Author’s note: Have you had a PD day recently, or have one coming up in the next couple of weeks? This post has been written to help educators, school leaders and district leaders reflect upon the observable impact of their professional learning and to provide tools to help them plan for impactful professional learning in their context.
Ask yourself a question: what is that you do AFTER a professional development day to ensure an impactful professional learning experience for the educators in your school? When we have asked this question of district leaders, school leaders and instructional coaches across North America the answers are quite varied. Responses tend to range from exit tickets, to checking in with teachers the following week to see how the day was received, to asking collaborative teams what next steps might look like, to having a staff members share their takeaways and how they might implement some of the strategies that they saw in their classrooms with their students. Some school and district leaders also confess that because of the size of their schools and districts, it is a big enough challenge just to coordinate the actual professional learning day: in terms of what is done after PD days, there are just too many people to keep track of.
Now ask yourself another question: what is that you do BEFORE a professional development day to ensure that it will be an impactful professional learning experience for the educators in your school? Too often, the answer (beyond arranging speakers, venues, agendas, food and parking) is ‘not as much as we should’.
And now one final question: what was the OBSERVABLE IMPACT of the last professional development day that you had in your school or district? (In the Observable Impact model, we define observable impact as ‘observable changes in classroom practice that lead to positive outcomes for students’).
This is not a condemnation of professional learning days, nor the hard-working educators and support staff that coordinate professional learning or the educators who dutifully participate in professional learning sessions throughout the school year. Well-meaning school leaders spend thousands of dollars bringing in polished professional developers to deliver compelling keynote speeches that are directly aligned to where their schools want to go. We send educators to workshops to learn about the importance of critical thinking, creativity and innovative teaching practices to align with the 21st century skill pieces that make up their Vision of a Learner. But the activities of the day often look like the audience sitting back and listening, laughing at the jokes, watching compelling video clips, scribbling down a few notes, and clapping loudly at the end while extolling the virtues of the presenter.
Yet at the end of sessions such as these, the information doesn’t always "travel well", or turns into what we might call “Snapchat” PD. While we might leave a conference feeling more energized, empowered and ready to transform learning when we get back to our schools, much of the momentum gained from aspirational professional learning seems to either get lost on the plane ride home or lost in translation to their classes. Too often, there is little tangible proof that the presentation caused positive changes to teacher practice and student learning. Instead we say things such as, “Remember when we went to San Diego?” and recall when a colleague lost their luggage, and an interesting catch-phrase or two that we heard. While at some point in the past it might have been acceptable for us to say, “If I get ONE thing out of the PD day that I can use in my classroom, it’s been a great day,” getting one thing out of a full day of learning is no longer (and never really was) acceptable as a good return on the investment of attention, energy, time and resources of our teachers.
It is important to point out that the PLC 2.0 model is not designed to tell teachers or school leaders which professional learning they need to do in their schools, nor whether one conference is better than another. While judging whether professional learning as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is commonplace, it serves little purpose unless it is directly related to the most important piece of the PLCPLC 2.0 model: OBSERVABLE IMPACT. The question we should be asking ourselves when planning professional development is “Will this professional learning have observable impact?” If we want to have professional learning that is impactful, we have to PLAN for impact.
Recently, while working with a group of teachers from the midwestern United States, we asked them to recall their most impactful professional learning experience and to describe some of the elements of the experience that they felt made it so impactful. It was not surprising to hear them say:
Their responses are not dissimilar to what research would tell us. Seymour Sarason (2007) said, “Sustained and productive contexts of learning cannot exist for students if they do not simultaneously exist for teachers.” In Effective Teacher Professional Development (2017), Darling-Hammond, Hyler and Gardner suggest that effective professional learning is content-focused, incorporates active learning, supports collaboration, uses models of effective practice, provides coaching and expert support, offers feedback and reflection, and is of sustained duration.
