How can high quality professional development translate theory into classroom practice in authentic, meaningful ways?

It’s one thing to listen to experts lecture on teaching or watch a master artist create a masterpiece in front of the class.  Distilling ideas to use in the classroom from those presentations requires a different kind of processing. Professional development can help educators internalize new habits. The challenge comes when we try to bridge the gap between concepts and practice.

Design teacher-driven professional development. What do educators want to know how to do?  What do they want to improve? What needs do they perceive for students?  In their analysis of multiple general education studies, Hyde and Pink reaffirm the need to encourage teachers to shape professional development. Researchers Fred Korthagen and Tom Russell remind us to “Pay attention to the voices of the people that do the work.”  The practitioners in the classroom bring an important reality check, creativity, and humility to theoretical work.

Investigate and engage with concrete, practical ideas. To get started, select something manageable.  Your success in step one may lead to something larger. Likewise, educators appreciate strategies they can use in the classroom right away. Professional development balances the introduction of valuable tools teachers can use the next day with cultivation of the complex big idea that can improve education in the long-term.  See Arts Education Collaborative.

Transform theoretical concepts into planning tools. Teachers can connect ideas to practice by using of a variety of educational tools including action plans, lesson plans, curricula, assessment tools, integrated units, co-teaching strategies, and checklists.  See Chicago Arts Partnership for Education (CAPE).

Practice.  Teachers benefit from multiple chances to practice new concepts and skills.  When teachers have the opportunity to try out a teaching or leadership skill, reflect with others to improve the practice, and try again, they can begin to connect the dots from idea to what really works. Some structural approaches include having educators teach each other in small groups, piloting a teaching concept at a summer school when team teaching with someone more experienced at the technique, refining an unfamiliar arts area during after school classes taught with a partner, and meeting with colleagues across the year to share and refine approaches.  See Music Center: Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles CountyPerpich Center for Performing Arts.

Reflect and assess.  Don’t just try it and move on.  Create opportunities for teachers to process how it went, with questions such as: “What did students learn from this?  How do I know they learned it? How is this different from the way I normally teach, if at all?  How comfortable did I feel teaching this way, this topic, this lesson? What would I do differently next time? How can I deepen the intent of the unit to challenge students and myself further?”  Such self-analysis happens effectively in small discussion groups with people who have learned to be critical friends (Arts Connection).  In such a group, ideas are welcome, hierarchy is minimal, the stakes are low, and it’s everyone’s job to raise questions for one another. See Perpich Center for Performing ArtsRhode Island Arts Learning Network.

Encourage a risk-taking, “try and try again” environment.  Educational change can be risky business. Professional developers can help create incubators that encourage learning from failure as well as success. This gives teachers permission to try new things. With time, they can adapt content and approaches until they find what works for their situation. Districts and learning communities that can support this risk-taking allow teachers time for growth and improvement. However, given the current high stakes accountability environment in selected other subject areas, such support cannot be taken for granted. Rather, it needs to be cultivated with people who have the authority to create buffers from the pressures of the larger system.

Encourage ongoing learning opportunities. Planning, risk-taking, reflection and practice all take time. It is unrealistic for this sort of change to occur after one workshop. Instead, consider an experimentation cycle where educators test the waters with new ideas, teaching approaches and skills, buoyed by a group culture of reflection .  See Arts in Basic Curriculum (ABC)A+ Schools, Chicago Arts Partnerships (CAPE), Stockton Unified School District (SUSD).