Archive for the 'Learning' Category

Robust professional development for the benefit of all students

It is time in this series of reprised posts to review the essentials of “robust professional development” that I published in November 2013.

The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development

Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students. (To better understand the distinction between professional development and professional learning, please read this.)

To that end, such professional development:

Deepens teachers’ knowledge of the content they teach, including pedagogical content knowledge. It also expands teachers’ repertoire of research-based instructional skills to teach that content and provides classroom management skills appropriate to their settings. For the most part, such development will be individualized or occur in small-groups based on self assessment, teacher evaluation, standardized test scores, student work, and other sources of information.

Provides teachers with the classroom assessment skills—what experts call “assessment for learning.” Such skills allow teachers to diagnose student learning problems and to monitor in real time gains in student learning resulting from newly-acquired classroom practices.

• Is embedded in teachers’ daily work. Job embedded does not mean having workshops occur in schools rather than district meeting rooms. Instead, it requires that the learning be closely linked to school and classroom-specific student learning problems with frequent opportunities for problem solving and hands-on assistance from colleagues and coaches.

Provides sustained classroom assistance in implementing new instructional skills. Teachers regularly receive individualized feedback and meaningful support from skillful coaches and others within their professional communities.

Has at its core a small team of teachers who meet regularly as part of their work day to plan lessons, critique student work, and assist in problem solving.

Is surrounded by a culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement. The creation of such cultures is a fundamental responsibility of principals and teacher leaders.

These attributes are synergistic, with each enriching the others. 

And the absence of any one of these six attributes can seriously diminish the likelihood that the overall effort will significant improve the quality of teaching in every classroom and the learning of all students. 

What have I missed?

Pay attention to the fundamentals of professional learning

Sometimes the “bells and whistles” of new things can distract us from the fundamentals, the things that make the biggest difference and form the basis of all that follows.

In classrooms, those fundamentals include close reading, clear and compelling writing, and thoughtful conversations informed by attentive listening.

Those same fundamentals apply to professional development, as this post from February 2014 underscores.

4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind.…” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.” 

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students. 

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy. 

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words—a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by leaders deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

Eliminating mindless professional development 

It’s essential that teachers’ professional development resemble in its learning processes the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

I made that point in a February 2013 post, and it is worth repeating here.

Mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching

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

Mortimer Adler succinctly describes the mindless learning that follows mindless teaching.

Visualize a continuum with that form of teaching and learning at one end. At the other end place the kind of teaching that produces high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills. (A good share of the teaching students experience each day falls between those two extremes.)

The professional learning of teachers and administrators can be placed along a similar continuum.

To update Adler’s description, at one end of the continuum the PowerPoint slides of the presenter are passed to the tweets of the students without going through the minds of either. 

At the other end is professional learning with qualities that closely resemble those described above for students—high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills.

In my experience, the kinds of teaching/learning processes used in professional development have a profound effect on the teaching/learning processes used in the vast majority of classrooms. Put another way, mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching. And vice versa.

The remedy is simple, but not easy: It’s essential that teachers’ professional learning resemble as closely as possible the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

That means that teachers will:

• spend much of their time in small, interdependent groups collaboratively solving important instructional problems;

• gain a deep understanding of important educational issues and their significance through intellectually-demanding learning processes—the close reading of professional materials, writing that extends learning, and dialogue;

• acquire and regularly apply complex cognitive skills in identifying and solving meaningful problems; and

• experience firsthand the value of the methods they are expected to use with their students.

Through mind-full experiences like those, teachers will continuously improve their practice for the benefit of all students.

Ideas that have shaped my life

Every important thing I know I have learned from other people or through conversations in which participants uncovered insights that were previously unknown to any of us.

But I often didn’t know at that time the significance of what I was learning. 

Some of those people I have encountered through books whose ideas affected me both personally and professionally. (Perhaps on another occasion I will recount the “right words at the right time” conversations that had a lasting effect on my life.)

Here are a few that made a lasting impression on me, some reaching back more than 40 years: 

Carl Rogers: Freedom to Learn and On Becoming a Person: Each of us has an impulse to grow and a sense of direction for that growth that has validity and can be trusted, particularly when explored with someone who offers “unconditional positive regard.”

William Glasser: Reality Therapy: Human problems ultimately have their roots in a lack of responsibility. An important goal in life and education is to learn how to behave responsibly. 

Parker Palmer: A Hidden Wholeness: Each of us has an inner self that requires attention and expression if we are to live a life that feels whole and satisfying.

