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Professional Development Is Broken. Let’s Fix It.

By Guest Blogger — November 04, 2013 6 min read

Note: Eric Westendorf, co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.com and former principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, DC, is guest blogging this week.

As schools and districts across the country implement the Common Core State Standards, the need to provide high quality professional development for teachers has never been greater. Yet, despite the more than $3 billion invested annually in teacher PD, few in our industry would say the money is well spent. If you’ve ever observed a typical PD session, it’s obvious why: undifferentiated “sit and listen” sessions abound, requiring little engagement from teachers and generating few personal insights as a result.

To improve teacher PD, we need to shift to a talent development model. Research shows there are two factors critical for developing talent: engaging in deep practice, and focusing on challenging, bite-sized tasks. In today’s post, I will describe how these two ingredients can unlock teacher potential and build their capacity to orchestrate powerful learning experiences for students. On Wednesday, I will focus on the role technology can play in supporting and accelerating talent development. Finally, on Friday, I’m excited to explore the idea of a participatory curriculum -- one that leverages technology to create a virtuous circle between curriculum and professional development.

Engage in Deep Practice
In his book The Talent Code, award-winning author Daniel Coyle identifies deep practice as the central ingredient to talent development. To develop your expertise in an area, you have to work deliberately on whatever it is you are trying to master. For example, a violinist must focus intently on playing a sonata, a carpenter on making a bookshelf. They struggle, they have setbacks, they problem solve, and, as a result, they develop their talent.

If the central role of teachers is to orchestrate powerful learning experiences for students, then teacher PD ought to be practice-based: focused on deep and structured practice of planning and delivering these learning experiences. Ideally, like an artist who turns to old masters to develop their understanding of shape, line and composition, we do so in ways that build on what excellent teachers have discovered will work with students. Teachers study high quality lessons and resources and then try their own hand; deliberately thinking through the impact of each choice on student learning.

There are a number of reasons why this works. First, we differentiate the professional development for teachers. Talking about “differentiation” is one thing; figuring out how to differentiate a particular lesson or resource to meet the needs of your students is another. In this model, a 4th grade math teacher works on a different plan than a 6th grade English language arts teacher. We move away from a nonsensical one-size-fits-all workshop on differentiation and focus on what really matters for that particular teacher.

Second, this practice-based model creates accountability. Teachers cannot coast through the experience; they are responsible for creating something. At the end, it’s evident whether they did or didn’t. And when the best work product can be showcased publicly or made available to other teachers in their practice, there is an incentive to invest in doing great work. They are not doing it because it is mandated; they are doing it because they want to put their best foot forward in front of their peers. They also know that if their work is high quality, it will actually be used by their peers.

The most important benefit of all, however, is that a practice-based methodology involves feedback. I can find out whether the plans I develop actually work with students. Did they help my students learn? Teachers can use “exit slips” or student work samples to find out. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman points out that people only develop strong, useful intuitions when they get quick and clear feedback on the effects of their actions. Not all professions provide quick, direct feedback, but when mechanisms - like those I will explore in Wednesday’s post - exist to enable focused feedback, it’s an opportunity not to be ignored.

Focus on Challenging, Bite-Sized Tasks
I’m convinced that one reason our industry provides such ineffective professional development is that we feel bad for teachers. As a former teacher, I know how incredibly taxing it is to manage a room full of kids each school day. And when I was a young principal, it felt mean asking teachers to work hard when they were exhausted from a full day leading classes. Yet, I’ve come to understand that efforts to be sensitive end up being disrespectful.

What teachers really need is time. If we are going to ask teachers to use their time by passively listening to a lecture, we are wasting it. Professional development ought to challenge teachers to work hard on something they need to get done well; and to structure that time in a way that sets them up for success.

We discovered the power of this approach somewhat accidentally at LearnZillion, when TeachFest, a conference we organized to enable hundreds of teachers to work together on creating high quality Common Core resources for free use by their peers, turned into the equivalent of a coder Hack-a-thon, with teachers working together to crack the code.

Unlike most conferences, TeachFest is all about work. Teachers spend 80% of the time sitting around tables in teams, working on crafting lessons. On the second night of a recent TeachFest in Atlanta, after a full day of planning, we gave the teachers three options: (1) go out on the town, (2) watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on a large screen (with open bar and candy), or (3) continue to work on lessons in the basement of the hotel. At 11pm that evening, most of them were down in the basement working on their lessons. They literally looked as happy as kids in a candy shop (and that wasn’t just because the candy had migrated from the movie to the basement).

This only happened, however, because our challenges were structured to be bite-sized. At TeachFest, we break lesson planning down into challenging but do-able steps. First, they analyze high quality examples. Then they analyze a rubric that describes the attributes of high quality. Then they research one Common Core standard, etc, etc.

Every step has a template to help guide the work. Every step involves discussion or feedback from a peer or coach. Every step is challenging, necessary to achieve quality, and do-able.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink identifies three sources of motivation: autonomy (you are given responsibility for doing something challenging), mastery (you can see that you are progressing toward mastery), and purpose (you believe what you’re doing matters). When professional development focuses on a useful product, and then breaks the creation of that product into doable steps, magic happens. Andrea Lemon, one of the teachers at TeachFest, describes this magic in her blog post: The Three Cs I Learned at LearnZillion TeachFest 2013.

This magic is accelerated when you bring technology into the mix. Stay tuned for Wednesday’s post, which focuses on the role technology can play in supporting teacher talent development.

-- Eric Westendorf

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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