Thursday, November 18, 2010

Teachers Taking Charge of Their Own Professional Development

Too often, professional development programs in schools use a “drive-by” or “shot-gun” method of in-service. In the drive-by, teachers are herded to an auditorium to hear an expert explain how to use a new method or technique and the teachers are expected to implement it in their own classrooms without any support or follow-up. The shot-gun approach provides teachers with a variety of choices, but no focus for the school or student learning. It is clear neither approach is effective in changing teachers' daily practice, yet it continues ( Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998). So, what should schools and program directors consider when approaching the professional development of its teachers?

When designing professional development programs, Ball & Cohen, (1999) encourage a systematic approach for designers which asks the following questions: “First, what would teachers have to know, and know how to do, in order to offer instruction that would support much deeper and more complex learning for their students? Second, what sort of professional education would be most likely to help teachers to learn those things? Third, what do these ideas imply for the content, method, and structure of professional development?” (p. 7). Rather than focusing on bringing in a new method or technique, this approach encourages teachers to investigate their own work, determine their own needs and time-frames and provide scheduled time to allow teachers to meet, talk and document their investigations.
This follows the theory of andragogy - the methods and techniques used to teach adults - as schools must also take into account that the “students” of the instruction are adult learners with unique needs. Malcom Knowles (1984) considered the adult learner to be a different type of learner than a child. He reintroduced the term andragogy, as compared to pedagogy, to help distinguish the characteristics of working with adult learners from those used with children. These characteristics include: 1) Being more self-directed 2) Having a reservoir of experiences as resource for learning 3) Needing immediate relevance to learning 4) Having clear purposes for learning 5) Being internally motivated 6) Wanting problem-focused learning experiences. Ball & Cohen's (1999) recommendations address most of these principals.

Schools must also help teachers embrace the identity of a lifelong learner. Each year brings new students, materials, technology, standards and policy changes. Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, Bransford, Berliner, Cochran-Smith, McDonald, & Zeichner, (2005) contend that teachers need to be “adaptive experts” (p. 360) who are able to balance efficiency and innovation to effectively respond to complex classroom needs. To become an expert, a teacher must be motivated to deeply reflect about his/her own teaching practices. The authors also recognize that innovation can be challenging and even threatening, as teachers must “re-think key ideas, practices and even values in order to change what they are doing” (p.361). This may at times led to decreased efficiency, as teachers learn new ways of thinking; yet by abandoning some ineffective practices and adopting new ones, teachers become more expert. In other words, we should expect a learning curve when teachers try new materials, methods or techniques and support the struggle teachers must endure in order to better their practice. This support is best found in communities of practice – working side-by-side with other teachers to improve teaching. In addition, coordinated time is needed to allow teachers to meet and discuss their work.

Traditionally schools tend to look to the principal, curriculum director or other specialists to provide the leadership and direction for professional development. However, by accepting the principles of adult learning we can change this paradigm. More teachers are becoming informal teacher-leaders in their schools, especially when the formal processes of leadership have been ineffective. According to Whitaker (1995), “These [informal teaching] relationships often determine the degree to which the beliefs of faculty members can be changed on a schoolwide basis” (p. 356). When teachers learn something new that is effective with students, they often want to share the results of their learning. “A powerful relationship exists between learning and leading. The most salient learning for most of us comes when we don’t know how to do it, when we want to do it, and when our responsibility for doing it will affect the lives of many others. This is where teacher leadership and professional development intersect . . . only when teachers learn will their students learn” (Barth, p.445.) Effective principal leadership, and long-term change, can be enhanced by identifying and supporting these informal leaders (Zepeda, Mayers, & Benson, 2003). 

Recently, teacher improvement has been a fodder for politicians and Hollywood producers, with a range of solutions proposed from pay for performance to alternative certifications. Yet the real issue is not teacher improvement, but rather teacher learning. If we recognize that teachers are learners, with unique needs and issues, we can eliminate the deficit model of professional development and instead, focus on the strengths and expertise already embedded in our schools with a goal of supporting the continued learning of all teachers, which will then result in increased student learning and achievement.

Ball, D. L. & Cohen, D. K. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes and L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 3-32). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Barth, R. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(6), 443-500.
Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Bransford, J., Berliner, D., Cochran-Smith, M., McDonald, M., & Zeichner, K. (2005). How teachers learn and develop. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.) Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 358-389). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. (3rd ed.), Houston: Gulf Publishing.
Loucks-Horsley, S., Hewson, P. W., Love, N., & Stiles, K. E. (1998). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Whitaker, T. (1995). Accomplishing change in schools: The importance of informal teacher leaders. Clearing House, 68(6), pp. 356-357.
Zepeda, S. J., Mayers, R. S., & Benson, B., N. (2003). The call to teacher leadership. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

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