This post initially appeared on Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching site in August 2020.
Throughout my career I have always been frustrated by school, district, or state requirements that are supposedly designed for progress or improvement but in actuality are a paper chase. Frequently on the list of such policies are Professional Growth Plans (PGPs). In some cases, teachers sense that they will be evaluated based on reaching a goal that is set in the PGP, so the selected outcome is too minimal. In many places, the PGP established in May or September is placed on a shelf or in a drawer to be pulled out the following May for a quick review before a supervisory end of year meeting. Too often little is gained from what should be an opportunity for educator growth.
This school year, with all the changes and unknowns, should be an optimal time for focusing on teacher learning outcomes in a PGP. Jess Byrne, the director of sports at Dulwich College (a British school for students 2-18) in China summed it up well: “I think if you are not inspired as a teacher right now, I would question when you are ever going to be re-inspired as a teacher. Now is a golden opportunity for progression, development, reflection, and just pushing forwards. I am a great believer in the obstacle being the opportunity.”
This is not a time for a paper chase. It is a time for maximum educator learning!
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work with several schools internationally and in the United States to explore how changing/modifying their PGP process could maximize the educator learning from the investment in the process. Here are some guidelines to consider.
- Step 1: Identify the change you are looking to generate in student outcomes. What are the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and/or dispositions that you want to extend from the current level? The past six months have caused many educators to re-examine the most important learning outcomes for students. Some educators are identifying students’ need to learn how to execute greater autonomy in learning. Others see a need to develop strong critical thinking capabilities. How will a different student learning outcome require new teacher learning?
- Step 2: Consider how you can assess students’ current levels regarding the desired outcome and indicators of the outcome advancing. An example could be using a critical thinking rubric or self-assessment tool. A pre-assessment of knowledge, skill, attitude, or disposition creates a goal and later as a post, provides feedback indicating if teacher learning is impacting student learning.
- Step 3: Decide what student learning production behaviors are most likely to generate the desired student learning outcomes. This step might require teacher exploration and research leading to the formation of a hypothesis. “I believe that students engaging in these behaviors, actions, and experiences would enable students to reach this outcome.” Example: If students engage in solving real problems, requiring research as well as trial and error, they will develop stronger critical thinking and perseverance.
- Step 4: Select what teacher behaviors or actions are most likely to generate the student learning production behaviors. Often this involves teaching, modeling, and coaching those student behaviors. What instructional strategies can be employed to engage and support the learners? This step leads to another hypothesis. “I believe that these actions on my part will generate the identified student learning production behaviors.” Example: Engaging students in several problem-based learning projects throughout the year should provide the opportunities for students to engage in the learning production behaviors that enhance critical thinking capabilities.
- Step 5: What resources can assist the teacher in carrying out the identified exploration? What professional development opportunities exist? Might a PLC team engage in a shared professional growth plan? What role can an instructional coach or administrator play in gathering and providing feedback throughout the process? Example: Our PLC will jointly explore effective problem-based learning and co-design several opportunities for our grade level. (Note: Often, this step is identified as the professional growth plan, rather than as a step of the plan. That allows a growth plan to be executed without measuring impact on learners. That is insufficient reflection for teacher learning.)
Focus on Hypothesis
Jean Ross, writing in Sloan Management review from MIT, Why Hypotheses Beat Goals, suggests that instead of asking “What is Your Goal?” we ask, “What is Your Hypothesis?” She states, “Hypotheses can force individuals to articulate in advance why they believe a given course of action will succeed. A failure that exposes an incorrect hypothesis can more readily convert into organizational learning.”
A hypothesis is an “educated guess” that emerges from a set of underlying assumptions. It’s a belief that taking these actions would create a desired outcome. Articulating and justifying assumptions starts the learning process. The growth plan should outline the path that the teacher will take to investigate the hypothesis. The plan carried out, may identify the hypothesis as faulty. This finding can be the start of new learning leading to a modified hypothesis. So, learning from faulty or proven hypotheses can continue the drive to increased teacher and student success.
Coaching conversations can assist teachers in building growth plans around a hypothesis laying the groundwork for ongoing coaching and reflection throughout the coming year.
- Teacher: I’ve decided the goal for my professional growth plan is to increase the number of formative assessments in each science unit.
- Coach: How do you see formative assessments impacting student learning?
- Teacher: Well, I’ll get more information about students’ understanding earlier and can adjust my instruction.
- Coach: How do you see students using the information from formative assessments?
- Teacher: Hopefully, they would invest study time or question me, as they discover “what they don’t know, that they should know.”
- Coach: So, you envision that implementing formative assessments will change your instruction and change students’ learning behaviors, both of which would have a positive impact on student learning. (Hypothesis)
Gather and Reflect on Evidence Throughout the Process
Merriam Webster defines evidence as an outward sign (indication) and something that furnishes proof (testimony). (Synonyms include: attestation, confirmation, corroboration, documentation, proof, substantiation, testament, testimonial, testimony, validation, voucher, and witness.)
A professional growth plan should be supported with evidence that the plan was carried out and the necessary reflection occurred. Insights that emerged are the concluding element (the learning).
Looking back on a teacher whose goal was to increase the number of formative assessments, a documentation of the goal could simply be a folder with copies of assessments from each unit. However, a coach working with the teacher who developed the hypothesis that increased formative assessments would alter her instruction and her students learning behaviors would explore evidence with the teacher throughout the year.
- Any idea how you might track changes that you make in your instruction after studying your assessment findings?
- How prepared do you think your students are to use the feedback they gain from formative assessments? Thoughts on what may be needed?
- Is there a way to gather information from students about anything they are doing differently following the assessments?
- Is there something in this process that would influence the way you design your formative assessments? When you give them?
- When would you hope to see an impact from your assessments on student learning? Do you see a way to track it?
In some cases, teachers would be inviting a coach to assist in gathering evidence. The collected evidence throughout the year should initiate reflection and continued learning.
- Are my formative assessments producing the information I need to plan and modify instruction? What should I change?
- What indicators are there that students are using the assessment feedback?
- When is the most valuable time for the assessments?
Learning Plans over Discipline Plans
If a teacher knows that she should have formative assessments in each of her units and she knows “how and why” to create them, then I label that a discipline goal. She uses the goal to “discipline” herself to execute the needed behavior. Very similar to me setting a goal to walk 10,000 steps each day. In a PGP, an educator should be engaged in learning, hopefully discovering skills or knowledge that can positively impact student success. By establishing a student desired outcome as an initial planning point, a hypothesis should emerge as to the student and teacher behaviors likely to gain that desired outcome. A teacher, who wants students to develop stronger self-management and time management skills, explores possible student experiences and actions that would generate those outcomes and how he can create student engagement in those learning tasks. As hypotheses emerge, a plan is implemented, and reflection generates educator earning.
Organic vs. Calendar Timelines
When calendar dates start and stop a PGP, the opportunities for learning frequently decrease. Stopping a process because it is June and starting a new one because it is September encourages the paper chase. Imagine teachers completing and starting new PGPs at various times throughout the year. What if we had PGP exhibitions quarterly and staff shared with each other …
- What I learned from my completed PGP
- What I am pondering in my current PGP
- A student outcome that I am using to build my next PGP
- Requests for possible hypotheses around my goal
Implementing the PGP
As coaches, administrators and peers interact with teachers throughout the PGP from designing and initiating to gathering evidence and reflecting, continuous opportunities for educator learning will emerge. Hopefully, the statement, “I don’t know what I would have as a focus for coaching” would vanish.
Educators engaged in quality Professional Growth Plans will be modeling the learning skills and processes that we want for our students.