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November 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 3

One to Grow On / Help Teachers Become Master Learners

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Professional development needs greater vision and clarity.

Professional LearningLeadership
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To have state-of-the-art professional learning opportunities for teachers, I think most of us would agree that those opportunities should be heavily teacher-influenced, so that individual teachers propose what they need to learn and receive support for learning those things. Yet we need to be cautious, with this approach, not to mistake "autonomy" for "license." The former is critical to motivation in adult learners. The latter can be scattershot—untethered from the most compelling needs of today's learners.
Teacher voice should be a nonnegotiable in establishing the "what" and "how" of teacher professional learning. Currently that voice is often a whisper, or even absent, in planning staff development. Much of what passes as professional development for teachers is a one-shot attempt ("We'll learn about this today and be good to go!") or a grab-bag ("Pick one session from a list" of obviously disconnected topics)—an event rather than a journey. We can and should do better.

Principles for Meaningful Teacher Learning

The term "state-of-the-art" suggests something cutting-edge, stemming from our current best knowledge, ideas, and methods related to teaching and learning. That's the launchpad from which we should envision, plan for, and facilitate teacher growth. We're not there if our standard practice is for the principal or district to prescribe a one-size-fits-all staff development. Cutting-edge professional development must be shaped around more transformative guidelines that provide structure while honoring teacher autonomy. Here are some suggestions:
Teacher learning must focus on ensuring excellent learning for each student. This vision should become the "why" of professional development. In a cutting-edge PD model, teacher learning shouldn't be strictly topic-based—about apps for writing or about formative assessment for math, for example. Instead, driven by a commitment to providing each student with the best teaching and learning opportunities a school can offer, teacher growth should, for instance, explore ways in which a variety of apps might be useful in increasing motivation for students who struggle with writing, or in extending the reach of students who are already skilled well beyond grade-level expectations in writing. In the second case, it might demonstrate ways in which formative assessment can help a full range of students understand and use their growth trajectories in math to build agency as learners. Whatever the "topic" of professional development, the "focus" should always be on ways in which the experience will help teachers increase the quality of learning for each student.
Expectations for learning should be clear to both leaders and teachers. No matter who proposes a learning path, teachers and leaders alike should understand how the proposed learning is relevant to the classroom work of the teacher and how it will contribute to high-quality learning opportunities for each student. School leaders and teachers should develop descriptors of what constitutes effective instruction and revise them periodically to reflect evolving learner needs and teacher growth. Such descriptors will enable shared dialogue and decision making and sharpen understanding and action. Teacher self-reflection, formative assessment of teachers, and ultimately teacher evaluation should focus on ways in which teacher learning visibly impacts the quality of learning for a full range of students.
Plans should provide options about the place, time, format, and structure of the learning. Teachers are a varied lot and come at learning in different ways. Most lead complex lives and juggle the consuming demands of teaching, parenting, and often a second job. In an era when expanded learning platforms and schedules are a reality, teachers should be able to match learning options with their personal schedules and learning preferences.
Some teachers might elect to work independently with online resources from a university library to extend their content knowledge, while others might prefer to volunteer for a local community agency to help them better understand the needs of immigrant families in their area. Still others might be part of a group of teachers that collect and analyze data from their classes and meet after school to discuss what the data reveals about the impact of a new approach to teaching science on student engagement and achievement. Teachers could also elect to work in edcamps, teachmeets, or Twitter forums to learn from an expanded group of colleagues.
Learning should match teacher entry points. Professional development should meet teachers where they are in their development as educators. Novice teachers, master teachers, and everyone in between needs to encounter challenges that move them forward from their current points of professional proficiency. That rarely happens if teachers' entry points are not a key consideration in designing growth plans. Teachers, like students, need learning opportunities that are developmentally challenging at a given time in their development.
Learning should be tied closely to the classroom. The most powerful learning often happens directly in the classroom and is linked to work a teacher is doing with his or her students at a given time. Mentoring, coaching, and collaborating with peers on the work of teaching can be immensely instructive and should be a focal point of teacher growth. Schools make an investment when they support classroom-focused professional growth opportunities.
Learning should contribute directly to a teacher's understanding of the big picture of student learning. Too often, professional development results in the equivalent of a bag of glass rather than a mosaic. A session on integrating art into science lessons is likely to have little impact if it doesn't help the teacher understand how the strategy could improve students' grasp of the material. When teachers accumulate bits of information and skills that do not help them holistically understand the art and science of teaching and learning, they and their students lose.
We often talk about wanting students to become lifelong learners. That doesn't occur accidentally for students or teachers. It happens when dynamic learning experiences move students from compliance to achievement to curiosity so that they develop questioning minds, discriminating eyes, and a persistent itch to know more. Learning pathways that nurture these characteristics in teachers will powerfully shape their lives and the lives of their students. We can't help the students in our care build promising lives unless we invest wisely and energetically in helping teachers continually build their promise as well.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

 

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