In the PLC 2.0 model, we believe that professional learning must engage educators through each of three lenses:
Whether we are considering staff meetings, collaborative time, inservice or professional development, our time for professional learning is precious. Planning for the observable impact of professional learning helps us to ensure that the resources and energy are worth our investment. An example to consider:
Imagine that you were a newer golfer, and you wanted to improve your game. What would be the most efficient and effective approach to getting better, especially given your busy schedule? Would you ask our friends that you play with every Sunday for some tips and hope that "the expertise was in the room"? Would you go to a golf course and book some lessons? Or would you examine your own game through your observations and perhaps the eyes of your peers, determine that putting on the green is your area of challenge, and research the best local golf instructor that you could and investigate their area of expertise, their cost, and their approach to golf instruction to ensure that their methodology was likely to be effective for you?
Now substitute an essential attribute for our students from our vision for the learners in our school, something like “creative thinking”. If we substitute “golf” for “creative thinking”, as in the example above, we would likely note that sometimes the expertise is in the room, and sometimes it is NOT in the room. All of us would agree with this when it comes to golf, and it is equally feasible to say this when it comes to an area such as the effective instruction of creative thinking in intermediate language arts. When we are struggling with something with our students, it’s ok for us to be vulnerable enough to say we need some external expertise and research to move us in a promising direction--we need some help! In truth, if we already knew exactly what to do, we would likely already be doing it. Not knowing the next course of action doesn’t mean that we cannot speak to other collaborative teams within our building or in neighbouring schools or districts. Nor does it mean that we cannot look at what the research says about a particular approach that seems to have some promise.
In the PLC 2.0 model, we want to avoid the "let’s just go get some professional development" approach and chase after the next flavor-of-the-month. We believe that resources are scarce and time is precious; the more specificity in the understanding of our learning challenge, our supporting evidence, and research around promising practices, the more likely we are to create our most informed theory about the professional learning that moves us closer to our vision.
In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009), Ronald Heifetz et al. state:
"When you view leadership as an experiment, you free yourself to see any change initiative as an educated guess, something that you have decided to try but that does not require you to put an immovable stake in the ground. Your intervention is evidence of your commitment to your purposes, but it is not your final word on how to get from here to there."
The reality is that our schools, the people that work within them and the communities we serve are complex systems and not everything that "works" actually works. Ryan Fuller said it best when he said, “Teaching is not rocket science. It’s harder!” As a result, when it comes to professional learning, we are really creating a hypothesis for impact that represents our most promising "educated guess," as Heifetz indicates. When we create this hypothesis, we can begin to determine the actions that get us closer to our Vision of a Learner.
In the PLC 2.0 model, we call this hypothesis our Action Statement, which we create using a stem of “If we do … then we will observe …” For example, consider a sixth grade math team team who wanted to improve students’ ability to think creatively in order to come up with multiple means to solve word problems. Their Action Statement might look something like this:
If we attend the full-day workshop on "math talks" for intermediate math, then we will observe …
By being explicit about the products of our learning that we want to see before we begin a cycle of professional learning, (a) we can assess potential professional learning pathways before we actually embark on the journey rather than go charging down the wrong direction, and (b) after the professional learning is complete, we can look back and determine whether that professional learning was successful in meeting some or all of the look fors that we had determined.
Imagine presenting your Action Statement to an external expert on creative thinking prior to hiring them and asking them how best they would be able to support your vision of the learning that you have detailed. Not only would this be helpful for your school, but it also helps an external expert customize the learning experience for your school context. By planning for impactful professional development, not only will an Action Statement make our educated guess on professional learning significantly more educated, it will allow us to look back and answer the question that is central to PLC 2.0, “Did our professional learning have observable impact?”
Try the Professional Learning For Impact Tool (see below) in the PLC 2.0 Toolkit--it can help you and your collaborative team co-create your plan for your next professional learning and connect that professional learning to impact where it matters the most--in our classrooms with students and teachers.
from the desk of an educator:
It's education: there is no more time, but we DO have time. There is no more money, but we DO have money. So let's put the learner at the center, and conduct ourselves accordingly.