Bruce Joyce and Emily Calhoun: Models of Professional Development: What Joyce and Calhoun offered me in this book and others was the explicit recognition of something I knew intuitively: Changing teaching practice is complicated. Training alone is insufficient to affect practice, or, as I eventually came to think of it, “Training without follow-up is malpractice.”

Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace Is Every Step: An unalterable attribute of life is impermanence, and one of the best ways of acknowledging it is to be fully present in each moment. (A close second in this category is Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn who offers many practical suggestions for living a more mindful life.)

Peter Senge: The Learning Organization: The behavior of individuals is shaped by powerful and often invisible forces within the systems in which they live and work.

Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel: While, as the title implies, this book is about travel, it offers an approach to life which acknowledges that wherever we go we take our unique histories and emotional selves with us and suggests ways to be fully present in whatever we are doing.

What books (or articles) have had a lasting influence on your thinking and what you do each day?

Multi-generational resilience

Whatever struggle we have gone through remains, at heart, a human struggle. When we see our struggles in the stories of those who have gone before us, we feel less alone. We begin to see that there are sources of wisdom all around us. —Eric Greitens

Over the years I have supported dozens of hospice patients who near the end of their lives told and preserved their life stories for future generations.

These individuals often didn’t see their lives as having any special significance, but agreed to tell their stories at the urging of family members.

Although they never used the the term resilience, they shared stories of overcoming and the sometimes difficult lessons they had learned, stories that inspire and guide as they honor the storytellers and bear witness to their struggles.

“Knowing our history can make us more resilient, especially when we understand our connection to the people who went before us,” Eric Greitens writes in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life.

“[S]torytelling is not just a way to remember what happened; it’s a way to understand what happened. When you tell a story, you give an event meaning. In storytelling we bring past, present, and future together in a way that helps us to make sense of events and make sense of our lives….,” Greiten adds. “We honor the dead by living their values. Through our efforts, we ensure that the good things they stood for continue to stand even when they are gone. Our actions become a living memorial to their memory.”

To that end, I encourage you at every opportunity to ask elders to tell stories about personal or family resilience.

Listen deeply with empathy, and, when appropriate, encourage reflection on the lessons that might be drawn from the stories.

What life lessons did you learn from your ancestors or elders?

The link between “deep thought” and solitude

Depth of thought matters in classrooms, in meetings for decision making, and in meaningful professional learning.

While depth requires time, a lack of time is not a sufficient excuse. There is always time to do what matters, and depth always trumps superficiality.

Depth requires:

Intentionality;

Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, focus over multi-tasking, nuanced understanding over superficiality, and problem-solving over complaining;

Protocols that keep participants focused on paying attention to both the accomplishment of tasks and the quality of relationships; and

• Solitude.

Most of all, solitude.

Cal Newport offers 2 “lessons” about solitude:

“Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.

“When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.

“Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain.

“Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

What are the conditions in your personal and professional lives that enable depth of thought?

“Everyone can relate to a story”

“[O]ne of the best ways to relate to somebody is not to lecture them, but to tell them a story….” —Mitch Albom

“The reason that I never fear when they say journalism or print journalism is dead is that the world has always told stories, and it will always have to tell stories. The first thing I would say to leaders of any kind is everyone can relate to a story, and if you learn how to tell a story, whether that is your vision for a company, or just a way to be empathetic toward your customers or a way to just understand the world, if you put it in a storytelling form, as opposed to a didactic, factual PowerPoint presentation, everyone will be able to relate to it.” —Mitch Albom

A village was having a celebration on the banks of a river when someone noticed that a child was being swept past the picnic grounds in a torrent of water. A line of citizens was quickly formed, and the child was pulled to safety.

Moments later someone observed that several more children were being swept past in the river. Again a line was formed, and the children were rescued.

But soon more children filled the fast-moving river, so many in the fact that the villagers no longer had the strength to pull them out.

In their exhaustion a citizen of the village pointed out that aerobic and strength training should be offered in the village hall so that should this happen again they would be stronger and better prepared. Someone else said that a CPR class should also be scheduled.

A final voice was heard with the suggestion that the village should quickly make its way upstream to find out who or what was throwing the children into the river.

This story, which I heard told many years ago, illustrates at least two points:

  • “System problems,” that is problems that have their source in interacting variables larger than the current circumstance, cannot be solved by training alone.
  • The power of a story to make an important point about a complex idea. People tend to “lean into” stories and away from fact-laden lectures.

What is your experience in using stories to make important points?


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