I have had the pleasure of working with two different organizations recently, helping their staff to understand some basic principles of designing professional learning experiences for teachers. Designing professional learning deserves as much care and attention as the planning that we expect classroom teachers to give to their classroom instruction. We do not accept undifferentiated teacher lecture as the only pedagogy in classrooms, so it is important that we design professional learning that is
- NOT a prescriptive module that does not change, regardless of what learners need
- NOT solely lecture-style presentation where we tell them information and leave the meaning making and application to teachers after an event.
In my decade of designing and facilitating professional learning and teaching others to design professional learning, I have been seeking out and creating ways to approach workshop design. My goal is to ensure that I provide rich, authentic, practical and differentiated adult learning to teachers and related professionals. I firmly believe that a day of teacher workshop must be as or more important than a day that teacher would have had with their students. And a day with their students is SO important.
In my learning journey, I have discovered a few key things that are the foundation for every workshop that I create and facilitate.
Expect to Learn from Participants: Partnership Principles
One of my first learning opportunities about designing professional learning was Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles. His philosophy is very simple – that the people who come to professional learning are equal in every way to the facilitators of that learning. There is no hierarchy in learning, we are colleagues and partners.
Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles identify that if we have a mindset of equality, where our learners have choice and voice with professional learning, we will create interactions that encourage dialogue, reflection where we both can learn. An ultimately, the goal is for praxis, or application and transfer of learning into teacher contexts and classrooms.
Vision Our Impact: What Change Are We Hoping For?
It is important to see what changes we are hoping for in teacher behavior, resulting in an impact on student learning. Following Thomas Guskey’s Five Levels of Evaluating Professional Development backwards, it is possible to pose questions that can be pre-thinking before we begin designing learning. This process helps us to identify WHY we are providing this professional learning. As Simon Sinek has identified in his talk on The Golden Circle, we often think about the WHAT and the HOW, but it is the WHY that inspires us. When we, as facilitators, know why, we can share that passion and enthusiasm with our adult learners. A helpful tool is to use a Thinking Map, along with the following questions:
Ask Teachers What They Need
Ideally, we can engage teacher learners before our learning event to find out what learners need. This might be informed by:
- Observations of student behaviours – what changes are needed?
- Observations of student learning – what gaps or areas do students need a greater focus on?
- Observations of teacher knowledge – what would learners like to know more about or change in their own understanding?
If it is not possible to have this conversation before learning, there are different facilitation processes that can be done that can inform our facilitation. These include:
- Snowball – ask participants
- What do you know about this topic?
- What do you wonder about this topic?
- Notice and Wonder – provide some type of visual or media experience and then ask
- What do you notice about this?
- What do you wonder about this?
- Touch Each Page and then Professional Question Generation
- The Touch Each Page strategy will create a focus for professional inquiry through the day.
- Generating Questions:
- Group Generating and Monitoring Questions – participants work in small groups to identify questions that they would like to answer.
- Personal Inquiry – participants identify a question that they most want to answer through the day. This is put onto a sticky note that they revisit and discuss at the end of the day with a colleague.
Have an Assessment Plan: Guskey’s 5 Levels
Thomas Guskey has identified five levels of evaluation to consider when understanding the efficacy of any professional learning experience in his article “Does it Make a Difference? Evaluating Professional Development”. Too often, we take in data around student outcomes and teacher satisfaction but neglect to identify the levels in between that allow us as facilitators to draw conclusions and connections between the professional learning that we are engaging in and the impact on students.
As Guskey has stated, “Good evaluations don’t have to be complicated. They simply require thoughtful planning, the ability to ask good questions, and a basic understanding of how to find valid answers” (Guskey, 2002). It is important as we evaluate our professional learning experiences that we are looking for evidence around its efficacy, not proof that it is making a difference. Most often, there are many different professional experiences that are impacting student learning, and to identify the exact scope and impact of any one initiative is nearly impossible. Instead, it is useful to gather evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, that identifies shifts and possible contributors to changes in student learning.
Guskey’s Five Levels of Evaluating Professional Development allow us to consider the types of questions that we might ask participants during or after professional learning. Facilitators who can connect with teachers after professional learning can gather data regarding impact on student outcomes and participant use of knowledge and skills.
If you are only in contact with educators during a session, it is possible to assess levels one through three, and measure teacher intent to implement using an Agenda Assessment. An agenda assessment is an innovation that combines an agenda with an assessment of learning and can be completed throughout a professional learning experience. This information can give insight into the effectiveness of a workshop or other learning experience.
Plan for Flexibility: Have a Plan that Allows for Change
A useful planning structure is a Facilitation Guide. Like a lesson plan that a teacher might use in a classroom, a facilitation guide identifies content, process, assessment, timing and materials. This simple structure helps facilitators see how content is chunked during the day, and the sequence of instructional strategies.
Content: This is the sequence of main ideas that flows through the day. By chunking content, it is relatively easy for a facilitator to skip or skim over particular ideas. This might occur if
- Teachers have already identified that they know a specific piece of information; or
- Time does not allow for all of the concepts in the day to be covered.
Process: This column identifies the instructional strategies and key questions that facilitators might pose to encourage thinking.
Assessment: This column allows facilitators to predict what they think participants might do or say during a specific part of the workshop. It is helpful to identify
- what people might say if they have a misconception; or
- what we are looking for in participant responses that indicates that they understand.
Timing: Just as it states, this column allows facilitators to predict the length of time that a specific process will take. This helps to know whether the workshop is at, ahead or behind timelines outlined.
Materials: This column has us list materials or resources that are used in that chunk of a workshop.
Incorporate Meaning Making Strategies: Differentiate Learning
It is important that we choose processes for learning that fit the content and amount of time provided. Considering Dylan Wiliam’s Formative Assessment Strategies, instructional strategies in professional learning are particularly powerful when they:
So, where do we find these strategies? There are many useful resources. Some of them include:
- Groups at Work: Strategies and Structures for Professional Learning – Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman
- Adaptive Schools Live Binder
- The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation – Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless
It may seem like there are many layers and lots of time needed to plan effective professional learning, but our teachers and ultimately student learning deserve our investment.