A paper from the Research Partnership for Professional Learning identifies the “what and how” from studies exploring teacher learning impacting student learning. The findings around teacher collaboration and coaching point to practices that are important for the implementation of new curriculum and the work of instructional coaches. Administrators should be exploring their roles in supporting effective PLCs and maximizing instructional coaches’ impact on teacher learning for student learning. What encourages accountability for continued teacher learning?
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Steve: 00:35 Strengthening Teachers Professional Learning – PLCs and Coaching. In this podcast, I’m going to review a recent white paper that was published by Research Partnership for Professional Learning. The title of the paper is, “Building Better Professional Learning: How to Strengthen Teacher Learning.” I’ll review the key points from the paper and of course, add my thinking on the side. There is a link to the paper in the lead-in to this podcast. As I read through the paper, I found a strong reinforcement for the role of instructional coaching and for the role of effective professional learning communities. In the overview of their findings, they begin with two statements. Number one, that effective professional learning supports teachers’ day to day practice, and two, effective professional learning involves accountability for change and improvement: “In other words, successful professional learning tends to focus more on improving what teachers do in classrooms, and it features follow up from other educators, a kind of social accountability.
Steve: 02:11 For instance, a coach who revisits the classroom to check on progress, or peers who depend on one another to try out new instructional techniques.” The paper breaks down into two sections, one that looks at what should the content of professional learning be, and the other looks at what they’re calling how – features and formats for professional learning. Two key elements under the what of professional learning is, one, it’s best when the professional learning is targeted, subject specific instructional practices versus content knowledge. And second, prioritize practice supporting with instructional materials. This really matches a piece that I had talked about in blogs and podcasts earlier around the embedding of professional learning and curriculum materials happening together. They site, as an example, a study that was done in the area of science for elementary teachers. And there were two groups of teachers. One received training in science content.
Steve: 03:41 The science content group focused on increasing teachers understanding of scientific ideas with the goal that that understanding would impact their instruction and student learning. The second group, through a study of videotaped science lessons, analyzed the instructional strategies that were being used. Although the teachers spent the same amount of time in both learning experiences, students of the teachers in the lesson analysis group outperformed students of the teachers in the content deepening group by a 20 percentile points on a researcher’s developed assessment. What’s being drawn from this research is that while the teacher’s understanding of content is important and critical, it needs to be combined with teachers understanding of how learning occurs on the student’s part – learning specifically connected to subject matter content. In other words, subject-specific instructional practices assist teachers in understanding how to engage students in thinking, reasoning about data and applying their understanding.
Steve: 05:18 Professional learning needs to support teachers in their day to day practice by identifying and analyzing key instructional moves. A third comment was made under the content of what teachers should be getting from professional learning and it was suggested that more professional learning should be focused on developing relationships with students. That really matches up with a blog that I had written earlier and I’ll have the link in the lead-in for you around building developmental relationships and I have several resources in that blog connected to Search Institute. They identify that we are frequently talking with teachers about the importance of relationships with students, but seldom get into the specifics of strategies teachers use to make that happen. In that blog, I featured the five elements that search institute suggest that we need to be focused on. That is, how do we express our care? How do we challenge student growth? How do we provide support? How do we share decision making power with students? And then a biggie in expanding students’ pictures of what the possibilities are. Now let’s take a look at the second part of the report, which talked about the “how.” They identified three critical elements: One, encouraging peer collaboration for improvement. Two, relying on coaching to get the work done. And three, adding follow up meetings to address teacher concerns.
Steve: 07:13 The paper suggests that there is growing evidence that well-structured collaboration, formal or informal, can support ongoing development of teachers instructional skills. They state, “there is widespread and rigorous evidence that teachers can and do learn from eachother, that teachers improve their practice more in schools that are more collaborative workplaces and that interventions designed to promote teacher collaboration around instructional practices can improve teacher practice and, real critical here, student outcomes. However, evidence also suggests that collaboration as a simple structural reform does not necessarily have payoff. Building teacher team time into the school day is only valuable if that time is well used. In other words, how collaborative approaches are designed and implemented matters a great deal.” This really reinforces for me the value of PLCs engaging in goal setting. Goal setting for increases in student learning outcomes. And then those goals drive teachers in the PLCs to be asking that critical question, “what do our students need us to learn?”
