Also published at Leadership + Design
Let’s play a word association game. When I say a term, note the next thought that comes to your mind. Ready? “PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT!” What first comes to your mind? Conference? Meeting? Ugh? If we understand how students learn best, then we should also practice good pedagogy when leading professional development programs.
Teachers more fully engage in learning activities that address authentic aspects of practice. What issues most commonly challenge teachers: motivating all students to learn; teaching for understanding, not just knowledge; supporting diverse groups of learners? Effective professional development activities express a clear learning goal and apply theory toward specific outcomes. For example, one might reserve half the day for teachers to explore applications, redesign instructional units, and share their products.
Effective teachers combine a variety of techniques to design learning environments and develop student understanding.
Teachers approach topics from different perspectives, promote active engagement with ideas and evidence, and make student thinking visible. In order to actually adopt a new technique proposed during professional development, teachers need to know how that idea might complement the other tools in their toolkit. Teachers are unlikely to integrate widely divergent strategies into their current practice.
Research suggests that observation and feedback have the greatest potential to improve teacher practice. So, why then are conferences and faculty meetings the most common forms of professional development? Make class observations integral to your school’s professional development program. It’s best if peer teachers conduct the observations, and such activities are not connected to teacher evaluation. Teachers can also video a class and study the recording with colleagues.
As with students, teachers learn best when they study collaboratively. Working in groups, teachers share ideas and build perspective together. In a gallery walk, lead teachers exhibit innovative practices and answer questions. In a faculty “unmeeting”, teachers generate topics and facilitate discussions. Professional learning communities, teacher cohorts, and critical friend groups maintain such collaborative relationships over time. Teacher leadership distributes the responsibility for professional growth to all members of the faculty. Consortia and networks extend these connections to other institutions.
Why not put students at the center of professional development activities? Invite a panel of students to describe their learning to your faculty. Have each teacher shadow a student for a day. When you observe classes, document what the students are doing, not just the teacher. Ask teachers to contact recent alumni and ask them whether they found themselves well prepared for the next step.
NAIS has recognized University Prep’s Individualized Teacher Improvement Program for innovation and excellence.