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Talking At Teachers Is Not Research-based PD

February 5, 2021 | Hugh Norwood

Last week, I tried to explain to my 70-yr-old mother-in-law--over the phone!--how to remove and re-install a mobile app.  

It didn’t go well. 

About a week later, she was visiting, and I sat down next to her and showed her how to remove and re-install the mobile app that was giving her problems.  It was simple, easy and pain free for both of us.

What was the difference?  Why did one attempt to teach someone something go so horribly wrong, while the other attempt was so successful?  

I bet you already know most of the differences: side-by-side learning, coaching instead of lecturing, demonstrating instead of describing, practice and imitation, validating success, ensuring replicability of mastery, etc.  

As educators, we (usually) know better than to try to teach kids new skills or behaviors simply by explaining or lecturing.  

We spend much of our planning time developing ever-more creative ways to reach kids, and engage them in the co-construction of their learning.  

But we almost always make the mistake I made with my mother-in-law when it comes to professional development, don’t we?  We talk at our audience, and expect them to follow along.  

Just think back to your last conference, or your last in-service.  If you were lucky, there was a decent set of powerpoint slides to go along with “the talk.”  And if the presenter was A+, there might even have been a few moments of sharing or communicating with other attendees.  

The research is clear about what works in PD, and it’s no surprise: job-embedded, sustained and collaborative professional learning  that is guided by coaches, peer mentors or best practice communities (think PLCs) toward a specific and tangible organizational outcome.  

This is the same, co-constructivist, project-based and differentiated instruction that we aim for in our classrooms.  

So why do we just keep talking at educators?  

It’s time to make a change, and to face the reality that teaching is a lonely profession only made lonelier and more difficult because we rarely do what’s right:

1) sit side-by-side, mentor and mentee

2) demonstrate a new skill or technique, using actions instead of just 3-ring binders

3) let teachers practice in a safe and supportive environment to build proficiency

4) have them demonstrate with evidence to their mentors/coaches that they can replicate mastery.

If we do those four things in our PD, we can revolutionize the teaching profession.


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