Teaching Profession Opinion

The Learning Our Teachers Deserve

By Contributing Blogger — February 06, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This post is by Scott Hartl, President and CEO of Expeditionary Learning.


Too many of our teachers have had to suffer through one-off, lecture-style “sit and get” professional development sessions. We know this model of learning doesn’t work for students. Well, no surprise, it doesn’t work for teachers either. It can be ruthlessly boring and far removed from the context-specific challenges they face in their classrooms. Among all professions, it would seem that educators should be especially good at effective adult learning, but too often this is not the case.

We are at crossroads in American education. The new standards have set a line in the sand--a higher bar for what our students should know and be able to do--from which we cannot retreat. They create an opportunity for positive change, central to our core democratic values and American competitiveness, that may not arise again for a very long time.

These higher expectations of students open the door to deeper learning. But, getting different results in student learning will require significant change in how teachers teach. At its core, this challenge is about effective adult learning. Changes in how students learn will only occur if we overhaul the professional learning for the adults who shape the classroom experience of students.

For most knowledge-based professions, job-embedded professional learning is how new professional standards come into practice. At teaching hospitals, doctors engage in rounds. Similar structures for teacher professional learning are now standard practice in the countries at the top of the international rankings for student performance. But in this country, for far too long and for far too many teachers, professional learning has been ineffective.

At Expeditionary Learning, we have distilled 20 years of classroom experience and professional coaching into a model for professional learning that can be widely adapted to release the abilities of teachers to create transformational learning experiences for their students. My colleague, Libby Woodfin, describes a three-pronged framework for effective deeper instruction in her recent post, “Would You Know Deeper Learning If You Saw It?"--instruction that challenges students, instruction that engages students, and instruction that empowers students with tools for learning. This framework should apply to effective professional learning for teachers as well. The starting points are explicit and mirror the same approach we know works for students.

Challenge and support teachers to improve classroom practices by providing a vision worth changing for. Too often professional development deals in abstractions, rather than engaging teachers in the challenge of learning new content and skills and applying their learning to their classroom contexts. For example, if we want teachers to believe their students are capable of mastering far more rigorous content, why shouldn’t they themselves engage deeply as learners in this content?

We have seen this kind of teacher learning. When teachers use curriculum for professional development, they dig right in as learners. Using a specific unit as their anchor text, they analyze the “what” of rigorous academic content, and the “how” of instructional strategies. They examine worthy texts, concepts, and problems to identify the right levels of complexity. They try on new roles: focusing on the right questions, instead of the right answers. They grapple with big ideas and the inquiry-based tasks that lead to deep conceptual understanding. They develop their ability to support students in the concrete tasks of explaining and transferring conceptual understanding. By engaging deeply as learners themselves in this content, their beliefs about what their students can do are transformed. Their motivation to change their practice shifts, and they have the concrete tools in hand to bring change back to their classrooms. CORRECTED to remove the name of a specific curriculum.

Engage teachers in active learning. When students are engaged in learning, it looks and sounds different. The same is true for adults. How many professional development sessions have we all attended where adults are slumped in their chairs as the Powerpoint slides advance from one to the next? If we want to change teacher practice, then learning needs to activate each teacher’s “need to know.” Our professional development engages teachers’ curiosity by connecting their learning to the real world content that they will be tackling with their students. Teachers are talking and writing, they are analyzing student work from each other’s classrooms. The professional learning is noisy and active. Expert facilitators model instructional strategies for collaborative problem-solving that strengthen teachers’ connections to each other, creating the professional trust that is critical for innovation and risk-taking.

Empower teachers with the tools for their own learning. We know that every classroom, school, and district has its own complexity and context. To be effective, teachers need to be supported as the creative agents in their unique classroom settings. The same growth mindset that students need to develop so that they believe they can “get smart” through effort also needs to drive professional learning.

In our professional development, we use models as starting places for teachers and leaders to build understanding and create a vision for engaged learning. Teachers working with the detailed daily lessons from our ELA curriculum can see and understand the instructional choices embedded in the curriculum so that they can adopt and adapt the content in original ways that will fit their unique context. Similarly, teachers use exemplars of student work from our Center for Student Work to empower creative adaptation, release new original work, and support excellence. The act of engaging teachers in models is not a color-by-numbers exercise, but rather a behind-the-scenes tour of master practice.

Deeper professional learning for adults should mirror deeper learning for students.

States, districts and schools all bear responsibility for developing the capacity of our teaching force through high quality job-embedded professional learning over time. We all have a stake in getting professional learning right:

  • Challenging learning that is rooted in the “what” of quality content and the “how” of deeper instruction.
  • Engaged learning that is powered by a growth mindset.
  • Empowered learning that respects teachers as creative agents armed with practical, high quality resources and tools they can adapt for their students.

Under these conditions, our experience shows that teachers of all levels, in widely diverse settings, can find new energy, passion and professionalism in their chosen profession. It is a vision worth changing for.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.