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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

How to Engage Educators When Leading Professional Development

A pre-conference letter and a post-conference video help deepen learning
By Michael Nelson — May 15, 2023 5 min read
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In a recent blog post published by Peter DeWitt, Is Turnkey Training for Educators Really Effective?, he states,

“Over the years, turnkey training has been a popular method of professional learning in schools. It typically involves sending a teacher to a one-day workshop or training and then requiring that teacher to go back to their school and train their colleagues in the same content that the teacher just learned.” Learning it once and being expected to turn around and teach it to others is not optimal. Can a transfer of learning even happen after one-day workshops where participants aren’t necessarily expected to turn around and teach their colleagues but may be expected to use it within their classroom or school? Unlikely.

As a former principal, I would lead staff during our professional learning time and frequently see the transfer of learning as I visited classrooms. The results were immediate: We would focus on a strategy, and then, as I went into classrooms to watch students engaged in learning, I would see those strategies in use.

As a superintendent, I would occasionally see transfer of learning from our professional learning events. There were a variety of reasons why that happened, including that people had differing perceptions of the purpose of professional learning. One thing I’ve learned in my experience is the further removed a leader is from their audience, the harder it is to get your message turned into practice.

Currently, I am leading professional learning for the Washington Association of School Administrators. This professional learning isn’t necessarily turnkey, but there is an expectation that the participants will use the learning back at their schools. This role has me the furthest from the classroom. I sometimes wonder if any of the professional learning I am designing is transferring to the leaders in attendance.

For the past two years, the Washington Association of School Administrators has been involved in a two-year instructional leadership network directed by Chris Beals under the advisement of DeWitt and Jenni Donohoo. I watched Peter and Jenni consistently use success criteria throughout the two years. Recently, I learned from Peter the impact of a pre-learning document and a post-learning video. I was the learner with new knowledge. It was up to me to apply this new knowledge (far transfer). Far transfer exists when an individual has to apply their new knowledge and skills in a different context from the one in which the learning originally took place (Detterman. 1993).

Pre- and Post-Learning Communication

As a leader and learner, I practice self-awareness by reflecting on what I do that works and what I could do to enhance the work that I do. I decided to incorporate the strategies of a pre-learning letter, post-learning video, and success criteria at a recent conference for school superintendents.

The pre-learning letter included:

  • The conference success criteria (2 examples below)

    • To learn the importance of a strong districtwide culture of belonging rooted in our work, our why, and our values.
    • To engage in discussions of how you can focus on the learning of the students and adults in your district.
  • Reflective learning questions
  • Resources for each of the keynote speakers

Following the conference, I created a four-minute video sharing the success criteria and how the electronic resources for all keynote addresses and breakout sessions could be located.

Data from the conference evaluation survey showed 95 percent of participants reported they transferred their learning into practice back in their districts. When asked about the impact of the pre-learning letter and post-learning video, responses included:

How did the pre-learning email sent a week before the conference or the post-learning video attached to this email enhance and support your conference learning experience?

  • This was a great resource. I found it helped me get ready for the conference!
  • The pre-learning letter was great. Truly at this time of year the post-learning video was very helpful and reminded me about what took place over the weekend. I also was able to use it to revisit my notes. It was short, concise and helpful.
  • It was so helpful! After reading the pre-conference email, I was excited to get there and dig in. I also loved having resources in advance to better prepare for learning.

Success Criteria

In another evaluation question, 97 percent of participants reported they felt the success criteria were met. Diving into this with an open-response question, the following are samples of what was shared.

How did having the Success Criteria stated at the beginning and end of the conference support your learning experience?

  • I appreciated it. It helped me frame my learning as I was thinking about the conference and traveling to it.
  • This helped me get in the right mindset to evaluate my own thoughts around these topics, and get ready to learn. It was very helpful.
  • The success criteria helped to ground our learning in specific areas and I appreciate the focus and returning to it often!

Whether a principal, district office administrator/superintendent, or state professional learning director leading professional learning, you want learning to occur. It is more clearly evident to see deep transfer of knowledge when there are regular and ongoing follow-up connections. This is more likely to occur with a principal and even a district administrator and superintendent.

As a leader in statewide professional learning, often providing one-day workshops where participants don’t necessarily have the pressure to go back and instantly teach others, it is critical to consistently utilize strategies such as success criteria and pre- and post-learning communication as a vehicle for enhancing the likelihood of deep transfer of knowledge.

DeWitt states,

“In professional learning sessions, participants must be given opportunities to engage in metacognitive strategies to understand their thinking around the content, as well as how they already engage in that content, and make plans for how they would move forward with increased depth when it comes to that content.”

As someone who facilitates professional learning, I always want to make sure I am doing the best job I can to help increase the depth of others, and providing success criteria before the session and the post-conference video helps to ensure that those participants who are engaged with the learning can successfully increase their depth.

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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