Teaching Opinion

Why Professional Development Fails

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 14, 2018 4 min read
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Educators are expected to fill many different roles and responsibilities. Teachers are expected to be experts at curriculum, instruction, assessment, technology, parental and collegial relationships, child development, classroom management, communication, and mentoring among others. Teachers who become leaders are expected to have all those skills and become systems thinkers, personnel and fiscal experts, evaluators, safety experts, public relations experts and social media adept. The good news is that most are good at all these multi-dimensional facets of their jobs. Often, the skills are developed through academic coursework and teacher preparation programs and they grow through mentoring, professional reading, or from an occasional mind-opening professional development opportunity.

Change Begins at the Edges

Unless there is consistent support and practice, with feedback and evaluation, too often what is read, experienced, and taught have only a moment’s life span. Children, parents and colleagues rarely learn what potential was offered and current practice returns. Schools change one teacher at a time or they will simply remain the same at their core. All of us know those who are the teachers on the edge...the ones who are pushing and pulling and agitating others with new thinking and why not questions. Change begins on those edges.

Our studies of the value and implementation of STEM as a system-thinking shift impacting school or district wide learning environments revealed two additional constants as changes emerged and took root in those systems. All the schools successful in the shift had cultures where the leadership created and supported an environment of risk taking and support for adult learning. Those professionals being asked to implement changes in curriculum and assessment felt safe taking risks. The leaders had honed feedback skills that were positive, formative and encouraging, not critical and summative. Teachers had experienced trial and error, received colleague and leader feedback, regrouped and tried again. As they learned confidence grew as it does for students as well. The process leads forward and out of the box. It bubbles up into how teachers and their students relate and it is exciting. Risk taking was becoming the norm. Encouragement replaced critical tones in feedback. Hope and forward thinking was found throughout the system including the business and parental communities.

Culture supported the continuous shifting to a newer way of organizing. The second factor emerged. While working through the logistics of relationship and content, and the culture welcomed risk taking, schools shifted into a problem solving as the shared method for learning. Teachers began studying problem-based learning as an approach and a practice. They, collaboratively, began changing how curriculum and assessment were organized around problems. Ironically, in their book The Adult Learner, Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III and Richard Swanson report:

Closely related to the role of prior experience in shaping learning is the role of current experiences in shaping the need to learn...adults generally prefer a problem solving orientation to learning, rather than subject-centered learning. Furthermore, they learn best when new information is presented in real-life context. As a result, the experiential approach to learning has become firmly rooted in adult learning practice. (p. 146)

Problems are the center of the swirling energy of modern life. Why are we surprised that at the power of problem solving to create system wide change? And the best way to change the way students learn is to change the way teachers and their leaders learn. It’s that simple ... and that complicated.

It is good to host a dynamic speaker or a stimulating, thought provoking presentation for the entire faculty. It can be mind opening and exciting. But, unless and until there is skilled follow up and continued nurturing of the energy and small and large steps of courage, little changes.

Leadership Matters

Professional development is an ongoing process. It cannot be left only to those who want a change or even those who are required to change. No living organism can remain static for an extended period. Schools cannot either. Change needs to move from the edges of our system to our core.

For change to happen and professional development to be motivational and integral to that change a leader must:

  • learn alongside of her/his teachers.
  • maintain the vision and the encourage those being asked to change.
  • become a master at offering and receiving feedback.
  • maintain a culture that relishes thinking and learning and problem solving even though it may be rife with challenges and trials and yes, failures.

A beginning is as simple as agreeing on the problem. And, it is also that hard. There actually is a real-world problem facing schools. For some schools it may be “How do we discover the underlying reasons for why so many students are not graduating and what do we do when we find the answer?” For other schools it may be “How can we discover whether we are truly preparing our graduates for their next steps as college students or adults in the workforce? Or which students are we preparing and which ones are we not? Not just to learn the answer as we may have done in previous data analysis undertakings but to lead us into a path of action to do and be different in our practice as professionals. That is the work of professional development and of culture change. It is big picture work and that is why it often falls short. We need each other to make the choice and stay the course.

Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F., Swanson, R.A. (1998). The Adult Learner. Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing Company

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.