How Do Teachers (Really) Learn?

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By Renee Moore

CTQ Moore Teachers Learn 300x300During a Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) teacher-blogger meeting last fall, one of my colleagues cited recent reports indicating that most professional development (PD) for teachers does not improve teaching quality. She was particularly irritated by the inference that teachers don’t want to learn new or better ways of teaching. This example of yet another national level discussion taking place “about us, without us” sparked a virtual roundtable called How Do Teachers (Really) Learn? At this roundtable, we dug into questions like these: How do teachers learn? Can PD really make a difference for students? Where should districts or teachers invest their time and money to maximize teacher learning?

First, we vigorously challenged the myth that most teachers can’t or don’t want to grow or change by highlighting examples of teachers around the nation who are developing and leading highly effective PD, often on their own time, at their own expense, and in teacher-controlled spaces. As NYC teacher and author Ariel Sacks asserted, “Unwilling to ‘change’ is probably too vague an accusation, really. Unwilling to get enthusiastic in response to another imposed initiative is more like it.” We offered several reasons why some colleagues seem resistant to change and new learning, many of which related to the top-down, external-control approach to initiatives and the irrelevant PD teachers usually have forced upon them. John Holland and Jessica Cuthbertson suggested that traditional district-run PD is actually remedial training done to teachers rather than professional learning done with or by them.
CTQ Moore Inside Photo

We reached strong consensus that “we teachers cannot learn or grow professionally unless we are willing to be challenged (or challenge ourselves) about our favorite practices or our valued assumptions.” Several participants noted that although teachers are tasked with preparing critical thinkers, in many places, teachers themselves are discouraged or even penalized for critically examining either their own practices or the officially sanctioned PD.

Since many of us are National Board–certified teachers, we could testify—from our own experience and from mounting data—to the irrevocable influence the 25 years of the National Board’s certification process has had on teacher learning. For example, a fundamental proposition of the National Board standards is that highly accomplished teachers deliberately and systematically reflect on their own work using a variety of data-gathering techniques. That principle has now become a standard practice in teacher preparation, evaluation, and development around the nation. Several participants pointed to the power of video and other digital tools. John Holland, a teacher and teacher educator, noted that he has “yet to find teachers who did not benefit from videotaping themselves.”

Moreover, we concluded that allowing teachers to choose the topics they need to pursue results in more efficient use of time and resources. We also strongly favored letting teachers with expertise in various areas share that knowledge with peers, noting that teacher-led PD is generally more cost efficient and better received. Lori Nazareno, a pioneer in the teacher-powered school movement, observed that “personalized professional learning that is teacher powered is a huge step in restoring both [value and respect] to the profession.”

While we challenge administrators to think like teachers when planning PD, many teachers aren’t just waiting around for improved district offerings. Scores of educators are stretching into new modes of professional learning that go beyond what districts or states are used to accepting (or supporting) for licensure and recertification purposes. Educational leaders beware: failure to update PD credit policies could not only discourage truly effective teacher learning but also negatively impact teacher retention. Our roundtable urged states and districts to update what counts as professional development for evaluations, recertification, and resource allocation, bringing those processes into alignment with modern practices of adult learning.

Whenever possible, districts should opt for teacher-led PD, giving participants ample time to collaborate with each other, practice new ideas or techniques, and get ongoing support for their implementation. We also encourage local PD planners to

    • Rely on teacher-led teams to advise or plan professional development (e.g., one district has a department of National Board–certified teachers from its schools who are in charge of planning and facilitating all PD in the district).
    • Provide ample opportunities for teachers to model, practice, question, and evaluate classroom practices.
    • Make use of available technology, including social media, that could enhance collaboration among teachers across levels, subject areas, or buildings.

The teacher-bloggers who created this roundtable are all accomplished teachers and distinguished leaders in their respective areas. While most of our recommendations are not novel, what’s significant is that they come from leading practitioners in the field, who took it upon themselves to assert teacher solutions into this policy discussion. The richness of our conversations underscores the power of virtual collaboration as a source of teacher learning and the value of the CTQ Collaboratory as an incubator for such teacher-led initiatives.

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Renee Moore is a National Board–certified teacher who teaches English at Mississippi Delta Community College. As the 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year and a Milken Education Award winner, Moore also works with CTQ, where she coauthored the book Teaching 2030 and writes an education blog called TeachMoore. Her work as a teacher and leader is profiled in the book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave. She currently serves as cochair of the Certification Council of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

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