Two strategies for in-service teacher learning

It is telling that we still need to make the argument that teacher professional development (PD) (for teachers already in the workforce) is not effective if it’s short and episodic. Indeed, it is possible now to state “best practices” for teacher learning programs (see here for NSTA’s statement, for example) which show a lot of sophistication — bearing the student in mind, making sure that the PD is aligned constructively with other school improvement efforts, and so on.

One key “best practice” that is still far from universally implemented, however, is investing enough time in it (“sustained duration,” as Darling-Hammond et al. write here).  Another key principle is that teachers, like their students, thrive on “active learning.”  When I was first working in this field 30-some years ago, the phrase “teacher training” was more common than “teacher professional development”  or other terms widely used these days.   The name’s not so important as the nature of the experience:  are teachers being talked at, or are they being given a chance to develop the kind of rich, connected, flexible learning that we hope they’ll help their students have?  For me, the pivotal ingredient is time (and support) for teacher reflection — on their own learning and on their students’.

I was browsing in the 2018 STEM for all Videohall earlier this week, and found a pace in which I suggested that the project on whose video I was comnenting might have fun talking with another project also presenting this year.  I don’t know if the two teams ever got the chance to compare notes, but I found myself doing it in my head — and I invite you, Dear Reader, to join me in the comparison. Neither strategy is “new,” but the projects are trying out new features, and gathering evidence about what works.   The nice thing about this pairing (I’ll get to the specifics in a minute!) is that this not a matter of either/or:  each project represents an effective and challenging strategy for teacher learning, and an ambitous district could even do BOTH to good effect.

The first general strategy is lesson study, developed in modern form in Japan, imported here in the 1990s (I believe), and tried in many forms within the US educational system.  The challenges that American educators have encountered with Lesson study reflect important differences between the Japanese and American education systems (noting, of course, that there is much variation in both countries).  Perhaps most important is the time that is allocated in each system for teacher learning and preparation (Japan patterns with many other developed countries in requiring fewer hours-in-classroom than the US does — see this report from OECD).   So Americans working with lesson study have spend a lot of ingenuity on dealing with the challenge of no-time.  Is it worth all the struggle?

The video by the ACES project (see video here) argues that it is, and what I find most compelling about it is that a key benefit they cite is that ” lesson study slows down the process of teaching, providing time and support for teachers to examine their practice in depth and to develop new skills in a supportive environment.”  The method integrates content learning with pedagogical learning, in the context of a design challenge that teachers identify and want to work on together.  It’s not a way to quickly revamp a curriculum, but rather a way to steadily and strategically strengthen curriculum and teaching over time.  The discussion at the video is helpful, as more than one issue is raised and examined in the dialogue.

Another strategy, which also has a long history in this country, and perhaps originated here, is “action research,” in which the teacher is also a researcher (see here for a 1993 summary of the idea, and here for a more in-depth article by C. Ballenger and A. Rosebery– pay wall warning!).  Once again, the learning is shaped by purpose and intent:  it’s not just that I want to learn something, but I want to learn something that gives me insight into something in my classroom  — something or someone.  As Ballenger and Rosebery write, for teacher-researchers, the

goal is to better understand and delve into something they perceive as problematic, confusing, perhaps even unsuccessful. By documenting students’ talk, activity, and work, they make the busy world of the classroom stand still as they probe beneath standard explanations for problems and listen for their students’ ideas about what they are doing. They question what they themselves know and assume in their active attempts to see the sense each child brings. They use the theories of others to illuminate and deliberate on what they know and want to know about teaching and learning science and mathematics.

But the Milwaukee Master Teacher Partnership combines this purposeful learning with another powerful idea:  the development of teacher leaders. (See their video here). The project has created a series of learning modules based on the notion of “microcredentials,” but it doesn’t seem to me that this element adds much value to the work the teachers are doing (though they may well find it motivating)

The point is that the teachers are given time and collegial space to gain skill in their research, moving from problem to researchable question, and then to data and analysis/reflection.  The collegial space is important — this is a cohort of 25 teachers who are meeting together over the course of several years.  As one of the presenters writes, “This stability allows everyone to explore their practice in depth as it evolves over the project.”

But there is more, because these teachers can exert leadership not only in their enriched practice, or in their increased depth as coaches or collaborators with their peers “back home.”  In addition to all this, they can share the method itself — here is what I’m doing to learn more about my children and my subject — and their being able to present results from their studies is in some sense a warrant for the value of the method.   Once again, the discussion that accompanies the video is interesting and points to other resources, so it’s worth reading it after watching the video — and then going to the project’s website for more details.

I can’t help but point out that in different ways, these two strategies are powerful reminders that for teachers, as well as students or anyone else, inquiry is a productive stance — not a technique to be used now and again, but a way to see, to learn, and to grow.


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