Posts Tagged 'professional learning'

Deep work matters

Dennis

I’ve attended countless meetings during which some variation of the following happens:

Person A makes a point about a topic.

Person B comments on Person A’s statement.

Person C brings up another subject.

Person D returns briefly to person A’s comment and then makes a point on a totally different subject.

And so on as participants skate across the surface of important topics.

This type of “superficial work” is all too common in meetings, even those where important decisions are being made.

Likewise, professional learning can be deep or superficial.

So, too, professional reading and writing can be deep or superficial.

Deep work is obviously essential when decisions are being made and when learning is the goal, either for adults or young people.

While deep work typically takes time, a lack of time is not an adequate excuse for superficiality because there is always time to do what matters.

Deep work requires:

Intentionality. It is essential that we are committed to deep work when we examine our individual and collective beliefs, values, ideas, and practices.

Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, sustained focus over multi-tasking, problem solving over complaining, and meaningful professional learning over “sit and get.”

Protocols that help participants pay attention to both task accomplishment and the quality of relationships.

What other things promote deep work?

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?

Conversations for learning

Dennis

Some of our most important learning occurs in conversations. And because learning is a prerequisite to sound decision making, good decisions are often preceded by good conversations.

Conversations for learning matter so much that virtually all meetings and even one-to-one discussions with colleagues, parents, and students within the school community should be designed to maximize learning.

Unfortunately, some leaders believe that effective leaders make decisions independently. Such decision making, they think, is a sign of decisiveness and strength.

For these leaders the purpose of meetings is to tell others about their decisions.

Their subordinates are so accustomed to a passive role in which they simply receive what their bosses tell them to think, say, and do that it may be hard for them to even imagine participating in conversations for learning and decision making.

But not all conversations are created equal.

Conversations for learning require: 

• Intentionality;

• Deeply-attentive listening;

• A willingness to go beneath the surface of conventional assumptions and understandings;

• Slowness that provides space for thinking and elaboration (think “wait time”);

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

• A belief that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute….

How is it in your setting— are conversations for learning an essential part of professional learning and decision making, or are “conversations” more often monologues that communicate what has already been decided?

You already know enough…

Dennis

You already know enough about good health to be healthier.

You already know enough about successful relationships to have more satisfying relationships in all parts of your life.

You already know enough about being a good teacher to be a better one.

You already know enough about being a good leader to be a better one.

There are, of course, important things for us to learn and a time for us to learn them.

Sometimes we know what is important for us to learn—we know what we don’t know. At other times we don’t know what we don’t know, which means it is essential that we place ourselves in uncomfortable situations that reveal those things to us (peer feedback, for instance).

But for the moment I encourage you to more consistently apply what you already know rather than continuously searching for new understandings that are not likely to be implemented.

Our lives and the lives of others will be better as a result.

Do you agree or disagree?

Happy Holidays, and my best wishes for a happy and healthy 2016!

“I had Madeline Hunter”

Dennis

In the 1980s when Madeline Hunter was a prominent “presenter” of effective teaching workshops I heard so many people say “I had Madeline Hunter” that I used to joke that I felt obligated to call her husband.

It remains common for participants in workshops to say that they “had” whatever the presenter or content happened to be.

But they would say far less often what they had learned from that person or content and how it changed what they did.

Unfortunately, too many leaders continue to believe that the core learning process of teaching and professional development is the “delivery” of information, and that once the information has been transmitted, the teaching or the professional development is complete.

Those leaders are likely to believe that their professional development responsibilities are discharged when they have provided an activity — that is, provided a speaker or offered a workshop.

Professional development, in their view, is simply a box to be checked, a responsibility to be discharged.

At a minimum participants in any learning event should be able to say:

• I had (or did)…

• From that I learned…

• Because of that learning I changed the habit of…

• Because I changed that habit I saw the following results…

However, just as teaching is not complete until student learning has occurred, professional learning has not occurred until educators have deepened their understanding, honed their professional judgment, and/or altered their practice in ways that benefit students.

Administrators and teacher leaders play a major role in eliminating bad professional development by ensuring professional learning that truly benefits students.

But they are not alone in that responsibility.

Therefore, I propose that consultants or presenters or speakers “JUST SAY NO” when invited to do things they know will not make a difference.

One way to address this problem, from the perspective of both school leaders and consultants, is to pay consultants based on results, not time. 

What would be the benefits?

• Conversations preceding consultants’ work would be deeper and more concrete.

• Absolute clarity would be required about measurable outcomes on the part of consultants and school leaders, which is seldom the case now.

• Vague statements of purpose such as “inspire teachers” or “motivate participants to try new things” or “introduce participants to new ideas” would no longer be acceptable. (If such purposes are deemed essential because of the local context, I recommend that no more than 5% of professional development time be given to such activities.)

Once clear outcomes were agreed upon school leaders and consultants would have to determine if the learning processes they intended to use were sufficiently robust to achieve those outcomes.

Vague or modest goals and weak learning methods would alert school leaders and consultants that their plans were flawed and that precious professional development resources were being squandered. 

What do you think about paying consultants for results? Is it an idea whose time has come?

Skillful leadership

Dennis

Early in my professional development career I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching. I enjoyed those conversations except when…

Teachers were angry, cynical, or otherwise emotionally unsuited to have such conversations. Without exception, those teachers were…

Poorly led. They were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three. Over time that led me to…

Focus my work on leaders, particularly principals and teacher leaders because their skillful leadership was essential to meaningful teacher professional learning, particularly the kind of professional learning that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

• The emotional tone of a school.

• Whether the school’s culture focuses on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students or on maintaining the status quo.

• Whether teachers primarily work in isolation or benefit from strong, effective teamwork.

What is your experience? Is it possible to have continuous improvements in teaching and learning for all students without skillful leadership?

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.


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