Teacher best practices over the past few decades have moved toward a more student-centered approach. The idea is that teachers are not the bearers of all knowledge, but instead facilitate lessons so students can construct their own learning; instead of filling a bucket with water, learning is more like building a birdhouse out of new and used material. The birdhouse metaphor highlights the fact that learning must be built using materials or knowledge that already exists by finding new uses for or by applying it in new ways. In this respect the student is in charge of his own learning and can discover knowledge through his or her own experiences.
While such an approach is extensively backed by research and has largely inundated teacher practices, it has not necessarily been applied to teacher professional (PD) development. Instead, teacher PD most often comes in the form of one-time workshops led by an expert that imparts all the information the teacher needs to become more effective. Unfortunately, this approach has the same side effects as teaching students in this manner: low retention, lack of ownership of information, inability to apply the new knowledge, and the absence of real learning. Such approaches have proven time and time again to result in minimal to no change in teacher practices.
We must instead situate teacher PD in the context of their actual working environment, meaning the classroom. When PD is situated in the classroom context, teachers are required to consider practices that don’t necessarily align with the new classroom strategy or approach. This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance (an uncomfortable feeling that actions, knowledge, and/or beliefs are not complete or congruent which then leads to further action or reflection to arrive at a resolution). Situating learning in the classroom context also allows teachers to really dive into the new approach, to practice, to fail, to dialogue, to reflect, and to truly go through an active learning experience. Such an approach allows teachers to go beyond knowledge, and to enter into application, reflection, and true belief change.
Active learning such as this can come in many forms including these eight examples:
- Classroom Support: an administrator’s or instructional coach’s most important job is getting into the classroom and coaching teachers. What better way to situate learning in the classroom context than to use it as a learning laboratory?!
- Activities that Induce Thought, Reflection, and Dialogue: Collaborative approaches to learning such as PLCs, study groups, PLNs, Lesson Studies, and peer coaching empowers teachers and builds campus instructional leaders. Teachers leading their own learning also eliminates trainings that are impractical, unreasonable, and irrelevant. Teacher led discussions also allow teachers to deconstruct beliefs that can then be rebuilt as new beliefs that align with best practices.
- Looking Beyond the Theoretical: Ensure all discussions from one-to-one conversations to staff meetings all include the theoretical but never forget to address the practical questions and issues from the classroom.
- Trainer Mock Lessons Embedded in Workshops: If a sit-and-get training is necessary, at least ensure that the trainer demonstrates with a mock lesson. This allows teachers to see first hand how the approach works in a real context and helps them to apply the theoretical in practical ways.
- Teacher Mock Lessons Embedded in Workshops: Go a step further and allow teachers to practice during the training using the new strategy with their peers as faux students. Follow up with opportunities for feedback and reflection.
- Video Recording: Video recording lessons can be a great reflective tool for teachers. Check out THIS post for more details on how you can use video recordings as a reflective and training tool.
- Model Teachers: Provide teachers with a model classroom to observe in a real setting. This can be an assistant principal or instructional coach doing a model lesson or even a knowledgeable classroom teacher who has mastered the new strategy. This empowers teachers to be instructional leaders and provides other teachers with concrete examples as well as a mentor teacher.
- Don’t Forget Relationship Building: Without relationships providing the necessary and intense constructive feedback that most of these examples require is quite impossible. Teachers will trust other teachers, and even administrators for that matter, only if the relationship already exists. Don’t forget such a crucial step to building a campus focused on teacher learning.