In Professional Learning, One Size Does Not Fit All
Changes in How Students Learn Requires Changes in How Teachers Learn
By Kristi Meeuwse and Diane Mason
Daily, teachers interact with students in a variety of ways to focus on learning outcomes, but not all teachers are well-equipped with the necessary skills to target specific student needs. For students to learn at higher levels, teachers must also learn at higher levels. In fact, teachers need a learning practice in addition to a teaching practice. Learning practices for teachers must include a focus on student learning, which requires ongoing support from colleagues and the principal. Changes in how students learn requires changes in how teachers learn. Yet, most professional learning opportunities consist of one-shot workshops designed to cover multiple grade levels, leaving busy teachers to scale the content that is provided.
This scaling of content is most difficult for early childhood educators. Early childhood, as defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, is the education of children up to age eight. In some districts, early childhood is considered preschool to grade two, and in others, it extends to grade three. Too often, these teachers are grouped together for professional development workshops and webinars in literacy. Grouping these teachers together is problematic, as preschool literacy activities are vastly different from those in second and third grade. In fact, best practices in literacy development for each early childhood grade level build systematically on one another.
Kindergarten students focus heavily on phonemic awareness and concepts of print. Students in second grade are building reading fluency skills and reading longer passages with greater text complexity. Due to the differing nature of literacy practices in these grade levels, combining them for professional development results in confusion and frustration. When teachers have to scale content to fit their teaching context, they are less likely to make these instructional changes. One size does not fit all. Teachers, like students, possess different levels of knowledge and understanding. In teaching, this means individuals vary in their abilities and expertise with implementing new and emerging instructional strategies. One way to broaden knowledge and expertise while building confidence in instructional approaches is through personalized learning.
Personalized Professional Learning
Research demonstrates teachers are more likely to make instructional changes when professional learning is ongoing, job embedded, and personalized to individual teacher needs. This personalization of professional learning should consider the teaching context, previous knowledge and instructional needs of each educator. The end goal is to build individual capacity and create lasting change in pedagogical practices. Some districts are utilizing instructional coaches to model best practices and work with individual teachers and grade level teams, as veteran teachers do not have the same professional learning needs as first year teachers. Personalizing professional learning with coaching and reflection provides teachers with the ability to see the impact on their students and practice new instructional skills in a safe environment.
In addition to coaches, a few school districts are incorporating microcredentials and online professional learning platforms that provide individual learning plans for teachers. Microcredentials, or digital badges, are performance-based assessments that allow teachers to showcase their growing skills. Each microcredential is focused in a particular area, has submission criteria, a research base, recommended resources and a scoring rubric. Microcredentials allow teachers to engage in self-paced, job-embedded professional learning that is connected to the daily skills teachers need.
First, the principal and teacher sit together to create a professional growth plan. The teacher then is able to work with the instructional coach, complete online microcredentials, work in an online professional learning platform and/or take courses to demonstrate the learning targets identified in the professional growth plan. With the assistance of an instructional coach and planned personalized professional learning experiences, teachers can hone in on specific teaching needs. For example, the instructional coach can offer suggestions or model ways to incorporate technology integration to meet varied student needs. A coach can also serve as a sounding board and expert to guide practical ways for improving instruction and integrating varied technology tools within curriculum.
Personalizing professional learning must also include the incorporation of technology. In today’s digital world, our students are more connected than ever. Since anytime learning is both personal and pocketed, students require teachers who are able to integrate technology in meaningful ways to enhance deeper learning. Yet, many teachers are lacking the technological skills to effectively do so. Further, teachers also lack a clear understanding of the connection between teaching, technology and content. To affect change through the implementation of personalized learning through professional development with technology, it is important to consider the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and self-efficacy of teachers involved in implementing technology in their classrooms. This is best achieved through instructional coaching and personalized professional learning incorporating technology. Engaging teachers in personalized professional learning is one way to better insure young students are exposed to current day instructional strategies aimed at building foundational skills for success.
As technology continues to daily affect our lives, it behooves educators to learn ways to effectively utilize technology tools to change the landscape of teaching and learning. Through a process of personalizing professional learning, educators can become more adept at shaping instructional strategies to better meet the varying needs of students. Furthermore, personalized professional experiences enable teachers to extend learning to improve their own “craft” of teaching. Combined with a supportive administrator and instructional coach, teachers also develop the necessary collaborative skills to affect overall change in practice deemed appropriate for developing well-equipped, academically renowned students prepared for what the future might hold.