Posts Tagged 'professional learning'

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school 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 confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators 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 educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to 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 open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

An example of educational malpractice 

While some important things are very complex and difficult to explain, others are clear and straightforward.

Here’s an example of such simplicity from November 2013.

Why professional development without substantial follow-up is malpractice

If a primary goal of professional development is to affect what teachers and administrators believe, understand, and do on a daily basis, then . . . .

Offering “presentations” or “training” without intensive and sustained small-group dialogue, in-classroom coaching, and just-in-time problem solving is educational malpractice.

Put another way, “head learning” abstracted from practice without abundant opportunities for supportive on-the-job feedback and trouble shooting wastes the organization’s resources and squanders teachers’ good will.

Such malpractice is not only an ethical lapse, but is immoral when students’ learning and well being are negatively affected.

Of course, the presence or absence of many other things in classrooms and schools is also malpractice.

What would you put on your “educational malpractice” list? 

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?

Consider ways to create positive energy

The beginning of a new calendar year is a good time to consider ways of creating positive energy in ourselves and others, which is truly one of the most important fundamentals of leadership and resilience.

This post from September 2013 points the way to the positive emotions at the core of positive energy. 

8 ways to create positive energy in the school community

Visitors can often sense in a matter of minutes the positive or negative energy of a school. 

Some schools feel welcoming, calm, and joyful. Others feel angry, stressful, and even foreboding.

Fortunately, administrators and teacher leaders can influence the energy and emotional tone of classrooms, schools, and school systems. 

Here are 8 suggestions for creating positive energy:

1. Bring authentic positive emotions such as enthusiasm, hopefulness, and joy into the school community.

2. Use  formal and informal processes to celebrate the accomplishments and strengths of everyone in the school community.

3. Honor those who are not present by refusing to engage in gossip and other negative interactions.

4. Make certain that all meetings are engaging and productive.

5. Ensure that professional development produces meaningful professional learning by putting an end to “mindless” professional  development.

6. Make certain that all requests are carefully considered before making promises, and that once made, those promises are kept.

7. Whenever possible, use careful planning to prevent or minimize problems and the stress they cause. 

8. Maintain an unwavering focus and consistency by ensuring that continuous improvement efforts are based on a compelling vision, shared community values, and clear long-term goals and strategies.

What ideas or practices 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.

True, but incomplete

Some things are true, but by themselves incomplete. 

For example, it is true that planning is important. But planning is insufficient without careful implementation of the plans.

Here are other examples from a September 2013 post on:

5 contradictions that reveal essential principles of teaching, learning, and relationships

1. While hope is essential, it is not a strategy. Hope must be supported by stretching goals, robust plans, professional learning, and strong teamwork.

2. While goals cannot be accomplished without activity, it is easy to confuse activity with accomplishment.

3. While the quality of teaching determines the quality of learning, it is the quality of leadership that determines the quality of teaching across the school and the school system.

4. While professional learning can occur by attending lectures, reading books, participating in social/learning networks, and other individual activities, it is ultimately the quality of school-focused learning and teamwork among teachers with common responsibilities that will determine the quality of teaching and learning across the school.

5. While teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills are important, another essential but often overlooked attribute of good teaching is the quality of relationships teachers have with their students, particularly those who most require the best teaching to be successful in life.


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