What Might Be: Open the Door to a Better Future

Those called upon to forecast future trends in professional development are well advised to remember the biblical observation, “There is nothing new under the sun.” In fact, a case could be made that the greatest advances in professional development will come not from identifying new strategies or processes, but rather from applying what we already know to be best practice. The most pressing issue confronting educators is not a lack of knowledge but a lack of implementation, and a key to improving schools is taking purposeful steps to close this knowing-doing gap.

It has also been argued, however, that a group must be able to envision a better future before it can take steps to create that future. The following observations are presented to help others imagine a better future, “what might be,” in the domain of professional development for educators.

We will know a new era has dawned when educators engaged in the deepest and most meaningful learning won’t even recognize they are participating in professional development. Purposeful collaboration, collective inquiry, action research, and seeking evidence of results to inform individual, team, and school practices will be so deeply embedded in the routine work of educators that they will consider these powerful learning experiences as simply “the way we do things around here.” The artificial distinction that has so long existed between teacher “work time” (that is, time spent in the classroom) and teacher “learn time” (that is, the four days set aside annually for “institutes”) will be replaced by a culture in which working and learning are so interwoven it will be impossible to identify where one begins and the other ends.

The collaborative team will become the primary engine for this professional learning, and time for collaboration will be embedded in the daily and weekly schedule. Teams will be expected to develop and pursue results-oriented goals that are specifically linked to school and district goals. They will be required to analyze data, to identify concerns regarding the learning of their students, to build shared knowledge regarding how to best address those concerns, to develop and implement short-term action plans to improve upon the current reality, to analyze data to see what worked and what did not, to assist each other as they work interdependently to achieve the goals for which they are mutually accountable, and to continue to repeat this process in a perpetual cycle of improvement. Within this tight process, however, teams will enjoy tremendous autonomy in the problems they choose to address, their selection of improvement strategies, and, very importantly, in seeking the kind of professional learning they deem essential to their success.

The ongoing learning essential to this process has profound implications for schools and districts. Professional development as an event or workshop will give way to a process of continuous learning. The generic professional development presented to an entire faculty a few designated days each year will give way to just-in-time learning specific to the issues confronting a team. Professional learning will become both more timely in delivery and more precise in identifying the specific knowledge and skills educators need to address an issue and achieve their goals.

And if adult learning in schools is truly to become professional development, educators must commit to the collective pursuit of best practice and extend that pursuit beyond their classroom, their team, their school, or even their district. In too many schools and districts, decisions are based upon preferences and perceptions rather than evidence of effectiveness. The question that has driven initiatives has been “Do we like it?” rather than “Does it help more students learn at higher levels?” Discussion of complex problems devolves into a pooling of opinions, and the contrived congeniality of many faculties makes it difficult to critique diverse opinions in a culture that seems to suggest all perceptions are of equal value. A professional, however, is someone with expertise in a specialized field, a person who has not only pursued advanced training to enter the field but who is also expected to remain current in its evolving knowledge base. It follows, then, that professional development must be specifically linked to compelling evidence of best practice.

Imagine a group of second-grade teachers who have worked together as a collaborative team to clarify the knowledge, skills, and dispositions their students are to acquire as a result of the upcoming unit they are about to teach. One of those skills is re-grouping numbers in two-digit addition and subtraction. Members have discussed different instructional strategies, have agreed on common pacing, and have developed a common formative assessment that they administer to all students. They share the results of the assessment, seek ideas from a colleague who is achieving outstanding results, and offer support and specific strategies for a team member whose students are experiencing difficulty in learning the skill.

But perhaps no one on the team has been successful in helping students become proficient with re-grouping. So, that district identifies teachers and principals who represent what Jerry Sternin has described as “positive deviants” - individuals who consistently achieve results that are dramatically superior to the norm in that district. The district has studied those positive deviants, has asked them to reflect upon and articulate their practices, has created training programs based upon some of their specific skills, and makes them available as a resource to other educators in the district. The team can access the ideas, insights, and information from the district’s most successful teacher in teaching 2nd-grade math skills and solicit his or her assistance as team members implement new strategies in their classrooms.

Or imagine a national network of best practices in education for every course, every discipline, and every grade level. Now the second-grade team accesses a national website that provides the lesson plans, handouts, worksheets, teaching tips, and sample assessments for that specific skill from some of the most effective teachers in the nation. They watch a video of some of those teachers working on that skill with students similar to their own. They discuss the best way to implement some of the ideas they have learned, and they develop strategies for gathering evidence on their effectiveness.

This proposed openness and accessibility may seem foreign to educators who have been reluctant to open their file cabinets to, or share “their stuff” with, a colleague. But there is reason for hope. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced that it is making the content of all its courses available on-line to anyone in the world at no charge. MIT described this initiative as an act of “intellectual philanthropy.” Perhaps others will follow suit. Perhaps the next “Education Governor” or “Education President” will conclude that helping all students learn will require more than assessments and sanctions, and he or she will champion the creation of the systematic intellectual philanthropy that provides educators with free and open access to the knowledge base that can serve as a vital catalyst to their ongoing professional development.

To quote John Lennon, “Imagine.”

From Journal of Staff Development, pp. Vol. 28, NO. 3 Summer 2007.

Copyright Rick and Becky DuFour, 2007.

Helpful link: http://www.nsdc.org/standards/index.cfm


Rick DuFour

Professor K.

The example you provide violates some of the most essential elements of PLCs. For starters, learning 5 vocabulary words would not be considered an essential skill. Building vocabulary strategies might be. Once the team was clear regarding essential knowledge and skills all students were to obtain, they would agree on the best way to determine whether or not students were acquiring the skill. So there would be agreement regarding what students were to learn and how they would be assessed. Teachers would not, however, be told to follow a prescribed method for teaching the skill. They would continue to have considerable autonomy in "how" they teach, provided they can demonstrate that their strategies result in high levels of student learning. Members of the same team in a PLC typically use different strategies of instruction. Some may be more comfortable with cooperative learning while others are advocates of more direct instruction. Diversity in instruction is allowed and encouraged until it becomes evident that some strategies are achieving better results than others. In the latest Principal's Magazine Bob Marzano reported he has concluded that there is an art to teaching, and that we cannot improve student achievement by presenting teachers with prescribed "moves" for their classrooms. He advocates spending less time evaluating teachers and more time focusing on the results of teaching - are students learning -through the collective analysis of interim assessments. We concur. Focus on the question "are they learning" first, and use the answer to inform and improve the practice of each member.

Rick DuFour

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Being fairly new to working with PLC's, I have had to ask many questions, but I can still not find an answer to this one, at least via the research I have read. Does anyone know or can anyone out there tell me if within a PLC, say a group of 9th grade English teachers, do all the teachers within the group have to teach the agreed upon material/lesson in the same manner (i.e. should they all be using the same method to teach the same material)? Or, should teachers use what works best for them as teachers and for their students? For example, the groups of 9th grade English teachers decide on teaching 5 specific vocabulary words during the week. Should all the teachers use the same methods to do so? If one of the teachers decides to have the students write the words out 10 times each, do all the teachers in that PLC have to do that with their 9th grade English students? Or, if another teacher within the PLC decides that it would be good for the students to create 10 sentence using each word in one of the sentences, then would all the other teachers within the same PLC have to do that too?

Any thoughts, personal experiences or location where I could find answers to this question would be appreciated.


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How do you get this started a big high school? Our high schools are over 3000 students.

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