No Silver Bullet: What Makes for Effective Professional Learning?

We all too often search for the elusive silver bullet in education – the workshop or speaker who shares with us that one thing that, if we just implement it, will somehow magically transform our teaching and our students’ learning. Decades of experience, however, tell us this one-shot workshop dream is just that – a dream.  

The opportunity for professional learning

The widespread adoption of more rigorous academic standards requires new approaches to professional learning that can support teachers in implementing required new instructional practices. Professional learning therefore needs to have a laser focus on instruction and student learning. It must create opportunities for teachers to learn new practices and successfully implement them in the classroom so they in turn can support students in developing their own knowledge and ability to think critically. Teachers need time both to learn new instructional strategies and incorporate and adapt new practices into their classroom instruction.

That begs the question: what are the features of effective professional learning?

Numerous research studies on effective professional learning, such as a 2009 status report from the National Staff Development Council, conclude that effective programs share the following characteristics:

  • Ongoing programs: They are ongoing and allow teachers time to learn new instructional strategies.
  • Continued feedback: They first support teachers during the implementation phase and then provide ongoing feedback as they implement new instructional strategies in the classroom.
  • Engagement: They ensure teachers are actively engaged participants and not passive recipients of information.
  • Relevant content: They are not generic.  Rather, they focus on the specific content teachers teach at their grade level and address both content and content-specific pedagogy.
  • Relentless improvement: They are based on the relentless improvement of instruction – one lesson and one unit at a time.

How can we develop effective professional learning structures?

Effective professional learning requires a system that provides educators an opportunity to collaboratively and intentionally study their instructional practice, learn new teaching strategies, design high quality lessons, and reflect on their lessons’ effectiveness and revise those lessons in a continual process of improvement.

Along with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt math authors Tim Kanold and Juli Dixon, one structure I recommend is a professional learning community. Teachers can work collaboratively within such a community to plan instruction, design common assessments and build instructional supports.  Such consistent activity can result in an ongoing, sustained, and job-embedded professional learning environment that builds capacity for mathematics teachers, making it a highly effective approach. It can also provide support following other professional learning experiences, such attendance at National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual or Regional conferences, and help teachers transfer ideas sparked at such an event into daily classroom practice.

Finally, if I can share one general recommendation around professional learning as it relates specifically to math, it is that math educators focus their continual improvement efforts on individual mathematics units or chapters of instruction. The chunk of time set aside to teach each unit, usually 3-4 weeks in length, creates a manageable time period for collaborative teamwork within a professional learning community throughout the year.  Teachers can use this time to review their teaching practices, refine their approaches, and respond to individual student needs.

New more rigorous standards require more ongoing professional learning and collaborative work. I encourage all teachers to work with grade level or course-based colleagues to continually plan, revise, and reflect on instructional practice to better meet the needs of each and every student.