High Quality Professional Development, Collective Wisdom, Teaching, and Learning

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, maintains a website and blog at www.PracticalTheory.org.  As we approach the start of the new school year, his thoughts on professional development and collective wisdom are important ideas for teachers, administrators, and school boards to discuss.  We know the impact of high quality professional development on teaching and learning.  That is constantly researched and documented.  But we don’t seem to really put plan into action.  Take some time to reflect on these shared thoughts, and come to appreciate the true impact of collective wisdom and understanding.  Everyone is valuable.  Everyone is important.  Everyone should be heard.  And everyone should listen.

Professional Development and Collective Wisdom  Posted on August 22, 2015

An old story… a young teacher comes to his first saff meeting where he sees an veteran teacher already sitting down. He sits down next to an older teacher who says to him, “You know… when I die… I hope it’s in a faculty meeting.”

The young teacher says, “Why?”

To which the older teacher replies, “So when I cross over, I won’t know the difference.”

Most educators have been through some terrible staff meetings and professional development sessions where people took turns reading to them, talking at them and maybe giving people the odd moment or two to discuss with the person next to them. And most of the time, educators are forced to sit through meetings and professional development that, pedagogically, would get them written up if they taught that way in their classes.

That’s got to stop.

There’s a simple question we should ask when we bring teachers together:

“Does the structure of this meeting / PD / whatever leverage the collective wisdom of the room?”

And if it doesn’t, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  1. Do we need to be together for this or could this information be disseminated in other ways?
  2. Are we missing the chance for people to learn together and solve the problems as a community?
  3. Who does this meeting really serve?
  4. What are the meta-lessons that the participants are learning about what teaching methods are valued by this meeting?

If we want active classrooms, we have to have active PD.

If we want teachers to create collaborative classrooms, we have to create a collaborative culture in our adult learning and problem solving.

If we want teachers to value the ideas and experiences of our students, then we must value the ideas and experiences of our teachers when they come together to learn.

And if we want our schools to find innovative, powerful solutions to the problems we face, we must all learn to seek out the collective wisdom of the room.

How To Plan Better Professional Development Posted on August 24, 2015

There are as many ways to make professional development better as there are ways to make our teaching better… what follows are just a few. The overarching thing to remember is this – we have to be one school. The same set of values that we look for in our classrooms should be what we value in our professional development. With that:

  1. Root professional development in the work teachers do. Asking teachers to do exercises that are not based in the work of the day is inauthentic. For example, if your school wants to do a deep dive into reading across the curriculum, ask teachers to bring their current unit plans and work together to ensure that all readings that students are assigned have reading comprehension activities attached to them. Have teachers work together to study a text like Subjects Matter and apply lessons learned, and then come back together for reflection after the work has been implemented.
  2. Don’t come in with answers – come in with questions. Inquiry-based professional development, where teachers are working to collaborative to solve challenges the school faces is incredibly powerful. We’ve looked at issues of culture, of student performance, of cultural competence as a faculty, where we asked ourselves hard questions and then looked to solve them. You don’t solve hard questions in a single meeting, of course, but a committee of teachers can come up with a powerful lens or frame on a problem, ask challenging questions, and then take the outcomes of the conversation back into committee to then craft next steps. When real problems are taken up by the whole faculty, solutions can come from unexpected places, and often the wisdom of the room will end up solving the problem in ways that a single voice ever could have.
  3. Don’t plan professional development yourself. We have a committee structure at SLA that is fully teacher-led. Committee chairs come together to set broad professional development agendas for the semester, and then the different committees plan professional development in consultation with administration. Everyone has a stake in planning useful PD, because we all sit through each other’s sessions. When we all feel responsible for each other’s learning, people spend the time to make it meaningful.
  4. Prioritize – I’ve seen too many schools and districts that treat every single PD session as an opportunity to present a new idea, as if one two-hour PD session is ever enough to fully learn an educational idea enough to then be amazing at it in the classroom. School faculty should figure out what are the primary goals of the school that year, and then seek to weave those goals through all professional development for the year (or two.) When everything is a priority, nothing is, but when we set a few big goals and then ensure that the overwhelming majority of the professional learning is in service of those goals, amazing things can happen.
  5. Follow-up. If PD happens in a meeting, and then the work isn’t prioritized by administration, it’s a waste of time. If we want teachers to believe in collaborative professional development, then time must be set-aside for implementation and reflection. Otherwise, we’ve created yet another “one-off” professional development session that is easily ignored by those who choose to, and worse, disempowering to those who actually want to see the topic / idea implemented powerfully.

These are a few ideas and values to get you started — there are many more that I encourage people to share in the comments. Simply, in all we do, be thoughtful, collaborative, and empowering when structuring professional learning. When we do that, we can create those values in every classroom – for every student – in our schools.

Practical Theory A View from the Schoolhouse by Chris Lehmann at http://practicaltheory.org/blog/

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