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Understanding the Learning Cycle Part One: Learning

JUNE 14, 2021

We know that “stand and deliver” style lecturing isn’t the most effective teaching method when it comes to our students. Why would we think it works when it comes to introducing new material to teachers? The truth is, our learning styles as adults don’t really change much from our learning styles when we were in school. Professional development should model the best practices for teaching that we use in the classroom. That means PD should be designed to actively engage teachers in relevant, rigorous learning. In my last blog, I introduced the four-part Learning Cycle: a continuous cycle that includes targeted instruction, planning, application, and assessment. This time, we’re going to dig a bit deeper into the first stage of the cycle: Learning.

Graphic depicting the four-part Learning Cycle

The Problem with Professional Development

Part one of the learning cycle is the one we think of most often when it comes to professional development: learning the latest research, strategies, and best practices. Traditionally, this has been accomplished in a large-group professional development session with an outside expert acting as the trainer. All too often, this type of training is “one and done”: teachers are introduced to the new initiative or program in a half-day or full-day session, and then given materials to take back to the classroom with them. This approach to professional development has historically been driven by budgets and time constraints. Schools only have so many opportunities to get teachers together for face-to-face professional development, and outside consultants are expensive. It makes financial sense to make the most of in-person professional development days by stuffing as much new information as possible into them. The problem is, this “sit and get” method of instruction doesn’t work for teachers any better than it works for students. Too often, teachers don’t even know why they are expected to learn the material and are not told how they are expected to apply what they heard. And they certainly will not be able to retain and apply new information after a single introduction. If we want professional development to result in measurable changes in classroom practice and student outcomes, we first need to rethink how we deliver the material.

The Elements of Effective Professional Development

Like all learners, teachers retain new material best when learning is relevant, active, collaborative, responsive and sustained. Let’s take a closer look at what this means in the context of professional development.

  • Relevant: It’s not enough to tell teachers what we want them to know. We also need to focus on why they need it and how they will implement it in the classroom. Before we ask teachers to master a new program, skill or strategy, it should be very clear how it will impact their teaching, why it is important to their students, and how it fits into the school’s strategic plan and other initiatives.
  • Active: Lectures allow a lot of material to be disseminated in a short amount of time, but they do not support deeper understanding and engagement. To make the material their own, teachers need to actively engage with it though discussion, practice, and application. In face-to-face professional development, this means structuring the session to include time for small group discussions and hands-on activities. Trainers may also want to consider flipping the professional development classroom, allowing teachers to learn new material on their own through books and videos and spending PD time discussing and applying the material together.
  • Collaborative: Like students, teachers learn best when they do it together. Working together in grade-level or content-area groups gives teachers the opportunity to learn from each other and think about the material in new ways. Teachers can discuss different ideas for applying the new material in the classroom and develop a shared plan for implementation.
  • Responsive: Professional development topics should be targeted to needs identified by looking at student data and listening to teacher feedback. As those needs change, professional development plans should change, too. Are teachers struggling to apply a new concept in the classroom? Teacher leaders who have been engaged in advanced training need to be available to revisit the new content on the next early release day or find a way to provide extra coaching. Do student scores identify a particular area of weakness? Look for professional development opportunities that address that need.
  • Sustained: A one-time introduction will never be enough to produce lasting change in classroom practice. Teachers need sustained, ongoing instruction and coaching. Schools should find time to revisit and extend the material throughout the school year. This can be accomplished during staff meetings, on early release days, or in regular small group coaching sessions during collaboration periods. Online resources can also provide ongoing learning opportunities.

All of this learning should take place within the context of the four-stage Learning Cycle. In particular, the planning and learning stages often go hand-in-hand. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the next stage in the cycle: planning.

Questions to Ask

If you are a teacher, how are you learning this summer? How will your learning will be supported once school starts? If you are a district leader, what professional development have you planned for the summer? More importantly, what support have you designed to ensure that teachers will continue to learn and apply what they learned in the upcoming school year?

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