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November 1, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 7

Teacher-Led Learning: A Key Part of a Balanced PD Diet

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Bring up the topic of professional development (PD) around teachers, and you may well encounter a few sighs, eye rolls, or other expressions of frustration. Busy teachers, who themselves are responsible for structuring effective learning environments, understandably have little patience for ineffective PD (which often features external experts providing limited instruction on skills and assumes that new ideas can easily replace, or integrate into, teachers' existing practices). These sessions can fail to account for the contextual nature of teachers' work. Ineffective—and even harmful—PD has been a stubborn part of many educators' professional lives for far too long.

The Allure of Teacher-Led PD

Given PD's checkered past of reducing teachers to largely passive roles, teacher-directed approaches offer an attractive alternative. Models such as Lesson Study, Critical Friends Groups, and the National Writing Project have all empowered teachers as leaders for decades, and many districts give teacher teams leadership over local professional learning communities (PLCs). In recent years, social media has provided self-directed ways for teachers to learn with colleagues. For instance, many teachers use tools like Facebook, Twitter, or Voxer to find and collaborate with fellow teachers. Participant-driven Edcamp unconferences have also grown in popularity (Carpenter & Linton, 2018). Students, educators, and schools can all benefit when such teacher-led PD results in learning that is more relevant, situated, and empowering.
<BQ> Relevant. When teachers lead PD, they can select content they consider most appropriate and timely for their specific classrooms and communities. For example, teachers can leverage social media to facilitate just-in-time professional learning opportunities such as the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum and #CharlottesvilleSyllabus resource sharing among educators on Twitter in the wake of 2017's white nationalist rally and counter protests in Charlottesville, Va. Similarly, teachers who may be among a handful in their school or district teaching specialized content can find PD in niche topics by accessing Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags such as #APbiochat and #Langchat, or Edmodo subject communities. Situated. While PD models sometimes treat educators as empty vessels, teacher-led learning is influenced by beliefs, experiences, and practices. Teachers must translate what they learn into practice, and decontextualized, one-size-fits-all PD makes such translation more challenging. Personalized, teacher-led PD can leverage prior classroom experiences as resources for learning and current practice as a laboratory for experimentation. For instance, the Lesson Study PD model puts teachers in the driver's seat to design, implement, and reflect upon sample lessons that they actually teach to their students. Empowering. Schools and districts can benefit from the leadership skills that teachers develop when they have more opportunities to direct their professional learning. A teacher whose ideas are positively received during an informal Edcamp discussion may become more confident to speak up in a staff meeting or to volunteer to present at an upcoming district PD session. Additionally, empowered teachers have opportunities to model for students their participation in active, participatory learning activities and may be motivated to provide similar learner-directed activities for those students. </BQ>

The Challenges of Teacher-Led PD

Despite the benefits of teacher-led PD, schools must be careful not to replace shallow training approaches with naive or overly idealistic notions of teacher-led PD. Teachers can encounter thorny challenges when they direct their learning:
  1. Teachers don't always know what they don't know.Even the most self-aware educators may not perceive gaps in their understanding or see areas where they need to improve. Reflection and honest self-critique can sometimes help, but inevitably, outside parties must help teachers recognize their blind spots and growth areas. For instance, principals and coaches can still play important roles in helping teachers identify goals for their professional learning, even when teachers determine how they attain those goals.
  2. Teachers need initial scaffolding for collaboration and leadership skills. Educators who interact effectively with the young people in their classrooms are not necessarily natural leaders, facilitators, or moderators when working with adults. Disagreement is inevitable in any community, and teachers may need help learning how to navigate conflicts that emerge during teacher-led PD in ways that are productive and contribute to their growth. For example, the <LINK URL="https://www.nsrfharmony.org/" LINKTARGET="_blank">National School Reform Faculty</LINK>, a professional development initiative of the Harmony Education Center in Bloomington, Ind., has created various protocols that can provide structure to teachers' discussions of their work and support their critical analysis of teaching and learning.
  3. Teachers need exposure to diverse perspectives and ideas. Although digital technologies can connect educators across traditional school, district, and regional lines (Carpenter &amp; Green, 2016), not all teachers avail themselves of such opportunities, and teacher-led PD can become hyper-local or ideologically homogeneous in unhealthy ways. Teachers who are too inwardly focused may waste time reinventing the wheel instead of capitalizing on what educators elsewhere have learned. Social media can also allow educators to silo themselves with like-minded colleagues who confirm their existing beliefs instead of instigating consideration of alternative perspectives. Teachers may therefore need encouragement to ensure that self-directed learning does not become insular.

