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Understanding the Learning Cycle Part Three: Apply

During the summer, many teachers are engaged in professional learning and planning for the new school year. But what happens in the classroom when the kids come back in the fall? In my last two blogs, I explored the Learn and Plan stages of the Learning Cycle. Now, let’s turn our attention to the fun part: applying what we have learned with our students.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

School districts invest a lot in teacher training and professional development. Every year, teachers are asked to learn new strategies and implement new programs designed to improve student outcomes. Most of these initiatives are well intended, research-based and thoughtfully designed and rolled out. But none of them will make a difference for students if they don’t change teacher behaviors where it really matters: in the classroom. Changing behavior is hard for all humans. Teachers, like everyone else, are naturally inclined to fall back on habits and behaviors that are familiar and have worked well enough in the past—even when they are presented with new ideas that may work even better. Without effective support during planning and application, professional development does not translate into changes in classroom practice. That’s why the Apply phase of the Learning Cycle is so important. Now is the time for teachers to take what they have learned and actually try it with their students. This process is intimately tied with the Plan stage of the Cycle; effective planning gives teachers a roadmap to follow as they apply a new method, program or strategy in the classroom. While every teacher will find unique ways to adapt a new strategy or initiative to the needs of their students, teachers should never feel like they are alone in the process. Ongoing support and positive reinforcement will help teachers move successfully from initial experimentation to confident application and adaptation of new ideas.

Translating Planning into Action

During the Plan phase, teachers are asked to think about how they will use a new strategy or program in the classroom. How will it be introduced to students? What standards does it support? How does it fit into the classroom routine or lesson plan? When teachers bring that plan into the classroom, they must then layer on the art and science of teaching. Teachers have to be able to think on the fly to make the lesson come to life and adjust in real time as they see how students respond. New strategies and programs must also be integrated with other classroom initiatives. Here’s how individual teachers, teacher leaders and school administrators can build a culture that supports effective application of new program initiatives.

  • Build a system for ongoing support. Teacher leaders and instructional coaches should be readily available to answer questions, model lessons and provide positive reinforcement as teachers move from planning to application. In a Thinking Maps rollout, this means at least one teacher leader per grade level (for elementary) or content area (for middle and high school).
  • Start with a plan, but stay flexible. Realize that you will need to adapt and differentiate the strategies to meet the unique needs of your classroom or individual students.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things. Realize that not everything will work the first time, and don’t be afraid to try again. School leaders should create a culture of safety and trust where teachers are encouraged to experiment and share both their successes and failures with peers.
  • Let students be part of the process. When schools introduce new programs and initiatives, students and teachers are learning together. It’s OK to admit this to students and let them take an active part in figuring out how to apply new ideas.
  • Take your time. Give teachers time to practice, reflect and experiment in the classroom. Realize that new ideas will need to be introduced several times before students (and teachers) become comfortable with them.
  • Build informal assessment into the process. Application is an ongoing, iterative process. As teachers try new things, they need to have peer networks where they can talk about what is and isn’t working and refine their plans before trying again.

Application is an act of faith. Teachers are asked to try things in the classroom before knowing exactly how students will respond or what results they will achieve. But with effective planning and appropriate support, school leaders can help teachers maximize their chances of success.

Questions to Think About

For teachers: How might my plan need to be adapted when I apply it in the classroom? What outcomes and behaviors am I hoping to see from my students during application? Where can I go for support if I run into challenges? For administrators: What support networks are in place to help teachers during the application phase? Have we built a culture of mutual trust and support? How will we celebrate successes and promote sharing of best practices and new ideas?

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