The Future of Professional Learning: 8 takeaways on innovation in PD

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By Julia Ramsey

It’s a familiar scene: teachers together while an out-of-district speaker describes the new, innovative, cutting-edge strategies they should be using in their classrooms. But where’s the support to translate their learning to the classroom?

Bright-shiny-object syndrome can be frustrating. New frameworks, new theories, and new data seem to arise constantly.

ESSA’s emphasis on evidence-based professional learning has spurred too much new and potent thinking to ignore. The trick is understanding where innovation can inform and improve the best practices we already know work.

We sat down with Diane Lauer, Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs at St. Vrain Valley Schools, for a chat on where the next steps are and how they connect to what we’ve been doing all along.

Takeaway 1: The future of learning will always be political — but “innovation” is often “refinement” in disguise

KickUp: Let’s start simple. As a PD practitioner, how do you approach the task of reconciling the best practices you know to be true across the field with the new ideas, policies and requirements of a continually-shifting education system?

Lauer: How schools respond to the ebb and flow of the political climate is a feature, not a bug. We must respond to the changes in our environment. And yes, at times it can appear that we’re just grabbing onto new things. But usually, they’re an attempt to improve something we already know works.

Something that’s always been constant through my own experience, for example, is that reading and literacy are eternal. There may be more research in implementing it — evidence-based reading strategies, how we can support students in need of additional intervention — but the fact is that the idea of literacy is eternal.

And so will be numeracy, critical thinking skills, and the ability to cooperate, collaborate, self-advocate, self-regulate. I think that what’s evolving is the pedagogy around these things.

Takeaway 2: PD has evolved far beyond the sit-and-get…

Lauer: For folks who are not intimately involved in education, the “in-service” or “training” aspect of professional development can seem like that’s all there is. But we also know that the ongoing collegial collaboration that happens through common planning time, or interdisciplinary team time, or departmental content time, are all highly effective and valid forms of professional development.

When high school math teachers get together to look at their students’ performance on a particular test and reflect on their practice — many people might not have called that “professional learning” years ago. It was just part of the job. But the whole idea of PD now encapsulates that work.

It’s so important to be thoughtful about exactly what it is we’re providing, and the success indicators we can expect to see from those efforts.

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Diane Lauer

Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs and Initiatives, St. Vrain Valley Schools

The scope of professional development is limitless. It can be the podcast you listen to on your commute to work. It can be the blog you read while you’re eating your lunch. It can be the professional learning network you follow on Twitter. It can be the class that you take for your Master’s degree — or it can be your Master’s degree in literacy! It can be the late-start Wednesday where your district brings people together on a regular basis to learn. All of these things are professional development. 

Takeaway 3: …and it’s administrators’ job to identify, facilitate and support that evolution

Lauer: So with all the options for PD available now, when we try to identify the impact of any one program, things get extremely complex. Let’s say you’re focusing on literacy strategies and you’re spending time on whole-group in-services, rolling out new strategies with students, and also reworking team planning time within grade level groups. 

But if you’re reading journal articles, or listening to podcasts on the treadmill—that’s another input. So how can you tease out what was the most effective when you’re putting all these together? 

That’s why it’s so important, when we build professional development, to be thoughtful about exactly what it is we’re providing and the success indicators we can expect to see from those efforts.

Takeaway 4: Job-embedded supports are no longer optional

Lauer: We know for a fact that teachers are unlikely to actually apply PD to the classroom unless they have adequate, job-embedded coaching supports to see it through. So that has to be part of professional development as well. We can’t just analyze the training because training’s just one component. Professional development is now comprehensive and woven into the very fabric of an educator’s daily life.

KickUp: It feels like in the past, that would have happened organically. The innovation has been on the part of PD departments to embed it deliberately.

Lauer: I entered the education world in 1991, and my experience has been a continuous growth in the understanding that we need more than one-day workshops—that training needs to be sustained (see Joyce & Showers).