Avoiding False PD Dichotomies

Given such challenges, teacher-led PD is no silver bullet, nor does it inherently oppose system-directed PD. No single PD approach can entirely accommodate teaching's complexity. In some instances, PD may be led exclusively by teachers, but in many scenarios, PD combines elements of both teacher leadership and leadership by principals, district-level administrators, coaches, and external experts. For instance, administrators might set goals for a school's or a district's PLC work, but teachers can then direct much of that actual work. Or, a district might organize a PD day that includes external speakers, local administrators, and teachers leading sessions. Research by one of us (Carpenter &amp; McFarlane, 2018) by one of us on district-run Edcamps found that even when administrators mandated attendance, there were still many leaderships opportunities for teachers, and participants felt that leaders respected their autonomy and contributions.

A Balanced PD Diet

Teachers should have a range of PD that pushes them to grow in different ways and includes a mix of degrees of teacher leadership. For example, if teachers need new technical knowledge or skills related to a topic where local experience or expertise is lacking, bringing in an external expert to introduce basic information may be an appropriate step. Teachers might then take more leadership in how they apply the new knowledge by individually pursuing a related microcredential, further delving into the topic via Twitter chats, or collecting and analyzing data with their local PLC colleagues. Indeed, research by Hall and Hord (2014) suggests that an ideal approach to developing teachers and changing schools simultaneously includes both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Administrators can take steps to support and leverage teachers' leadership of their own learning:
  • Develop and articulate a shared vision. Administrators and teachers benefit from developing a common understanding of teacher-led PD and defining expectations for how teacher-led activities count toward PD requirements. Administrators and teachers can identify ways to connect personalized, teacher-directed PD to the larger school mission.
  • Validate voluntary teacher-led PD. In some cases, leaders can encourage teacher-led PD by recognizing activities in which teachers are already engaged. For example, various districts have found ways to count teachers' participation in activities such as Twitter chats and Edcamps toward their PD and certification requirements. Administrators can also informally support and better understand teachers' PD experiences by occasionally participating in their activities. Well-intentioned administrators must be careful, however, that efforts to validate do not squeeze out the very autonomy and agency that attract many teachers in the first place.
  • Provide resources. Though teacher-led PD can be held at no cost or low cost, often substantial costs are involved. For instance, schools may need to purchase access to digital tools or pay substitutes so that Lesson Study teams can observe the sample lessons as they are taught in colleagues' classrooms. Administrators must allocate ongoing resources to support teacher-led PD.
  • Check on and share progress. The ultimate goal of teacher-led PD should be teacher growth that leads to improved student outcomes. Administrators can encourage progress through brief, informal check-ins with teachers. Regularly planned events like grade-level or staff meetings can include opportunities for teachers to share and discuss what they have learned from their different PD activities. Such events encourage accountability and can help teachers and administrators learn from their colleagues' endeavors.

Carpenter, J. P., &amp; Green, T. D. (2017, January). Mobile instant messaging for professional learning: Educators' perspectives on and uses of Voxer. Teaching &amp; Teacher Education, 68, 53–67. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X17304742

Carpenter, J. P., &amp; Linton, J. N. (2018, July). Educators' perspectives on the impact of Edcamp unconference professional learning. Teaching &amp; Teacher Education, 73, 56–69. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X17312374

Carpenter, J. P., &amp; MacFarlane, M. R. (2018, October). Educator perceptions of district-mandated Edcamp unconferences. Teaching &amp; Teacher Education, 75, 71–82. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X18302580

Hall, G. E., &amp; Hord, S. M. (2014). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Jeffrey P. Carpenter is a professor of education at Elon University and director of the Elon Teaching Fellows Program. He was a high school English and ESOL teacher for 10 years in various countries before moving into teacher education.

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