Three Elements for Sustaining Successful Evidence-Based Professional Learning Cycles

Article summary:

Now that you understand what evidence-based PD is, and why it’s essential for teacher success; how do you:

  • ensure that your teachers are able to utilize the evidence of their learning;
  • assess their impact through your school’s professional development process or structure outlined in your PD plan
  • create a continuous cycle of professional learning that is job-embedded, and
  • sustain the professional learning in an environment where these cycles can thrive.

Questions readers may have:

Okay, I understand the questions I should be asking to figure out where my school currently is, and I also understand better why it’s so important to have a professional development plan that’s based on evidence — it leads to teacher success, which in turn, leads to student success. I also realize from the webinar that two of the most important things that need to be put in place is a mechanism/model for sustained professional development, and that it’s important for me — and other school leaders — to help design that model and set expectations. I know it in theory, but how do I begin? What do I need to consider to make sure I’m helping to sustain these professional learning cycles?

Key Shifts for School Leaders:

In our free 4-part email course, “Teacher Success by Design: Creating an Evidence-Based PD Program That Works,” we’ve talked about some of the key shifts that school leaders can make in their thinking around professional learning to ensure teachers — and students — are being set up for success.

One of those shifts was the idea of developing continuous cycles of professional learning — cycles that are job-embedded where teachers are able to collaborate, collect and analyze evidence of student learning, set goals based on areas of focus, identify learning strategies to move learning forward, apply those strategies, have the opportunity to assess their impact on student learning — and start the cycle over again. These cycles — much more than one-off or single-serving professional learning opportunities — increase the transfer of teacher knowledge into classroom practice, which translates into teacher success and builds self-efficacy!

So, as a school leader, how can you help create a space where these ongoing cycles occur? Here are three actions to take to make sure you’re creating the ideal environment for a sustained professional learning model.

Give your teachers the opportunity for learning transfer

Just like the students they teach, educators need more than a few hours or a day to understand, practice, and implement new knowledge. To build educators’ knowledge of evidence-based practices, professional learning needs to move along a continuum — from surface to deep to transfer learning.

This means that those inspiring keynotes and practical one- or two-day workshops (Surface Learning) that are a current part of your PD plan can absolutely have a place in your professional development efforts. However, those development opportunities will be strengthened if they’re extended into additional workshop days where educators have the time and pacing to move along the continuum of learning. This provides an opportunity for them to collaborate and apply what they’ve learned from the professional learning session (deep learning) with the support of a coaching session (transfer learning) to customize for their specific classroom and get the targeted support needed to successfully implement new learning strategies. Those implementation and coaching days allow for that learning to transfer from theory to practice.

Work collectively to establish clarity around learning intentions and success criteria

Clarity around learning is just as important for teachers as it is for students. In developing and establishing that clarity, school leaders and teachers must work together to:

  1. Define and describe learning intentions and success criteria for professional development
    With students, we apply this process to a single standard. In the case of adult learners, a “standard” would be a professional learning goal or identified area of focus such as literacy or math strategies, creating collaborative structures, culturally responsive teaching practices, etc.
  2. Break a learning intention into learning progressions using success criteria as guide posts
  3. Co-construct success criteria for those objectives
  4. Transfer ownership of learning through teacher collaboration

Learning intentions provide a destination for your professional learning efforts, while success criteria are the roadmap for how you’ll get there. To further illustrate, let’s look at an example we might see in the classroom. A sample learning intention might be, “We are learning about facts and opinions, so that we can determine what is true, and what is a feeling or belief.” Success criteria for this learning intention could be: “I will know when I’m successful when: 1) I can tell what facts and opinions are, 2) I can identify facts and opinions in a story, and 3) I can explain why it is a fact or fiction.”

When defining learning intentions and success criteria through the lens of professional development, the learning intentions and success criteria might look like this:

Learning Intention: Identify literacy routines for each phase of learning (surface, deep, and transfer of learning)

Success Criteria: I will know when I’m successful when I can

  • Compare and contrast characteristics of surface acquisition and surface consolidations
  • Compare and contrast characteristics of deep acquisition and deep consolidations
  • Compare and contrast near transfer and far transfer learning
  • Design a sequence of learning experiences that move students from surface to deep phases of learning, and promote transfer of learning
  • Determine my impact through effect size calculation using pre- and post-assessment data
  • Using effect size calculation results from the above action, create a plan for next steps in instruction

When teachers know what they’re learning, why they’re learning it, and how they’ll know if they learned it, it’s the flywheel that powers these cycles.

Create opportunities for teachers to monitor their progress and success

As these cycles continue, they’ll be part of your teachers’ regular practice — and if you’re all focused on the same goals/focus of professional learning, they’ll be the foundation of your school or district’s success. How do you make sure that you’re making progress and celebrating those successes? By creating an efficacy model that gives your staff agency over monitoring and measuring the impact of educator learning on student learning.

An efficacy process ensures that you’re progressively monitoring your professional learning opportunity at each stage. This includes asking for feedback along multiple touchpoints of the journey from your teachers. If you’re planning a workshop focused on a particular PD goal/area of focus, survey your teachers before and after the learning to determine the need for more personalized work around the goal/area of focus, or to determine if additional PD structures that support the implementation of new skills are needed. During the implementation process, give them the opportunity to self-determine what their overall experience is (through a method of collecting evidence against the learning intentions) which allows them to progressively monitor their learning. These survey and evidence collections act as formative assessments, helping to determine if the professional development is having an impact in the classroom and meeting the goals of your school or district.

Next Steps

In the final part of our email course, we’ll be talking more about what a specific professional development plan might look like for you — including identifying gaps within instructional practices, selecting the PD options that help teachers narrow those gaps, setting clear LISCs for professional learning, and how to put it all together in a model that is built with efficacy processes embedded.

Essentially, it’s about creating a professional learning environment built with teacher success in mind that is sustainable and designed to ultimately impact student learning.

Written by

Dr. Sonja Hollins-Alexander has been in the field of education for 22 years with 16 of those being in educational leadership at the school, district and higher education levels. During this time, she has served as a school social worker, teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant director and currently serves as a the director of professional learning for a large urban school district. She also is a professor in the Education Department at Argosy University, Atlanta and Troy University, Covington. Through her professional journey she has had experiences in Strategic Planning, Organizational Improvement, Policy Development, Project and Program Management, Stakeholder Communication and Engagement, Budget Planning, Grant Writing, Instructional Design, Curriculum Development and Implementation, Facilitator of Adult Learning, Conference Facilitation and Design, Quality Assurance Team Member for AdvancED and fully engaged in the development and use of Online Collaborative/Instructional Software.

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