There has been a proliferation of research around how instructional coaching deepens the transfer of new learning into the classroom practice. All that research emphasizes the fact that professional development must go beyond a single workshop, or even a series of afternoon trainings. It has to be woven into an educator’s daily experience.

Takeaway 5: The future of PD is self-directed learning

Lauer: A lot of expectation for your own professional advancement is on yourself. Whether you are opting to take classes on your own, attend webinars, or even just Google and watching Youtube videos to figure out the latest upgrade to your email suite.

We’re living in an age when the availability of information is growing exponentially. Moore’s Law predicted it. If we’re going to keep up with that, we need to be continuous learners ourselves. Developing those habits is essential for all industries.

Of all the teachers I know, I can’t think of one that’s not reading articles or active on Twitter about the work. Educators are learning and growing all the time. That’s just who we are.

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Diane Lauer

Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs and Initiatives, St. Vrain Valley Schools

As one of our speakers from IBM said, if you are trying to maintain status quo, you’re falling behind. My hunch is that this was always the case. You can’t remain in status quo for too long, or you’ll become obsolete.

Takeaway 6: Capacity-based skills aren’t enough — learners also need background knowledge

Lauer: In our district we call background knowledge “foundation innovation.” The idea is that you have to have both a strong foundation and the opportunity to innovate. It’s not an either-or: you have to do both. 

Current research is confirming the importance of background knowledge. We can say “oh, you can Google anything” — but the more you know, the more automaticity you have. If you have to keep going back to Google every time you need to figure something out, it takes time and your brain is distracted from what it was doing.

If a kid has a calculator, they can figure out six times eight no problem. But if they don’t know what six times eight is, by the time they pick up the calculator and get the answer, they lose track of what they’re trying to do. 

We need both: strong knowledge and strong skills. And we have to be able to shift them from our working memory into our long-term memory. Teachers need to be able to do that too.

Takeaway 7: The three-ring strategy of priorities

Lauer: As a district person, I always think in three concentric rings. The inner ring is my district priorities: the center of the bullseye. For example, we’re coming into a literacy initiative right now. Last year the state legislature revised our READ Act to require a minimum of 35 training hours in evidence-based reading foundations for all K-3 teachers. So we’ll work as a district to provide those hours in addition to our other activities. That’s a priority.

But buildings have focus areas as well. An individual school also might be expanding reading foundations to fifth grade, supporting English language learners, or improving writing. Those are the middle ring.

So now you have a district initiative with early literacy, you have schools adding onto those priorities — and in the outer ring is what the teachers are looking for themselves. Maybe an individual teacher has a passion for parent engagement or working with IEP students. Every person is going to have work that they’re doing to support a district initiative; probably they’re doing some work because of their site goal; and also they’re probably carrying around a personal passion. 

KicKUp: And it’s your work, as a district leader, to align the supports as best you can to all those rings.

Lauer: Looking at the data, I probably spend more time and energy measuring the outcome of the district initiative. We provide a whole suite of courses in all kinds of areas beyond next year’s K-3 literacy focus. We do that because we know that we have teachers with a vast array of interests. We want to provide our teachers access to those because we want them to feed their thirst for new ideas.

Takeaway 8: Balance trust and verification

Lauer: I’m less interested in program evaluation for effectiveness of activities in that outer ring. Because I trust that since teachers are choosing those activities, they’re holding themselves accountable to learn and grow.

We need to measure in the inner rings because we’re investing substantial resources to support those initiatives. “Well we did a whole year of K-3 training, how’d it go?” No! We want to know how well the first week of training did, and the first month, and the next month. Because if we’re not monitoring that implementation carefully, it can go off the rails. 

Everything’s a hypothesis until you implement it — it’s just your best thinking. To see how your thinking is moving forward, you have to monitor and adjust along the way. That’s how you make sure your best thinking is successful.


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