Getting the Most Out of Professional Learning

Education systems invest enormous amounts of time and money in professional learning. The results range from transformative (“This profoundly changes the way I teach and lead”) to wasteful (“Another irrelevant workshop”). We all know what good teaching and learning looks like: clear objectives, relevance to the real lives of students, respectful interactions with strong interpersonal relationships, and explicit next steps to apply the learning. If that is what we expect of first-year teachers, then we should accept nothing less from those who are attempting to teach those teachers, as well as veteran educators and administrators. Here are five keys to getting the most out of professional learning.


1. Specify learning objectives.

You would think this is exceptionally obvious, but it is not. Every time we work with schools, we ask the leader arranging the professional learning engagement, “What are your learning objectives?” Sometimes the response is very clear, such as “Help teachers learn and apply techniques for cross-disciplinary nonfiction writing” or “Help teachers improve their collaborative team time by moving from data analysis to action steps” or “Help leaders conduct more effective classroom observations.” But other times, the response is, “We need you to speak from 9 to 11 a.m.” But what are the learning objectives? “Look, we just need you to speak from 9 to 11 a.m.,” they persist. When professional learning is filling time instead of pursuing of specific learning objectives, you are better off just giving the teachers time to collaborate and work without interference.


2. Ask participants to complete the sentence, “This seminar will be a success if . . .”

Presenters routinely receive evaluations of a workshop at the end of a presentation, after it is too late to do anything about it. The time to get feedback about participant needs is during the first five minutes of the presentation. If there is a problem, such as a complete disconnect between what the presenter intended and what the participants expected, the time to address it is immediately, and not after participants have sat fuming in discontent for six hours.


3. Create an effective physical environment.

I have seen teachers marched into a gymnasium and expected to sit in bleachers without back support for three hours. I’ve seen seminars scheduled for middle school cafeterias on backless seats designed for 12-year-old posteriors. Most commonly, 200 teachers are scattered in an auditorium that seats 1,000 people. This sort of thoughtless arrangement screams to the participants that the seminar leaders and the administrators who sponsored it simply do not care about the learning environment or the physical comfort of learners.


4. Require interactivity.

As Cult of Pedagogy blogger Jennifer Gonzalez recently noted, “Death by PowerPoint” has nothing to do with the PowerPoint software and everything to do with presenters who put too many words on a slide and simply recite the content from the screen. If a teacher spoke without pausing for 45 minutes to deliver instruction while reading from notes on PowerPoint slides, any observer would conclude that the students were disengaged and bored with the one-way delivery, and that the lesson was not very effective. But how many times have we sat in professional learning meetings when 45 minutes or more go by without any interaction or with only the most superficial “turn and talk” opportunities. Effective professional learning is like any effective classroom learning experience, with a regular rhythm of concepts and focused interactive discussions and exercises, followed by synthesis of learning. Administrators who are sponsoring professional learning activities should ask about interactivity and how it will occur. I’ve watched Kim Marshall, editor of the Marshall Memo and a global leader in classroom observations, use electronic response systems in workshops. Jennifer Gonzalez gets 100 percent of participants to engage by building step-by-step understanding of her most important elements of learning. I often use simple text message responses. In each of these cases, we can show the participants and the administrators sponsoring the activity exactly the degree of engagement.


5. Use equity sticks.

Closely related to the requirement for interactivity and synthesis is the use of equity sticks. Equity is all about equality of opportunity for engagement by every person. In great classrooms and professional learning, the mantra should be, “Raise a hand to ask a question, not to answer a question.” When the teacher or facilitator asks a question, they should not wait – often in vain – for students to raise their hands. Rather we must do what effective teachers do: use equity sticks, or any other method of calling on students randomly. This means that 100 percent of students have an equal probability of being called on , and everyone must be ready to share ideas. In order to avoid any feeling of insecurity or embarrassment because the participant is not ready, I always use a “phone a friend” option, in which the person called on can ask a friend for help. I’ve seen this done in kindergarten classes through college and graduate school classes. The equity stick technique is used only rarely in professional learning, and when I have used it, the technique is not always popular. “I felt put on the spot,” is the most common complaint. But how many teachers have been frustrated that the students in the back row simply check out because they know that the students in the front row will have all the answers and raise their hands, inviting the teacher to engage in two-way engagement rather than comprehensive engagement with every student?


Effective professional learning requires modeling effective teaching at every level, including clear learning objectives, direct relevance, physical comfort, active learning, and 100 percent engagement. If this is what you expect of classroom educators, then demand it of those in charge of professional learning.

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