Getting to real learning requires disrupting our natural propensity to avoid it.
When it comes to professional development, the reality is that we take short cuts. We take the wide, gently-sloping-downhill road precisely because it’s easy and we don’t have to fuss with it. This same short cut, however, helps us to avoid having to engage in entirely new learning. In other words, it’s a cognitive bias. As humans, we are prone to biases that make things easier for us. Show up to a conference, bounce from one sixty-minute session to another (perhaps related yet perhaps not), have a beverage in between, stroll into the city if the weather is nice, and return to school on the Monday, where perhaps we will implement something we “learnt” at the conference. Key question: was that really learning, or was it a transfer of boxed knowledge from person A to person B, and we’re hoping it works in our school because we’re trying to find easy-to-implement ideas that largely do not require us to learn something, affecting a permanent change in our knowledge and/or behaviour?
The opening italicised sentence is a quote from Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack’s thoughtful tome, Intentional Interruption, in which they focus on transforming professional practice in education.
“Professional learning is the cornerstone of many (if not most) school improvement efforts. The basic idea is that student learning, engagement, and success are dependent on high-quality practices in classrooms and schools. And high-quality practice emerges from meaningful professional learning. That said, despite best intentions, significant research has found that professional learning is often about activity rather than about learning. And if it’s not about learning, then it is unlikely to have an impact on practice in a way that will lead to real and sustained improvements in schools. The key question, then, is what does it mean for professional learning efforts in schools […] to really be about the kind of learning that truly improves practice?”
So opens the preface. One has to ask one’s self, then, whether, at their heart, traditional conferences are more about activity rather than learning. Let’s examine what is meant by learning, as a frame of reference.
A mantra throughout the book is that professional learning “is a permanent change in thinking or behaviour” (emphasis mine). As the authors state, “[w]hen this permanence criterion is included in the definition of learning, it becomes easier to understand why typical professional development is often less about learning and more about activity. Real new learning is hard work. It is about people thinking, knowing, and understanding differently than they did before. […] Human beings are not naturally inclined to make these kinds of changes. […] There is a range of ‘cognitive biases’ that work to impede new learning — things that our minds do that get in the way of changing what we think, know, and understand.”
If we consider the notion of permanence as an integral part of learning, then we are left to inquire how we might interrupt the “subtle cognitive and affective supports that work to preserve the status quo of thinking, knowing, and doing and that impede new learning.” This line of inquiry is not inconsequential, when we consider all the professional development available globally, no matter the provider, whether an individual or team from within a school or an external provider brought to a school or to a conference.
Alongside the very notion of “learning,” we also must question that which we call professional development. It is a term sometimes used synonymously with professional learning, although they are drastically different things. Consider a teacher saying that s/he has “received PD” on a certain topic. “Yeah, I got PD on that.” In this sense, professional development is something that is done “to” someone. It is a one-way transfer, although the transfer may not actually take place. It’s not akin to popping a USB drive into someone’s personal port and copying the information, though that is arguably how this approach is viewed. No one should “receive” professional learning; rather, one should be “engaged in” it. After all, if the desired result is a permanent change in thinking or behaviour, it will not be possible to attain that result without engagement, without agency on the part of the adult learner. Professional learning, then, is a far deeper, durable approach to the growth of an education professional, and it is intimately connected with ‘starting with why.’ Why is professional learning about Topic X required? Are we looking to increase scores on standardised assessments? Are we looking at our curriculum maps, identifying areas of great challenge for students relative to how we teach that material currently, and proposing a professional learning journey around that issue, with the desired result of a change in a teacher’s thinking and behaviour, such that student learning improves? Will a simplistic allocation of x USD/GBP/EUR (etc) per teacher, to be spent by that teacher as s/he desires and treated as an entitled pot of money, magically result in improved learning outcomes for students? By the same token, will ‘giving PD to someone’ equate to improved learning outcomes for students? I must protest.
If you are interested in learning, then I commend this readable tome to you. Rather than write a book review, allow me to share the chapter titles so that you can get a sense of the areas treated by the authors. By the way, each chapter culminates in some really good ‘questions for reflection’ that are worthwhile. Of particular note is their adroit handling and questioning of professional learning communities. If your school employs a PLC structure, this work is a goldmine for consideration.
Chapter 1 – From Activity to Learning
Chapter 2 – The (Very) Hard Work of Learning
Chapter 3 – The Problem with Professional Learning
Chapter 4 – How Do Focus, Collaborative Inquiry, and Instructional Leadership Enable Learning?
Chapter 5 – The Barriers: How Our Minds Get in the Way
Chapter 6 – Intentional Interruption
Enjoy the read, but also allow me to invite you on a larger quest for professional learning experiences that are less about activity and more about learning. The traditional conference model, sometimes superficially reworked and offered as a ‘new take on conferences,’ is in need of a serious overhaul, yet I submit that the overhaul is not as burdensome as one might be led to believe. Some good minds and bold characters could spend less than a week and envisage a truly new way of professional learning, while promoting the idea of and benefits from professional networking.
Shall we keep the status quo, or shall we be bold and move toward the frontiers?