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Professional Development as Organizational Learning

Not to brag, but my colleageus and I are often told how much people appreciate our particular brand of professional development. My Instructional Rounds network members routinely claim their experiences to be the most powerful of their careers. My peers hear the same from our College Prepared Project participants, be they veteran teachers, central office administrators, or building leaders. Why is that? What makes professional development consistently effective? Although one might claim to be entertaining and possess great charisma, in reality professional developers are all quite different in presentation styles and the content in which educators need support educators need support varies widely. There are some common elements of effective practice, though, that highlight my beliefs about how people learn and that has become my signature presence in whatever I do. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about my work, but I am deliberate. So at the risk of giving away my “secrets to success,” here are three elements that we think will some day become synonymous with adult learning experiences that make a difference.

Inquiry. I am adamant about inquiry and the use of essential questions to frame a learning experience. While there is always fundamental and essential knowledge to be acquired, I engage learners in their own sense-making (because ultimately that’s what learners do anyway, even when not explicitly asked to do so). I am not afraid of rigorous concepts or scholarly text and find that teachers and principals invest themselves vigorously around complex ideas. I often use what I call “out-of-sector” examples (such as from business or other social sector arenas) that require cognitive transfer and deepen conceptual understanding of the content. You’ll hear me use sentence stems such as, What are the implications..? and Why do you think…? and How do you know….? And I am rabid about evidence, asking learners to regularly surface any assumptions they may be making that may lock them into a particular set of practices or beliefs.

Reflection. I am equally committed to the practice of reflection and incorporate reflective opportunities throughout my sessions: in the beginning as I revisit earlier concepts and surface prior learning, at appropriate intervals where a particularly complex idea may need some additional internal or external processing to be fully understood, and always as an essential element of closure, where everything must come together as a final “sense-making” opportunity. This deliberate insertion of metacognitive strategies embeds the knowledge acquired through inquiry in ways that make the learning personal, applicable, and sustainable. You’ll hear me ask you to consider the So What? and Now What? of your learning, to synthesize your learning in ways that help you to communicate the big ideas and “take-aways” so that the learning can be applied. And I use reflection to be transparent about my processes and to reflect on the pedagogical moves I made so that you can replicate them for others.

And finally, Collaboration. Including collaborative processes into professional development has the twin benefits of expanding perspective in ways that will broaden and deepen your learning as well as support the sustainability of whatever practices you’re trying to put into place. This is where the learning objectives move from “me” to “we” as authentic collaboration over time establishes a system that enables an organization (be it your school or your district as a whole) to literally learn from itself. With collaboration, the current wisdom within an organization can grow exponentially and without limits and – and this is a resource issue – without a consistent infusion of external support.

I see this often – dependency on a one-to-one professional development model with no exit strategy to, as an example, move an instructional coaching strategy to more efficient and effective collaborative practice that will build capacity consistently, over time, and from within. Do I mean one-on-one instructional coaching is not effective? Not at all. I just think it’s afirst step in a more robust strategy that will lead to self-sufficiency and a sustainable professional development system. While a school might begin with instructional coaching to build the capacity of a few key teacher leaders, the next step might be the development of studio classrooms so that the resources expended to support a handful of teachers can benefit larger numbers of staff. This might be followed by a more extensive collaborative network of teachers investigating common challenges, watching each other teach common lessons to learn from what works, and reflecting on how they might use what they’ve learned to improve the results for their students. (Notice how inquiry, collaboration, and reflection are popping up again?)

So to summarize the magic, I teach the discipline of inquiry that asks the learner to surface prior knowledge, work from data, and engage in rigorous content. I weave multiple opportunities into my sessions for reflection in ways that create relevance and insight to new content. My closure activities are as important as any other elements of our lessons. And I utilize collaboration as a way to expand perspective, build sustainability, and move the learning from “me” to “we” so that professional development enables true organizational learning.

A word about effectiveness. I love for people to leave my sessions, be they one-on-one coaching, small group, or large group learning experiences, happy and feeling like their time is well spent. But to me that is not sufficient. The time and resources invested in professional development deserve to be measured by impact on practice and, ultimately, on student learning. So why do I think my professional development is effective? Because I ask about impact. I see principals changing the way they spend their time in classrooms, how they watch students and teachers interacting, and how they use what they learn to support teachers in very different ways. I hear teachers talking about changing how they teach, how they work with their colleagues to improve their teaching, and how they’ve learned to take the risk of opening their practice to observation by others in the name of improvement. And I follow the paths of the students in schools I support. I have confidence that the work of the courageous teachers and principals we support is changing the lives of students.

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