Upside down is right side up:
Shifting priorities for professional learning

Do you have your list?  You know the one – the list of every single initiative, program, curriculum, and gosh darn good idea someone at your school, district, and state informed you would “transform” your classroom? My list is full of jargon like “novice reduction,” “cooperative learning,” and “inquiry-based instruction.”  It’s also littered with catchy phrases like, “No student will fail at insert school name here,” or what I lovingly dubbed, “Mind the Gap.”

These are all good ideas.  In fact, it’s never been the ideas themselves that have failed our kids.  It is the hierarchical way our profession chooses to impose these ideas onto its practitioners and students that has failed us.  What participating in networks like CTQ’s TLN and the Collaboratory has made unequivocally clear is that genuine, whole-hearted shifts in a teacher’s approach to instruction must come from inside the heart and mind of the teacher and cannot be merely superimposed upon his or her practice.  Let me explain.

Teachers make hundreds of decisions every hour of every day. Do I call on the kid who isn’t paying attention? Does Tasha’s rough day buy her a pass on today’s assignment?  Is this assignment challenging enough? Too challenging for David whose English is poor but his intellect hungry for new concepts? Is today’s conversation about race supportive and open as well as kind? Does Kris really need to use the bathroom? Endless.

Because we must answer these questions quickly,  we have to draw upon our most essential conscious and unconscious understandings about kids and education. Deep, lasting change in our practice, therefore, must germinate from our primal understandings of our purpose and role in the classroom.  Most initiatives are sprinkled onto us, but the best sort of change must come from us.

Deep, lasting change in our practice, therefore, must germinate from our primal understandings of our purpose and role in the classroom.  Most initiatives are sprinkled onto us, but the best sort of change must come from us.

Fundamentally, teachers must understand that their opinions and voice matter.  Too often, sitting on a committee or filling out a survey constitutes the whole of “teacher voice”.  Throughout my experiences with CTQ, our network has grappled with how best to implement the Common Core, how we might prepare the next generation of teachers, how to leverage virtual communities to effect change, and myriad other difficult questions.  At every gathering, virtual and in person, CTQ’s staff and teacher leaders from across the country pose questions rather than offer answers. We wrestle with what we know from our experience, we read about what others propose, and we come to our own conclusions. We exercise our voice.

Through this process, I slowly began to appreciate my expertise and to trust my ideas.  I learned systems through which to test my interpretation in my classroom. And, I had the support of passionate, smart, and interested teachers with whom I could share my successes and failures, solicit advice, and problem solve in the supportive way CTQ had modeled for us. These experiences brought real, lasting change to my classroom because my beliefs about myself and teaching had changed at the most fundamental of levels.

I came to understand that:

  • No new habit or belief changes a teacher’s practice permanently until it is understood deeply and completely.
  • Understanding comes from experiencing the intellectual, emotional, and practical components of both the initiating challenge and the potential solutions.
  • Teachers must appreciate the power of their own agency.
  • Professional community is essential to accomplishing everything else.

How might we make this kind of experience available to all of us?  First, we must shift our priorities for professional learning. We put substantial resources into top down initiatives.  We must turn that upside down and put some of those resources into teacher-led learning communities and create a complementary relationship between what we are told to do and what we choose to do for our kids.

Inspired by my work with CTQ, I launched Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions (CTEPS) in Kentucky. We created a model that supports substantial, lasting, positive improvements.  We blend design thinking, action research, Improvement Science, and CTQ’s value creation tools to create a scaffolded, individualized learning environment for a cohort of teachers who work for an entire academic year to address a self-identified challenge in their classrooms, schools, or districts.

CTEPS teachers publish articles, solve problems, dream big, and become effective leaders of improvement in their schools, districts, unions, states, and even the nation.  Along the way, we’ve learned some truths about making this kind of learning work.

Effective teacher-led learning is:

Focused – Teachers work to understand deeply and completely a particular concern that they identify.  Then, by working with teachers outside of their immediate environment, teachers see a wider view and create action plans based on this richer perspective.

Sustained – Because teachers work together for an extended time, they cultivate deep relationships with their colleagues and form complex understandings of their challenges.  Teachers use storytelling to propel their ideas to larger audiences, expanding their impact.

Professional – Teachers research, design, implement, analyze, reflect on, and publish their findings.  Teachers also receive compensation for their time and effort.

This sounds hard to do, especially in large school systems trying to shift thousands of teachers into particular approaches to instruction.  But, if what we are doing now isn’t producing the type of change we want and in the time we want it, we’ve got to begin to see professional learning differently.

Or, maybe we ought to take a minute and remember an old truth.  In 1916, John Dewey writes, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”  The same is true for teachers. Only through action, reflection, and collegial connection will teachers and our profession create the kinds of classroom experiences our students need and deserve.

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” – John Dewey

So, as our list of good ideas gets longer, as is inevitable, we must ask ourselves this: how might we rely upon teacher-driven communities and conversations to whole-heartedly achieve the improvements we seek?

Lauren’s post is part of CTQ’s latest blogging roundtable: It’s a network, not a clique – A CTQ retrospective. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the roundtable landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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Dewey, J. (1916). Thinking In Education. Democracy and Education: An Introduction To The Philosophy of Education (p. 191). New York: The Free Press