t align with the data available to us.

    I like the model of Japanese lesson study as one that focuses relentlessly and iteratively on practice, and pays attention to what students are learning without being driven solely by student-based indicators. We can learn a lot from each other from collaboration and observation, shedding light on areas of practice that aren’t illuminated by student data.

    Thanks for starting this discussion!

  2. 3 DR June 18, 2014 at 10:27 am

    A question…what is the role of leadership? We want all educators to EXPERIENCE professional learning to deeply understand it. What might that look like?

    • 4 Dennis Sparks June 18, 2014 at 11:06 am

      I have written quite a bit about what I believe are the most important qualities of school leaders and how they might be developed. You can find posts in the “Leaders Change First” and “Professional Learning” categories.

    • 5 Dennis Sparks June 18, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Another thought, Dayna: Professional development of the kind that I have described is impossible without skillful leaders who possess deep understanding of those qualities and are committed to its implementation.

  3. 6 Christina June 19, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly! I work in a district that is unfortunately is planning to reduce the amount of team pd time each week to 30 minutes. This is not enough. Teams cannot effectively plan, reflect, and plan further in only 30 minutes a week. I fear that the school I support will lose the fragile culture we have worked so hard to develop around collaborative planning and collective responsibility of all students just as we are beginning to see data based results. I wish our current leadership shared your beliefs and values.

    • 7 Dennis Sparks June 19, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      I understand how deeply felt that loss is, Christina. And I know that many schools face serious financial challenges. But I am convinced that schools cannot provide high-quality teaching for all students without the kind of teamwork and professional learning described in this post.

  4. 8 hbw11 June 29, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I, too, really appreciate the emphasis on teamwork, as well as the acknowledgement that much of the talent for professional growth already resides in the school. How best to capitalize on that talent, and then generate the necessary buy-in, remain the primary challenges (besides, of course, the ever-present challenge of time!). The only thing I would like to see more of in teacher PD is student input. Not just indirectly in the form of student work and assessment data, but directly through some sort of forum. I often wonder what it would be like if staff could observe students in a “fishbowl” discussion responding to questions such as what helps them learn the most effectively, least effectively, and so on. Imagine how powerful it could be if teachers could receive feedback related to engagement, rigor, assessments, and overall learning. It doesn’t get more meaningful and motivating than that!

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