Professional Development: Getting Worse Before We Get Better

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Malcolm Swan:

When we’ve done analyses of the results of [our professional development efforts], we’ve found that teachers often move from a transmission approach where they tell the class everything and the students have been fairly passive, they’ve usually moved in two directions.

One is retrograde. They’ve moved towards individual discovery. They say “I’ve been saying everything to these students for so long. What I’ll do now is withdraw and let them play with the ideas. I’ve been saying too much. I’ll withdraw and let them discover stuff.” That’s worse than the place where they started.

The other place is where they move in and they challenge students and work with them on their knowledge together. That’s a better place. That’ smore effective.

And so in professional development, people take a path. Over time they might move from transmission to discovery to collaborative connectionist. So they might actually get worse before they get better.

That’s one of the problems with evaluating whether its been successful by looking at student outcomes. People take awhile to learn new things.

Earlier in the talk, he describes counterproductive designs for professional development:

Most of the time [in teacher professional development] we inform people of something and then we say “go and do it.” That’s not the way people learn. Usually they learn by doing something and then reflecting upon it.

So when you start with a professional development, you say, “Try this out in your classroom. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. Then observe your students and then as a result you might change your beliefs and attitudes.”

You don’t set out by changing beliefs and attitudes. People only change themselves as they reflect on their own experiences.

And then productive ones:

If you’re designing a course, we usually start by recognizing and valuing the context the teacher is working in and trying to get them to explain and explore their existing values, beliefs, and practices.

Then we will provide them with something vividly challenging. It might be through video or it might be through reading something. And this is really different to what they currently do.

And through this challenge we ask them to suspend their belief and try and act in new ways as if they believed differently.

And as they do this we offer support and mentoring as they go back into the classroom to try something out.

And then they come back together again and it’s taken over then by the teachers who reflect on the experiences they’ve had, the implications that come out of their experiences, and recognize and talk about where they’ve changed in their understandings, beliefs, and practices.

What’s great about Malcolm Swan and the Shell Centre is their designs for teacher learning line up exactly with their designs for student learning. It all coheres.

About 

I’m Dan and this is my blog. I’m a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

4 Comments

  1. I agree with Malcolm Swan on this one although you can side-step the individual discovery phase somewhat with strategically support resources.

    This year in our professional development we have been doing modeling of instructional activities, followed up with regular teacher-enacted rehearsals of instructional activities (example tasks) during the professional development, followed up with designing tasks (often with teachers) aligned to a curriculum map for teachers to use in their classroom using the same instructional activities as modeled and rehearsed during the professional development and finally we’ve been closing the cycle with some time to reflect on the enactment.

    This is the first year of our four year project that we got it together to be able to support all of this and this is coincidentally also the first year of our project that we have seen any significant shift in teacher practice at any scale. Anecdotally, according to teachers reflecting on student data from a set of embedded assessments in our curriculum maps, student results have improved as well.

  2. This observation about (math) teacher learning is quite elegantly stated. It resonates brilliantly with my experiences.

    If taken seriously by the people *wishing* for math teacher change, their expectations for PD would shift significantly.

  3. “Then we will provide them with something vividly challenging. It might be through video or it might be through reading something. And this is really different to what they currently do.

    And through this challenge we ask them to suspend their belief and try and act in new ways as if they believed differently.”

    This reminds me of something I read in Made to Stick which mentions, “When our guessing machines fail, surprise grabs our attention so that we can repair them for the future.”

    So once we’ve broken their guessing machine about how they think students learn/communicate/problem solve/etc. we have a ripe moment for reflection and learning new ideas.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Graham Fletcher

    January 1, 2016 - 7:28 am -

    “And as they do this we offer support and mentoring as they go back into the classroom to try something out.”

    This really hits home as I see most PD as a one and done experience which doesn’t lend itself to sustainability. It seems like the support and mentoring discussed here allow the implementation of PD to be layered and self-paced. I like this because it allows small teacher victories to take place along the way. Without small victories and follow-up support many teachers (myself included) feel defeated from the onset. This approach makes the big idea of the PD and the goal of successful implementation more attainable.

    Appreciate you sharing this Dan, cheers!