Steve: 08:45 What do we as teachers need to learn in order to provide the learning production behaviors that students need to move from where they are to the desired goals that the PLC has set for learning outcomes? It’s why I’m a strong believer that it is essential for student work to frequently be on the table at PLC meetings. Teachers need to be studying student work. They need to be studying students in the learning process to figure out what we as professionals need to learn in order to assist students in advancing their learning. The study added one additional value to those collaborative groups as it connects to teacher learning. Collaborative structures provide social accountability that encourages teachers to try new practices. “If a teacher says they will try out a specific practice and the teacher needs to return to the PLC the following week, there is an added incentive to test out the practice.
Steve: 10:13 Thus, collaboration for improvement is a promising approach to support the ongoing learning and development of teachers.” The second item under the how was rely on coaching to get the work done. The paper identifies that there is strong evidence that supports coaches working one on one with teachers on specific aspects of the teacher’s practice over a sustained period can identify results in student learning from the work of coaches. Those studies are in diverse subjects and programs where coaching was included to improve both average instructional classroom quality and student outcomes. How coaching time is used is pointed out in the paper as a critical element.
Steve: 11:25 “Coaching that includes focused and specific pre-lesson planning can improve teaching. And focusing on one on one coaching as opposed to administrative duties is likely the most effective use of coaching resources. Many scholars suspect that coaches who spend their time largely engaged in administrative duties are not as effective as those who spend more time in classrooms observing instruction and facilitating teacher learning.” I worked with one instructional coach who had an ongoing way of exploring this issue with her administrator. The coach kept a daily journal of where she spent her time and every two weeks she met with the principal to look back over her daily time use. She added one element, and that is she color coded her daily schedule using green to highlight those areas she felt were most likely to have a positive impact on student learning.
Steve: 12:42 She used yellow to identify activities she was engaged in that she had some concern as to whether or not that time was impacting student learning outcomes. And then she used a red check to identify activities that she felt pretty sure were places she spent her time, but was gonna be unable to document that it was gonna come back and impact student learning. It was a great way to kick off a conversation with her building principal. In the section that talks about coaching it it describes why coaching works. Coaching supports teachers day to day practice by starting with the teacher’s existing practice, then working outward from the teacher’s existing practice to integrate new instructional techniques. Similar to the impact that professional learning communities can have on teacher implementation of learning, the cyclical nature of coaching offers that same accountability.
Steve: 13:50 Teachers know that their coach is going to return and continue their work together, and this is likely to increase the teacher’s implementation of content that was discussed during the coaching meeting. The third item listed again, ties together that important role of coaching and professional learning communities, and that is that there need to be follow-up meetings added to any professional learning opportunities so that teachers have a chance to discuss and explore their findings as they take that learning from a professional development workshop or presentation or learning day or curriculum presentation, any of those cases where now the teacher takes it back into the classroom, we need to have that follow up opportunity for conversation. I frequently have worked with districts and even buildings where as they planned out the frequently minimal amount of time that was available for professional learning tackled too many different topics.
Steve: 15:24 And so they would have a early dismissal day and teachers would attend a workshop, professional learning on one topic. And then three months later, there was another early dismissal day and they went on to a different topic. And I frequently discussed how taking the time that was available and spending a sufficient amount of it in follow up was much more likely to bring about a a change in teacher practice that was going to impact student learning. Here’s how the paper describes why this is important. “First, these follow up sessions are based on teachers problems of practice, the part of the new program or the new strategy that the teacher finds challenging. Many of these meetings are intentionally collaborative. Teachers share ideas with one another with the goal of enhancing implementation. In doing so, teachers can learn from one another and perhaps customize the program to best meet the needs of their students.
Steve: 16:40 And again, like the coaching, like the professional learning communities, these follow-up meetings add an accountability component. Teachers are more likely to have the program implementation in the front of their minds when they know they need to report on how it went when they attend the follow up meetings.” My phrase for those activities is finding accountability rather than supervision to get implementation and new teacher learning to occur. Again, the link for the paper from the Research Partnership for Professional Learning is in the lead-in to this podcast. It’s about 10 pages long. You can read online or or download and if it strikes questions or thoughts for you, I’d love to hear from you at barkleypd.com. Thanks for listening.
Steve [Outro]: 17:47 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter teve @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.