For each of the past 7 years I have travelled 70,000 kms from coast to coast to coast in Canada, facilitating professional learning for and with teachers and administrators. It is satisfying work that has been consistently well received, but lately I have been experiencing the professional version of the 7-year itch. I’m not unhappy; I’m just craving something more. I want to develop professional learning experiences that are deeper, richer, more useful and more meaningful than are currently on offer from anyone, including me.
As a profession, we have made an enormous commitment to adult learning. We recognize its importance, enshrining protected time for it on school calendars and, lately, spending a lot of money to ensure that there are more effective alternatives to the large group “sit and git” that is good for a common message and for inspiration but not for sustained learning. Coordinators in school districts frequently offer multiple small group sessions over the course of a year. School administrators timetable monthly or weekly professional learning community meetings so teachers will have the opportunity for truly job-embedded learning. Some schools manage to fund instructional coaches to provide individual support. And there are many who enjoy directing their own learning through technology, whether via social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook or Google+, or through participation in webinars and e-courses.
We try so hard and there are indeed moments of exhilaration – ‘aha’ moments when a new truth is revealed to us; collaborative moments when a change we’ve made as a staff has had a significant positive impact on student achievement. Still, we aren’t getting the results we need for the money, time and effort we have been expending. I think that’s because we have structural problems in professional learning that are independent of venue. Changing the number of people in the room and even the location of the room to a virtual space isn’t going to do it. Here are the 7 problems that I think need to be solved:
1. Beliefs affect actions. We know this but we don’t help people examine their beliefs, except maybe in sessions about cultural sensitivity.
2. Adults need differentiated instruction too. We readily accept the importance of differentiation for our students, but we treat adult learners as if they were all at the same starting point with the same interests and learning preferences.
3. Learning means there’s a change in attitude and/or behaviour. We have access to a huge body of research literature about successful processes of individual change, but we don’t use that information to benefit adult learners.
4. Environment and resources matter to learning. We take great pains to provide students with beautifully designed, thoughtfully developed resources utilized in an enriched classroom environment, but too many adults are still being subjected to death by PowerPoint slideshows as they sit in lecture halls.
5. We know which instructional strategies are going to have the greatest impact on learning thanks to educational researchers like John Hattie and Robert Marzano, yet too many of our professional learning sessions are still information dumps.
6. Implementation doesn’t automatically follow learning. We ensure that students have opportunities to practice new skills and transfer new knowledge, but when it comes to implementation for adults we tend to cross our fingers and hope for the best.
7. We are accountable for student learning. Whether we report in numbers or in words, we are responsible for knowing how a student is doing relative to the learning goals. Professional learning sessions don’t tend to have clear learning goals. We don’t know what has been learned or how the learning has impacted classroom practice.
I am committing the next 7 years of my life to improving professional learning experiences for all adults. I invite you to join me by doing two things:
1. Share your thoughts about what has worked for you in professional learning and what hasn’t. Use any medium you wish: respond to this blog post or to any of the seven I will be writing to elaborate on the problems I’ve listed above; reach me through Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+; send me an email by clicking the contact button on my website, or send me your phone number and I will give you a call.
2. Sign up in the box to the right on my homepage for further information about ProPaks, my answer to the 7 problems of professional learning.
I look forward to continuing the conversation.