Walking the Walk: Providing the Type of Support and Instruction for Educators that We Would Like to See in their Classrooms
Back in 2013, the Center for Public Education released a report entitled "Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability". Of the findings within the report, it was stated that "[a]vailability of [professional development] alone is not an issue. In fact, in a recent study, researchers found that while 90 percent of teachers reported participating in professional development, most of those teachers also reported that it was totally useless (Darling-Hammond et al, 2009)" This is mostly due to the fact that many professional development workshops or programs for educators use the "spray and pray" (provide lots and lots of information and hope it sinks in), "sit and get" (listen to the expert and absorb their mastery), or "drive by" (one-time offerings) models for helping them develop new and often complex skills. Research has shown that professional development programs that engage educators in support and/or programming that averages 49 hours in length over six months to one year can increase student achievement (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, and Shapley, 2007), not the types of models listed previously.
More importantly though, the Common Core State Standards (which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia) emphasize and will ultimately test for students being able to critically think and problem solve as opposed to being able to do low-level recall or procedural routines. As a result, the Center for Public Education report advocates, "teachers have to learn new ways to teach, ways to teach they likely never experienced themselves and that they rarely see their colleagues engage in. Creating this type of teacher development is one of the biggest challenges school districts face today".
So What Could Effective Educator PD Look Like?
Within futurePREP'd. we work with educators to help them experience and utilize three interrelated concepts: (1) Project Based Learning, (2) Design Thinking (what we often refer to as the Creative Sequence), and 21st century skills such as flexibility and adaptability and technology literacy (what we refer to as the Skills4Success). We do this by helping them uncover the basics behind each of these concepts, guiding them through solving a real-life issue for a local organization or business, having them work in a summer program in which they guide actual students that are similar to the students that they normally teach through the process of solving a real-life issue for a local organization or business (click here to see some of the final presentations from the High School program), and (finally) having then design and implement an experience for their own classrooms based upon what they learned. Overall, this entire process ranges from 60 hours for K - 5th grade educators to 120 hours for High School educators spread across six months.
Supporting Deeper Levels of Educator Learning
We have had some great success with this basic model of "gradual release of responsibility" in which educators practice and eventually take full responsibility for the instruction and practices that we would like them to use. Yet, maybe as a result of this success, another issue (albeit a good one) has cropped up: We have many enthusiastic and dedicated educators that have worked with us that want to continually deepen their practice around Project-Based Learning, Design Thinking, and 21st century skills.
As a result, this begs the question, how do we continue to nurture this passion and support these educators on their journey?
In order to address this question, this year we have decided to "walk the walk" with educators that are returning to us for a second year by modeling the type of support and instruction that we would like to see them provide for their students within their classrooms. As opposed to coming in with a set agenda for how our time with the educators will be spent (which, in all honesty, is something that we have done to varying degrees in the past) we have decided to let the actual goals, needs, current level of practice, and aspirations of the educators we are working with guide what we will do together. We are in the midst of kicking this process off with the educators this year and here is how we have structured it:
(Step 1) Bringing in Work that they have Tried in their Classrooms
For the first session with the returning educators, we asked them to bring examples of things that they tried within their classrooms. This included lesson plans, student work/products, pictures from the classroom, etc. We also asked the educators to bring these things in a "physical" format so that others could look at and interact with them.
(Step 2) Reflection on What they have Tried
In an open area, we had the educators post the work that they brought and do a variation of a SWOT analysis: (1) Strengths (What things went well? What did you and the students like?), (2) Weaknesses (What didn't go as expected? What could be improved?), (3) Opportunities (Are there any exciting opportunities that you could take advantage of?), and (4) Barriers (What are the things that are getting in the way?
(Step 3) Sharing of Work and SWOB Analysis and Looking for Areas of Focus
After everyone had their work posted and their SWOB analysis done, we went around as a group and heard about what each person had tried during the year and what they thought the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and barriers were related to their current practice. As opposed to passively listening to each person's description though, we had those that were not presenting listen for areas of interest that might serve as a focus for our work together throughout the rest of the year and the summer and jot each one down on a separate, large post-it note. This could be a weakness that someone mentioned that one found interesting, an opportunity that could be explored, or a barrier that needs to be addressed.
(Step 4) Sharing of Areas of Focus and Grouping
Once each educator had a chance to share the work that they had brought and their SWOB analysis, they had a moment or two to jot down any additional ideas that they had for areas of focus for the work ahead and then we shared out what areas of focus were identified. As ideas were shared, post-it notes were stuck to the wall and similar ideas and concepts were grouped around each other. After all of the post-it notes had been shared, a discussion was held around the meaning of the various groups and what the work ahead might look like based upon the discussion.
(Step 5) Design the Journey Ahead Based Upon the Information that was Uncovered
Now we are in the midst of the exciting (and difficult) portion of the process - designing the journey ahead for the returning educators. So far we have conducted this session with a group of returning elementary and middle school educators and in the next week we will be conducting it with another middle school group and a group of returning high school educators. Themes that have emerged fro the two groups that we have worked with include the desire to create a local network to gain access to authentic audiences and businesses for classrooms and helping educators (especially those that are on the same teaching team) who are not familiar with practices such as Project Based Learning and Design Thinking gain an appreciation and initial understanding for them.
While it definitely would have been easier to assume what the next level of work for these returning educators is and designed our supports and programming for them according to those assumptions, what we will be doing will ultimately be more authentic, more likely to address the actual needs and current level of understanding of the participating educators, and (as a result) more likely to affect the educators' practice. In the end, if we are not willing to do this for the educators that we work with, how can we expect them to do it with their own students?
About Jason Pasatta
I am passionate about learning, design, and the potential that we all possess. Currently I am the Director of Innovation Services for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in West Michigan, where I the lead the development of new and innovative educational programs, supports, and systems.