What Can Student Learning Teach Us About Professional Development for Teachers?

By: Kathy Dyer

For true learning to take place in a professional development setting, teachers—like students—need to take ownership of their learning. How does that happen?

Research shows that when learners are engaged in moving their own learning forward, they can achieve at higher levels. But engaging learners—at any age—always presents a challenge. In a professional development (PD) setting, we need to ask ourselves, “What transforms a teacher into a learner? And how can we apply what we know about student learning to better engage teachers in professional learning?”

The Value of Self-Assessment in Teacher Professional Development

There is a strong connection between self-assessment and the level of engagement learners feel about their learning. In Leaders of Their Own Learning, Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin find:

“The most important assessments that take place in any school building are seen by no one. They take place inside the heads of students, all day long. Students assess what they do, say, and produce, and decide what is good enough.”

When evaluating students, assessments aren’t just related to learning and schoolwork; they also connect to the student’s effort, social lives, and other activities in which they are involved in. These learner self-assessments are reflected in the level of engagement we see learners embrace. In the same way, teachers are doing these same self-assessments in PD.

Let’s think about that for a bit. What’s been your absolute best learning experience, and why? When I pose this question to teachers, they reflect and then excitedly share. And guess what? Not all stories are from school experiences. For example, someone invariably ends up talking about learning to drive.

It’s the “why” of those conversations that make the impact about what made each person “own” the learning. Think about your own experience in learning to drive, particularly if it was a good one. What made it learning you could own? How important was the desire? How much effort did you put into it?

Building a Culture of Professional Learning for Teachers

The ideas around students owning their learning are strongly supported by formative instructional practices, research about self-regulation and metacognition, and even Malcolm Knowles’ ideas about the Adult Learning Theory (andragogy). Consider three aspects of Adult Learning Theory. First, adults more actively engage (or own) their learning when it builds upon past experiences. If we think about memory, we might think of Velcro®-covered scaffolding that is our prior experience. If new learning builds on prior learning or teaching experiences, we have something to connect it to. It is easier to “own.” Another aspect of learning that is high on the list for teachers is relevancy. In other words, how does what they are learning relate to what they are currently doing in the classroom? Is it something they need? The third aspect of this is the idea of learning something that the teacher can use immediately. What do your teachers need to do tomorrow? Next week?

In PD, the culture of learning is important in helping teachers achieve the ownership we want them to have. Below are five key elements that underpin this culture:

  • Trust is key. To invest effort, teachers need evidence that what they do matters and that the teacher (PD leader) has their interests at heart. Trust is gained when they see that you believe in their abilities enough to use assessment and evaluation opportunities to provide feedback that they can use to improve their teaching practice.
  • Mindset matters. Building opportunities for small and immediate wins in learning allow teachers to see that they can—and do—grow. The power of yet is a great habit to build. In the face of challenge, some learners throw their hands up and say, “I can’t do this!” A simple shift to “I can’t do this yet!” can make a big difference. Again, when teachers receive feedback that is useful and are given an opportunity to use that feedback to improve, mindsets move from fixed to growth-focused.
  • Engagement empowers ownership. There are three aspects to engagement. Ensure teachers have a choice (not only who they work with or what they work on, but also how they are assessed for some things). Ensure that they have multiple opportunities to collaborate (which may involve assessment.) Ensure that the challenge is appropriate to entice them and does not overwhelm them.
  • Structure. To support trust, a growth mindset, and engagement you need a variety of processes, strategies, and tools for teachers. Using these, teachers support themselves in taking ownership. Help teachers find strategies that work for them; if they see and believe an effective use of a strategy relates to improvement more than luck, they are more likely to use the strategies. Are they setting goals focused on learning? What structure or support is in place to help each learner meet his or her goals?
  • Practice regularly with authentic activities. Make practice something consistent within learning. Establish structures that regularly support teachers in being aware of where they are versus where they want/need to be, and engage them in the process of goal planning.

The Power of Voice and Choice in Learning

Voice and choice matter significantly when it comes to empowering teachers to own their learning. As my friend Robin Whitacre says, “Learners of all ages thrive in environments where their voice matters and they have a choice in the learning process.”

I’d like to share six strategies that I use when I am leading a PD classroom. While I recommend starting small with one or two of these, I do suggest building your repertoire over time.

  • What: As mentioned in the section on the culture of learning, engaging teachers means we offer a choice in what they are learning. Help them make meaningful connections and choices about what to learn, whether based on their personal data, student data, or interest.
  • Who: Supporting teachers in making intentional choices about whom they choose to work with builds habits of collaboration. Offer reflective questions to support choices, like “Who can help you with this? Who has expertise?”
  • Where: Does all learning have to happen in the classroom or at school? What other spaces or places can help meet each teacher’s social and emotional needs?
  • When: Reflective questions can help teachers make choices about when they learn. They might consider a time of day, a day of the week, or even revision cycles allowed.
  • How: How is two parts—how to learn and how to demonstrate the learning. The modality of learning often makes a big difference to learners of all ages. Provide lots of options to teachers for demonstrating the learning, but make sure the criteria for being successful remains a constant. Clear success criteria help learners know where they are going with their demonstration of learning.

Finding ways to offer voice and choice for teachers creates more engagement. Engaged learners seek out ownership of their learning and choose a direction offered by the PD instructor to demonstrate what they know. The result (assessment) helps both the teachers and the instructor determine what they know and what they don’t know. Engaged teachers can then partner with the PD instructor to create a plan to reach their goals.

How can you leverage your PD learning environment to deepen engagement? Using the approaches outlined above, you can help transform a teacher into a learner. What will you do to shift ownership of the learning to your teachers and help them reach their goals?

For more, see:

Kathy Dyer is a Manager of Innovation and Learning, Professional Learning at NWEA. Connect with her on Twitter at @kdyer13

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