Saturday / June 22

A Call to Action: Elevating Your Commitment to Change

When professional learning mirrors the student experiences we hope to create, teachers inherently have a deeper understanding of the feelings and effects on the learning that the experience creates. Understanding how students might feel has the potential to elevate teachers’ commitment to change since they are able to understand firsthand how active learning supports deep learning (Sawyer & Stukey, 2019). 

It seems obvious, right? Good instruction is good instruction–whether we are working with 4th graders or experienced teachers. Unfortunately, many professional learning opportunities rely on a transmission model–the facilitator presents information and the participants “absorb” the content. Then, they are expected to enact it! Sometimes, we label sessions like this, “sit and get.” Consider the following vignette: 

Bay County School District* noticed that many teachers were not incorporating text-dependent questions into their literature discussions or post-reading activities despite a professional development session provided earlier in the year. The session had consisted of the facilitator explaining the research behind text-dependent questions and having teachers analyze questions to determine if they were text dependent or not. The half-day session was well attended and the feedback was positive. However, district leaders were puzzled as to why the practice had not become part of the instructional routines. 

The scenario above plays out in districts all over the county many times a year. One missing piece is that participants never actually experienced the learning necessary to enact a different instructional routine into their own practice. Consider an alternative scenario: 

Bay County School District* noticed that many teachers were not incorporating text-dependent questions into their literature discussions or post-reading activities. They knew that this practice would support students in a deeper understanding and analysis of text. The district professional learning team designed a series of experiences that would support teachers in learning about the practice and linking it to their current curriculum materials:
• In the first experience, participants read a professional article about text-dependent questions and used a series of questions to discuss the article with their peers. The facilitator supported the discussion and then asked the participants to analyze the questions they were using for the discussion against the articles definitions of text-dependent questions. True active learning– the participants themselves had read a piece of text and used text-dependent questions to support their own learning from the text!
• The next series of experiences supported the participants by having them analyze the questions used in their adopted ELA curriculum. Teams of teachers used the criteria they learned about text-dependent questions to analyze and revise the questions included in their teacher manuals.  

While the vignette is simplistic, it highlights an important part of planning for professional learning. First, the experiences the teachers had were very similar to the experiences we would want the students to have: a piece of text was presented and a discussion to deepen the understanding of the text was facilitated. Through that experience, the teachers learned about the instructional strategy. They then had the opportunity to connect that learning to the relevant materials they use every day. The experiences the teachers had in professional learning mirrored the experience we want them to use with their students. 

How might we begin to think more deeply about professional learning experiences and the opportunities for teacher engagement? 

Simply, we can engage adults in active learning–teachers benefit from constructing their own knowledge and engaging in action in the same way that students do. Active learning refers to participants being engaged in their learning through observations, discussions, planning, and practice. This characteristic is in direct contrast to the “sit and get,” passive learning models that have been typically promoted in professional development (Sawyer & Stukey, 2019). Meaningful active learning occurs when learners are both actively engaged in constructing knowledge and provided many opportunities to apply newly learned skills.  

Think about the professional learning you plan and ask yourself the following two important questions: 

  • Are teachers directly engaged in constructing knowledge?  
  • Are they actually applying new skills they have learned? 

Then, think about how your plans mirror classroom experiences.  

  • Are you modeling what you are teaching? If you are discussing facilitation skills with teachers, are you modeling by facilitating a rich discussion using all the techniques are teaching?  
  • Are you bringing technology into the opportunity in rich and extensive ways? 
  • Are you offering opportunities for your participants to talk to one another about their learning?  
  • Have you built quiet time for reflection into your session?  
  • Is there a “call to action” at the end? Are teachers encouraged to go back and try out the new technique on their own?

Mirroring the experiences children have in classrooms allows teachers the opportunity to feel what their students feel. Our call to action for you? Elevate your teachers’ commitment to change by making the professional learning you offer a mirror of what you hope might be happening in classrooms. 

Written by

Isabel Sawyer is a Regional Director at Center for the Collaborative Classroom. She leads a team of educators in partnering with districts and other educational organizations across the country. In addition, Isabel presents keynotes, workshops, presentations, and professional development for teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators. Previously, Isabel worked as a lead instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools and as an instructional coordinator in Charlottesville City Schools, Virginia. Finally, Isabel serves as an on-line adjunct instructor at the University of Virginia. Isabel holds her PhD from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Marisa Ramirez Stukey is a Regional Director with the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. She received her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in teacher education and professional learning and a Master’s Degree in Reading Education, both from the University of Florida. She is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with over fifteen years experience teaching in both elementary and higher education contexts, instructional coaching, and professional learning systems development. Her research interests focus on reading comprehension instruction and designing literacy professional learning. She has consulted with numerous school districts in developing change models and collaborative professional learning structures, particularly to shift literacy instruction. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband and young daughter. Together, Isabel and Marisa have published Professional Learning Redefined: An Evidence-Based Guide with Corwin

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