Assumptions about professional development that impact how we see classroom learning

This inspiring manifesto by brings to mind the ongoing paradigm shift that education is traversing. As with tectonic plates, which move around 0.6 inches per year (the same rate as toenail growth, the National Ocean Service informs us), shifts in education have been characteristically slow. Thought leaders such as Yong Zhao and Ted Dintersmith, Tony Wagner and Sir Ken Robinson among many others are talking about changing paradigms in education. Many of these voices are calling for change with a great sense of urgency because the needs of the world seem to us hurtling on at increasing acceleration. And education does not want to be left behind in obsolescence. After all, education supplies all the other professions with the people who will problem-solve toward fresh solutions.

We believe that education needs to be nimble in these VUCA times. And yes, we have to be risk-takers and take the leap into new ways of seeing and being in our schools to provide the authentic learning that will propel our students to self-directedness.

Counter intuitive though it might be in these times, I cannot dislodge the hunch that in these VUCA times, schools need to ‘slow down to speed up’ within their particular sphere of change.

Especially as it pertains to creating conditions for learning, mandating a pace that might carry forward each and every one in the organization is a delicate and complex bundle of decisions.

The suggestion is not to literally slow down with the technical tasks that schools have to do. Plans have to be enacted, deadlines have to be met, along with all the registrations, documentation, scheduled gatherings, safety procedures, maintenance, and the thousands of small tasks that make schools go like clockwork. If we slowed down the technical aspects, there would be chaos, which no one wants.

The suggestion is to give space and time for learning to happen.

It sounds quite obvious and possibly almost trite. And, the pairing of ‘slow down’ and ‘learning’ posits that learning is slow work.

Learning is slow because it requires trust. People learn when they feel psychological safety. They learn when they do not feel fear that they might be wrong, that they might be judged. Change is daunting because it means we have to be vulnerable to not being good at the new ways while we unlearn the old ways. Learners naturally take a dip when they are learning something new; unlearning an old mental model and struggling to replace it with a novel construct. To be safe in this experimentation with new knowledge and applications creates the conditions for internal motivation.

Learning is slow because it is different for each person. It takes time and the right kind of rehearsal to achieve mastery. For some, conceptual transfer is already a mental habit and they cruise through theory into practice. Others may find that old habits are stubborn and several passes are needed to break through to new thought. Often, pathways for learning are messy meanderings and recursive spirals rather than straight lines. Constructing understanding is a complex process and takes time.

Learning is slow because for deep learning to occur, reading, writing, reflecting, dialog, synthesizing, creating, collaborating and other acts of individual or group thinking have to happen.

What might be true about deep learning could apply to any person of any age. So it was interesting to percolate the hunch and frame it as a relationship between the learning of adults in a school and the learning of their students.

To some extent, not many education systems seem to have intentionally applied a systemic way of enacting adult learning for impact toward student learning. Professional development events are often one-off occurrences. Bring a workshop in, and by simply making everyone sit in it, we assume that everyone’s now up to speed and we can carry on with innovative, imaginative implementation.

Some of the problems with the traditional transmission model of professional learning of ‘sit and git’ are that: it does not give choice; it is based on a deficiency model; it presumes that there is a source of the knowledge who is external to the organization; and it needs the additional support which is necessary for implementation long after the person who is leading the event is gone. This is not to say that workshops by external agencies should be done away with. To a certain extent, external knowledge needs to be brought in when it seems not to exist in the community of learners. However, the traditional transmission model holds some assumptions, which when examined, reveal that professional development, in order to stick and make change happen, needs something more.

Suppose that how adults learn is a mirror image of how the children under the adult’s care learn.

How might this look like?

If we believe that professional learning is a linear and technical input-output process such as in the algorithms of computers, it follows that if a teacher is ‘teaching,’ students must be learning. However, the range of results for achievement in schools tells us that this is not necessarily the case. Teaching is not a script, that if we go through its gestures the outcome is that students are able to problem-solve independently when presented with open-ended, unfamiliar tasks. Transfer as a skill is not something that we know to be developed and guaranteed through a series of rehearsed and scripted actions.

If we believe that everyone can learn the same thing the same way at the same pace as everyone, why are some people able to read at 3 or 6 and others not until 8 years of age? And how are we accommodating those whose readiness is not on the same schedule as individual others?

If we parachute the same content to a different group of people, how do we account for the range of learners?

And, how many times have you witnessed the lesson on listening, which consists of the teacher loudly saying, “Listen, everybody!” And, how does telling people to ‘write a research paper’ create the knowledge of how to do so?

If we are to create environments and experiences which elicit agency in our learners, but we do not allow for agency to emerge in those who would facilitate this process, how might we ensure that agency is actually allowed or nurtured? We are able to teach that which we know and have mastered. When we assume that mastery of craft of teaching can be provoked through edict, how might we justifiably expect that this approach translates to deliberate and thoughtful design of a mastery progression of learning for the students?

Often, when outcomes of a learning process don’t seem to stick, are shallow, mere shadows of the robust intentions we have, it is because of poor design, misconceptions, lack of skill, or some other form of struggle.

Often, it is because too little time and too little thinking led to too little learning.

Perhaps we need to slow down and deeply understand what it is we intend to facilitate for our learners. Perhaps only when we gather and think together can we create and enact the conditions by which a culture of agency can lead to deep learning.

Featured Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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