Building on What You Have to Deepen Professional Learning

What if learning with your colleagues could be like having your friends and family over for a dinner party? A generous host sets a table and invites people to come, and people enjoy each other’s company. Think about something, anything—a subject, a set of skills, a vocation, a hobby—that you know deeply. How did you come to know it so well? I wonder if, in the course of your learning, you felt the same spirit of generosity, invitation, companionship, and delight found in a dinner party?

One of the goals of the Literacy In Learning Exchange is to support teams of educators in inquiry about one another’s practice. Perhaps you are curious about collaborative inquiry. Perhaps you are considering forming or joining a group that has committed to improving collective practice. Perhaps you have already done so. In any case, you have taken your first step toward a deeper and more natural professional learning. Congratulations! I invite you to build on the commitment you have made for yourself.

The metaphor of remodeling is useful to describe what we can do together to improve our schools. To remodel a home, you build on what already exists to create a more livable space. You can think of changing professional learning in the same way.

Think about the existing structures that bring people together at your site, both physical places and groups. In the spirit of remodeling, identify these as templates for thinking about creating more opportunities for collaborative learning. In other words, how could you amplify these patterns beyond the places where you are already seeing them?

For example, I used to share a stock room with fellow science teachers. We used it to prep materials for our classes as well as for coffee or snack breaks.  If I ran into a colleague there, I might ask him what he was prepping. We would have a short conversation and then the bell would ring. Yet in that conversation was the seed of deeper learning about each other’s practice.

To amplify this pattern, we might have agreed to roll a whiteboard into the room in order to write questions and answers to each other during times we didn’t run into each other in the room: Does anyone have a good demonstration for conservation of momentum? Have you tried using the air hockey table? In time, we might have even gotten to a point where we figured out a way to watch each other teach more often.

Think about the various meetings you attend: grade-level meetings, department meetings, and so on. How much of this time is set aside for conversations about instruction or about student work? In my experience, there is never enough time to have these conversations. I suggest you start by making small shifts in time allocation. Could you re-allocate your meeting time to have 30 minutes or more of conversation?

One district I worked with made it a policy not to schedule any administrative meetings on one day a month so that there could be protected time for learning communities to meet. It was not a lot of minutes in the grand scheme of things, but setting aside a safe time for learning sent a strong message.

Here are some other ideas about where you might start:

  • Visit a colleague’s classroom. Find a willing partner and spend some time in her or his classroom. Start informally, but commit to returning the favor – inviting that teacher into your classroom. Then have a conversation about what you saw in each other’s classrooms.
  • Collect and share samples of student work. Select examples from up to three of your students, including a range of achievement levels. Have a conversation with your colleagues about what you could do to help each student. In a few weeks, bring back more samples and talk about what helped and what didn’t help.
  • Recommend a resource. Take something that has helped your instruction—a journal article, blog post, conference presentation, or expertise from a colleague—and share it with your team. Have a conversation about how and why it has helped you. Later, others can share their own resources.

The important thing is to take a first step. Find a pattern that works for you and build on it. Take something that works for your students and apply it to your own learning, and vice versa. You will be on your way to deeper learning for yourselves and your students.

You can also explore these related resources on the Literacy in Learning Exchange:

Adapted from Designed to Learn: School Remodeling Projects for the Twenty-First Century by Rex Babiera

Most Recent: February 19, 2013
Leslie Patterson

Finding time and making time!

Rex, Thanks for this post, with these practical ideas. I love the white board idea -- kind of a bulletin board/message board  when we don't have time for those face-to-face conversations. At some point, years ago, I was complaining about not having enough time to do everything I wanted to, and a colleague laughed and said that we tend to MAKE time for the things we really want to do. I have to say that's probably true.