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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Attending a Professional Learning Session? Many Educators Don’t Know Why

Education leaders need to set the stage
By Peter DeWitt — January 30, 2023 6 min read
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“Professional learning is a lot like student learning where educators and leaders focus on high leverage practices and design outcomes for those practices.” So say Hargreaves and Fullan (2017). They go on to say that “professional development is where educators and leaders can focus on mindfulness and team building.”

Unfortunately, none of that will happen if educators do not understand why they are in the room in the first place.

As an educator, can you imagine being asked, voluntold, or told to attend a professional-development session without understanding why you are being asked to go? My guess is that there are more than just a few of you reading this shaking your head yes.

Last September, five school leadership teams came together for a six-day intensive workshop series focusing on collective leader efficacy. Collective leader efficacy is a shared commitment that school leadership teams can have a positive impact on student learning. The series of workshops, based on the book I wrote with the same title, is an opportunity for these teams, some new, some veteran, to work together for two full days each month over a three-month period.

The schools represented were high poverty, mostly public, with one charter school represented. What was interesting from the first hour we were together is the fact that one team had no idea why they were there. When asked why they were taking part in the series of workshops, all of them answered that they didn’t know. When pressed a bit further to try to get some level of understanding, I asked if the team was the school’s instructional-leadership team. “No,” was the immediate answer.

“We were called the empowerment team by our principal.”

“Great,” I replied. “What does that mean?”

“We don’t know,” was their answer.

It’s hard to develop a shared commitment when you don’t even know why you’re in the room. Although this may sound like an anomaly, the reality is that there are many educators sitting in workshops and keynotes wondering why they are there.

In order to help people make connections to the work, I always begin with the use of success criteria (watch this YouTube video on the topic), so participants understand what they will be learning. However, I also ask for the success criteria of the participants. All of this sounds like a good thing, but if people don’t know why they are in a workshop, they may not be able to spell out what they want to learn there.

That is where metacognition enters into the situation.

I always sure that I send a letter to participants before workshops with a blog or article to read prior to attending the session. As a principal, I used to flip faculty meetings to focus on learning, and sending out an article or blog to read is part of that process. I ask participants to consider what they need within their own practices that may help them understand what to look for and connect with when they are in the session. Metacognition is more important than we may think.

The Role of Metacognition

Metacognition involves the understanding of how we learn as individuals. Cognition involves areas like time management or study skills, but metacognition is focused on how each one of us engages in time management or study skills in our own individual ways.

Helen Timperley, a university researcher out of New Zealand, and someone I sit on an advisory board with for the Victorian government in Australia, focuses a great deal of her work on professional learning and development and the role of metacognition.

We spoke a few months ago about my dilemma with people attending professional learning without really knowing why they are there. If there is a lack of understanding in why someone is sitting in a professional-learning and -development session, the likelihood of them transferring the learning from the session to actual practice in the classroom or school is highly unlikely.

Timperley believes that professional learning and development does not start when educators show up to a session. Professional learning and development needs to begin before educators even step foot in the session. If participants don’t see a connection to their own work, most of the learning that could take place is doomed.

During professional learning sessions, I find myself incorporating metacognitive activities more and more these days. Those activities may include graphic organizers like KWLH charts that focus on what participants know, want to know or even how they know it, or think-alouds, for which I model an activity first and then ask them to engage in it, and the activities help bridge the gap between what the participants know and need to know.

As much as all of that sounds intriguing, there is also another step that I have learned to take when engaging in an activity, and that is actually being intentional about talking with the audience about the learning that I am hoping they will gain by doing the activity. When we are not intentional about the learning that educators will engage in and only focus on an activity, professor/researcher Steven Katz refers to this as the activity trap. This means that as teachers or facilitators, we focus more on doing a protocol than we do on the learning that should come from engaging in the protocol.

Questions to Ask Before a Workshop

A few months ago, I was meeting with a group of instructional coaches. They work in a high-poverty school district that has a low proficiency rate for ELA and math among their English-learners population. The coaches were getting prepared to attend an RTI conference, and when asked what they were hoping to learn, most responded that they were told to go.

That, of course, didn’t answer the question.

This is not a slight on the instructional coaches because many are busy moving in a variety of directions and had not had the time to process the upcoming conference. However, busy or not, it was a potential missed opportunity. If instructional coaches don’t think about what they need in their own practices to help teachers focus on a challenge they are facing in the classroom, as were those same coaches attending a national conference focusing on high-leverage practices, there is a problem.

So, I asked a few basic questions. Those questions were:

What are the literacy and math challenges you are experiencing in classrooms around the district?

What interventions are you helping teachers with when it comes to those challenges?

Where are your areas of growth in this work?

Which sessions at the RTI conference might best help you strengthen those areas of growth while simultaneously helping teachers in their classrooms?

In the End

Professional learning and development are meant to be ways to increase our knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, there are many times when the potential learners in the room do not understand why they are in the room in the first place, and every one of us has a hand in making sure that no longer happens.

Learning doesn’t just happen when participants enter into the session doors, just like it doesn’t just happen for students when they enter into the classroom. Learning is constant and needs to be connected and intentional. It needs to involve the teacher and learner as collaborative partners, and that learning and teaching can flip among those participants while conversations take place. There are many times when I am seen as the teacher because I’m facilitating the workshop, but the participants begin engaging with me and giving me their perspective and I become the learner.

How do we bridge the knowledge gap? Those attending professional learning need to ask why they are going and do the metacognitive work to understand what they need when they get there. Leaders must be intentional about talking with those they ask to go to professional learning about why they are going, and workshop facilitators need to make sure they are intentional with what people could learn while they are with them.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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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