Saturday, November 21, 2009

Professional Development and Teacher Change

"If you want to improve instruction, what could be more obvious than collaborating with fellow teachers to plan, observe, and reflect on lessons." (Lewis, 2002)

We know how to improve teaching; we know what works. When we fail to have an impact in classrooms, we generally fail to create conditions that allow us to do the very things we know will increase student achievement; we fail to allow teachers time to create and design; we fail to prepare teachers for something new. Seemingly minor deatils about how to implement what works continually defines success and failure.

Consider this statement from the AERA's Summer 2005 issue of Research Points:

"To be effective, professional development must provide teachers with a way to directly apply what they learn to their teaching. Research shows that professional development leads to better instruction and improved student learning when it connects to the curriculum materials that teachers use, the district and state academic standards that guide their work, and the assessment and accountability measures that evaluate their success."

Okay, but how? I've been haunted by more failure than success when trying to apply what works in the context of many personal and system variables - in the context of current realities. Many times the failure of my professional development efforts had to do with minor details that carried major implications. Most of the challenges had something to do with, 1) underestimated the personal implications of change, and 2) overestimating the amount of content that could be assimilated into classroom practice.

Today, I know the most of our success lies within the preparation, use, and measurement of the materials teachers use to teach.

Change is personal

There are risk-takers out there, but change is hard for most people. We seek the comfort provided by predictability and control in our lives. We set goals and are motivated by what we belief we can successfully do and control. It is no different for teachers in classrooms. Change threatens predictability and control. This threat is as serious, scary, and dangerous to a sense of well being as each individual teacher believes it to be.

People who choose to engage in change events do so with the belief that predictability and control will soon be regained. Herein lies an important need that must be met with professional development.

Addressing the implications for change, professional development should create conditions full of opportunities for teachers to test and fit new teaching strategies against their current beliefs and practices. And teachers need time to create predictability and control in their plans and materials.

Designing instruction beyond the lesson plan, in the process of creating ready-to-use classroom materials, each teacher is building confidence. We need to match their threshold for risk taking with confidence building plans and materials that define quality instruction.

Further, as we define the depth and breadth of understanding for a lesson, the right materials can be measured, evaluated, and revised, creating short cycles of improvement. The right materials provide opportunities for clarifying ideas, providing feedback, taking notes, writing, and celebrating success. Materials become archives of learning to study, connect, revise, and sythesize.

Overestimating content

As you see, assimilating new ideas into classroom teaching takes time. But what is the cost of not finding the time. Consider the cost of professional development that is never implemented. Time is required to deconstruct ideas, construct ideas, and reflect; and time is required to collaborate and share ideas while making critical connections between standards, instruction, and assessment.

It is easy to overestimate the amount new content to include in professional development. When too much content is thrown at teachers at one time, the amount of work time to create materials and assimilate new ideas is reduced, and then once again teachers do not feel supported or prepared to teach a new way.

On the other hand, consider the value of teachers experiencing a new strategy, and experiencing increased engagement and understanding. Even if this begins with designing and experiencing a few moments, these quality moments become more likely to be adopted as practice and reproduced in other lessons.

Details matter. Increase a teacher's belief in their ability to design, teach, and analyze quality moments in their classroom, and you have increased their ability and motivation to create and teach a quality curriculum.