Archive for the 'Learning' Category

Inviting “big talk”

Make a life in which you are having the conversations you want to have.” — Laura Mott

Resilient people are proactive, and one of the ways they demonstrate that quality is by creating conversations that matter to them with their families and friends and in their work settings.

Think of those conversations as “big” rather than “small.”

While small talk has important purposes, large talk matters because it is far more likely to produce meaningful learning and to strengthen relationships.

During these conversations participants come to understand important things about themselves, each other, and the subject under discussion.

The world would be a better place, I believe, if such conversations were more frequently cultivated in families and the workplace.

In an earlier post I wrote that conversations for learning require:

• intentionality, 

• deep and mindful listening, 

• slowness that provides opportunities for thinking and elaboration, 

• an openness to learning based on a deep respect for the experiences and perspectives of others, and

an invitation, which may be as simple and straight forward as “please tell me more.” (Australian educator Edna Sackson explains how even difficult conversations can be improved when they begin with such invitations.)

What “requirements” would you add to my list?

Growth is optional

Dennis

A simple but profound truth: Change is mandatory.

Buddhists would say the cause is “impermanence,” and they would add that human suffering is caused by resisting it.

Scientists might say the reason is entropy, which my dictionary defines as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe.”

While change is inevitable, learning and growth are optional.

I am thinking about the kind of learning and growth that takes us to the edge of our comfort zone and a step or two beyond.

Some people seem to lean into such learning as if it is a part of their DNA.

Others may grow because a significant change in their personal or professional lives pushes them into it, even late in their careers or lives.

But for every person who steps up to the challenge of significant change there are others whose default settings seem to be denial and resistance.

Which begs the question: What are the internal or external conditions under which people stay the same or grow?

Commonly-cited reasons are “grit” or “resilience” or a “sense of efficacy” or a “growth orientation.”

But that doesn’t explain why some people have those qualities and others don’t.

What is your experience—what nudges you toward meaningful growth rather than entropy?

When we don’t know what we don’t know

Dennis

Many teachers and school leaders are largely self taught. For the most part, their training was on the job.

Their teacher and administrator preparation programs were inadequate. So, too, was (and is) their professional development.

They received little or no mentoring and have had few opportunities, if any, to learn with or from their colleagues.

One of the problems with being self-taught is that there may be significant gaps in knowledge and skills. Another problem is that educators are often unaware of those gaps.

Such blind spots will persist without skillful supervision and a strong system of professional learning that includes meaningful and sustained teamwork, peer observation, and instructional coaching that reveals what teachers and administrators don’t know about what they don’t know.

A strong system of support and learning will not only reveal gaps, but will identify and build upon educators’ strengths.

What do you think? What’s the best way for teachers and administrators to determine what they don’t know and to fill in those gaps?

Learning our way forward

Dennis

College students have anxiety-filled dreams about taking a final exam in a class they never attended.

My recurring nightmare is about being poorly prepared to teach a high school class, although I haven’t been a high school teacher in decades.

As they say, Sigmund Freud would have a field day with that….

What does it mean that, at least in my sleep, I am anxious about doing something I haven’t done in years and am not likely to do again?

Perhaps it simply means that part of being human is that from time to time we will unexpectedly be asked to do something for which we feel poorly prepared and that our dreams reflect that reality.

A new responsibility at work. A relationship challenge with a partner or child. A significant life change in our lives, like caring for a loved one or requiring care ourselves with the sense of dependency that creates.

Life hands us many things for which we feel ill prepared.

But another part of being human is that we step up to those challenges and responsibilities and learn our way into doing things we previously may have thought were impossible.

And then many years later we may dream about them and realize how far we have come….

Deep work

Dennis

A man sits alone in a courtyard with a pad of paper in front of him.

He writes and then pauses, looking off into space. He writes again.

As I watched I realized that those are the essential ingredients of “deep work” – solitude, a process that allows us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking (in this case, writing); thinking about what we think (metacognition); and then beginning the cycle again. Deep work is essential in classrooms and meeting rooms. It is also an essential ingredient of professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because focused conversation enables us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking, it is important that schools provide generous opportunities for well-designed group work in classrooms and among teachers.

But it is also important that schools value the solitary activities that are often a prerequisite to the deep work that is the foundation of meaningful learning, teaching, and school leadership.

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?

Professional learning by doing

Dennis Sparks

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener—without going through the mind of either. —Mortimer Adler

Learning by doing is the antithesis of the mindless lecturing described by Adler.

It is most powerful when it includes reflection on the extent and meaning of that learning.

Whether learners are 5 years old or 50, it is essential that their talk and active engagement in the “doing” dominate both K-12 classrooms and professional development experiences rather than the voice of the teacher or “presenter.”

So, for instance, if we wish educators to become better planners, analyzers of research, and collaborators, it simply makes sense that they be provided with generous amounts of time to learn about and practice those skills during the initial learning and receive continuing feedback as they apply those skills in their job settings.

Likewise, educators’ professional judgment is strengthened when they:

• have extended opportunities to apply and refine their judgement as they grapple with meaningful problems of practice in sustained conversations with colleagues, and

• explore evidence related to the real-world consequences of their decisions.

What methods have you used or experienced that promote professional learning through doing?


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

Join 4,756 other followers

Archives

Categories

Recent Twitter Posts