Professional development is a powerful tool to help improve schools. At the same time, it can be a costly with disappointing results. How can both of these statements be true? It all depends on how the new learning is transferred to the classroom and has an impact on instructional practices.
In our district, I am in charge of leading the process of professional learning. At times, I have attended a conference and heard an excellent speaker. Upon understanding the concept and background, I have come to embrace the new practice. I can see how there is clear evidence that it works, that it benefits student achievement, and after the initial adjustment to do it, I think it will make teacher’s lives better. I’m always excited to bring these ideas back to our district, either by sharing the information myself or by bringing in the presenter for the district to hear.
Sometimes, my excitement is tempered by the reality that some teachers won’t change things in their classroom. They might hear the same information I heard and walk away with a list of reasons why it won’t work. So why are we drawing different conclusions.
There are numerous reasons for why this might be. I am the type of person who loves learning and feels that change is the only way to improve. Other teachers, and even school leaders, feel that chasing change is a waste of time and energy. The "educational experts", preach one thing for a few years and then the pendulum swings and everything returns to what they were doing before.
I have written before about helping motivate teachers to be comfortable with making changes in their classroom. Much of the hesitation is because of a lack of support, but there can be other reasons too. Regardless of the hesitancy to change or to stay the same, the larger question is can we ever agree on what “best” really means for our students.
It returns to our original question, “If we know what best practices are, why don’t we do them?”
I do believe in teacher autonomy; I think that a classroom that is rooted in the beliefs of the teacher is most effective. Classrooms do not need to be one-size-fits-all in order to be effective, but teachers can take latitude with this too. They might claim that a “laid back” or “comfortable” classroom fits their personality best, this is only effective if learning is taking place. We don’t want to adjust our standards or lower our expectations for the sake of personality.
Additionally, there are some practices that are better than others. There are instructional techniques that work better. They work with different grades, different genders, different special populations...they just work. How do we move all teachers into using these practices, regardless of their beliefs or their personality, both of which might stand in the way.
It is a fine line to walk between preaching our new found love of “research based” strategies and giving teachers room to be themselves. I do believe that it is important to use evidence to form the basis for what we do. As leaders of professional learning, I think it is critical to read and understand the research behind what we are promoting. Not every educator will want to hear this, but many will. I think for some teachers this is a good “foot in the door” for them to see something different (and therefore better). Some teachers won’t care about research and will probably claim that research supports both sides of the debate. There is probably some truth to this, but again it shows a narrow understanding of real evidenced based practices.
The hardest part for many teachers is to let go of things that we know no longer work. Research can start this conversation with staff. When we start to discuss how we will no longer retain elementary students, we need to have more than a “gut feeling” as to why this should be. Evidence helps us to objectively start the conversation.
Research based practices give us a baseline for starting our discussions about what the best practices are. We might not all agree on all of the specifics, but we need an objective measure for our discussion to get started. Some practices are better than others, which we can know through experience, anecdote, or through research. By following the research and really understanding it, we can make a difference in the lives of our students.
Learn more about different options to bring professional development to your educators and schools. >>