On the effectiveness of professional learning | The Chalkboard Project

On the effectiveness of professional learning

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 Jenny Gillet

Throughout the 12 years I spent as a classroom teacher, I attended numerous professional development classes. There were some that renewed my passion for teaching and made me incredibly hopeful of the impact I could have on my students’ learning. Others didn’t make too much of an impression. They were almost always one-time sessions. And so, over the years, my professional learning turned into a hodgepodge of experiences: required classes, opportunities that just came up, and my own professional interests. There was no way of knowing if my professional learning was making an impact on my teaching or my students.

As I took on new roles outside of the classroom that involved designing and planning professional learning for educators, it became clear how important it is to know if professional learning is even making a difference. Just like how in the classroom using data formatively is critical for teachers to learn how to better support students and for students to track their own progress, those responsible for planning, designing, facilitating, and assessing professional learning employ a variety of sources of data to maximize impact.

Adults learn in different ways and they improve through practice. Effective professional learning addresses a wide range of adult learning styles and includes ongoing assessment, feedback, and coaching on the new learning as it’s applied to practice. Most assessment or evaluation of professional learning occurs at the time of the event or shortly after. However, some of the most important questions to ask --, ‘How did it go when you tried out the new learning in your classroom?’ and ‘Did you need any support as you applied your new learning?’--can only be asked after educators have had opportunities to apply their learning.

Powerful teaching is not a solo act. When teachers have an opportunity to practice new learning together and receive feedback, the power of collective efficacy emerges. I want to know how others are applying the learning, what their successes are, what lessons they have learned, etc. The chances of positive impact will be greater if everyone within the organization is clear on its vision and trusts that they have greater power as a whole versus individually. I finally realized that if teachers who work together engage in the same learning, there will be opportunities to build on that learning by practicing and learning from each other.

The primary users of our education system are our students. Therefore, when designing and measuring professional learning, we must take into account the impact on students. Large-scale assessments are the usual go-to measure of success, but it is unlikely that any single indicator of success will meet all stakeholders’ needs. Nor will these assessments provide ongoing feedback about how professional learning is being applied during a school year.

For that reason, there needs to be multiple sources of evidence. Teacher-created classroom assessments provide feedback for teachers to determine if the new strategies or practices they are implementing are working. How students feel about school, their teachers, fellow students, and their level of confidence can also be measured. Finally, data related to attendance, dropout rates, discipline referrals, etc. can be relevant as well.

As a teacher of students, I learned how complex teaching is, and professional learning is equally complex. If we truly want to improve our teaching practice and cause student learning, professional learning cannot put teachers in a passive role.  

Professional learning is not a number of days called ‘In-service Days’, nor is it an hour a week during PLC Time. Professional learning designers must create learning opportunities that go beyond the initial input and discovery of new knowledge, that include support during implementation, and that draw on multiple sources of data.

Professional learning is ongoing and takes place every moment we are teaching.

Jenny Gillet is the Oregon Collaboration Project Coach at Chalkboard Project. Prior to joining Chalkboard Jenny taught middle school for 13 years. 

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