Effective Professional Development Design

lois-eastonOn edWeb.net’s monthly radio show, Lois Easton, coach, consultant to Learning Forward, and accomplished author, shares some results of her work on a new report for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) on elements of effective professional learning design. In addition to her research, Lois has 15 years of experience as a middle school English teacher, and she served as President of both the Arizona English Teachers Association and the Colorado Staff Development Council.  Lois is also preparing the third edition of her compendium of professional learning designs entitled “Powerful Designs for Professional Learning.”  She discusses successful design elements, commonly encountered challenges, and the advantages to blending learning opportunities.  Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Please give us an overview of how you see the state of professional learning in education right now and what the impact is of growing opportunities for online professional development.

I recently finished a study of professional learning around the world, based on research from 2008 to the present day.  It’s remarkable to me that there are still about 10 percent of educators who are simply not participating in professional learning globally, most often educators who are older, in secondary schools, the least qualified in terms of degrees, and teachers of mathematics and science.  These data surprise me.

One of the chief barriers to professional learning is conflict with work schedule.  That disturbs me because professional learning should be embedded in the work day!  It should not be in conflict with the work day.  Another top barrier, worldwide, is having no suitable professional development.  This is disturbing because I am very interested in the design of professional learning.  I’m interested in what makes a professional learning design effective. Which designs are the most effective? If professional learning does not seem to lead to results, what’s not working in terms of adult learning? What’s not working in terms of implementing innovative practices so that students learn?  I am just completing the third edition of a book that has sold more than 30,000 copies in its first and second, Powerful Designs for Professional Learning, so you can probably understand why I’m disturbed.

My concern about what makes professional learning designs effective relates to some work I just finished for the Australia Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).  This organization asked me to look at professional learning designs that seem to be effective, according to research and practice.  My co-author and I constructed a model that AITSL is calling an anatomy of professional learning design.  It consists of 11 characteristics that make professional learning powerful, ranging from contextuality to agility, from structure to tools, and from modes to application.

You asked about online design.  The good news is that many online designs are examples of effective designs. For example, they are aesthetic – they attract and motivate adult learners.  They are structured so that time and place can be variable.  They link educators to people who share their concerns, not just next door but around the world.  They have different levels that help learners deepen their learning.

What do you see as the challenges/obstacles for providing the necessary professional development for pre-service and inservice teachers?

One of the biggest obstacles, of course, is time.  Teachers hate to be away from their classrooms and their kids, but they also know that they need to rev up their own learning so that they can rev up student learning, especially in this decade of the Common Core State Standards.  One of the advantages of online learning is that time is more flexible.  Educators can engage in their own learning when it is convenient for them, asynchronously.

However, I’d like to caution that adult learners need social contexts for learning. They can build communities online, but they also need the support of their colleagues if they are going to implement what they are learning with students.  They need to belong to professional learning communities or communities of practice, perhaps critical friends groups, so that, when they run into problems in terms of implementing something, they have the onsite guidance of their peers.  They may have access to peer coaches who can help them address implementation issues.  They also have a powerful form of accountability for making change – we feel most accountability to those with whom we work – our peers – and we’re likely to work hard to implement strategies that we have agreed to implement when we’ve agreed on them as a team. It’s much harder to face telling the teacher next door that, “No, I haven’t tried that new strategy we all promised to try. . .not yet.” It’s much easier to say, “Yes, I’m trying that.  It’s almost working!  Please come into my classroom and observe me and give me some feedback, and I’ll do the same for you.”

Tell us about the report you are currently working on. 

Work on the report began with a look at about 50 professional learning designs.  They were face-to-face, such as action research or professional learning communities; they were onsite such as coaching—both online and in-person; they were online facilitated (such as courses) or online independent (such as edWeb); and they were blended, such as online protocols.  Once we had determined what made these designs effective, we dug deeper to discover WHY they were successful… and that led us to the 11 elements of effective professional learning.

The report will be published this spring or earlier by both AITSL – the Australia Institute for Teaching and School Leadership – and Learning Forward, the premier professional learning organization in the United States.  It will come out in a variety of forms, including online.

What do you see as some of the bright spots in the field of online professional learning – what’s working well?

One of the brightest spots in terms of professional learning online is access.  Educators have access to incredible videos of teachers who work effectively with kids.  These videos take them out of their isolation into other classrooms.  They offer them models of what can be done.  All kinds of possibilities!  Online learning offers access in another important way – access to educators who are like them and know what they are trying to do to help young people learn.  It is so good to understand that there are others out there, all around the world, who care about young people.  It is good to get ideas about what others, like us, are doing.

Just as importantly, online learning offers access to what Lev Vygotsky called “knowledgeable others.”  Sometimes we need to go beyond our own and our colleagues’ expertise.  Online learning lets us interact with people who have asked the same questions we have. . .and who have answers that go beyond our own boundaries.

Access, of course, is also a matter of time and space.  Online learning offers flexible time for learning – both synchronous and asynchronous — and learning that doesn’t require going to a specific space, such as a conference hotel in a distant city.  We can learn in our pajamas and bedroom slippers.  That said, I don’t want those who establish budgets for professional learning to revert to thinking that teachers can engage in professional learning on their own time.  I believe – like flipped classrooms – we can (and should) do some learning on our own, but we should have dedicated time within the school day for processing our learning with others and helping each other implement strategies that help all students learn through coaching and teaming.

Original Air Date: 12/13/13

Hosted by Larry Jacobs of Education Talk Radio.

Listen to the full interview below.