Staff Development Daze

And other educational myths.

Teachers are the worst students, especially on staff development days. Teachers often chat with one another, grade papers, work on their laptops, and play on their phones during presentations. Teachers often joke that they should wear a button to work that reads: “I would rather be teaching.” The snarky attitudes and rude behavior of many professionals are due, in part, to to the fact that teachers seldom gain much from educational training. Instead, instructional philosophies du jour are touted, and underfunded, or poorly implemented, initiatives are introduced.

I have, however, had many great days of staff development — often finding a positive thing/idea/method to take away. I can name many times when I drove home with my brain buzzing, filled with instructional ideas that I planned on implementing. I also truly appreciate the hard work and time that goes into planning staff development. The best staff development days resemble the plan for my district’s upcoming staff day — where teachers are asked to attend three sessions taught by their colleagues. I am looking forward to learning about new instructional technology, and about mindfulness, a wellness technique that sounds intriguing. There will even be food trucks — how cool is that?

Unfortunately, however, most staff days do not impact my teaching. For twenty-two years, I have been sold instructional philosophies that were supposed to change my teaching. Colleagues, educational consultants, administrators, and authors have all tried to shift my teaching. Not all of these philosophies fail, but most don’t stand the test of time. Take Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, for instance. In my undergraduate work (the big hair 90s) his book was required reading. I, being a new teacher without my own philosophy, bought into his ideas hook, line, and sinker. I even wasted instructional time every year to give my students multiple intelligence “tests”, discussing the best ways they learned. Not surprisingly, students (i.e. children) gravitated towards the kinesthetic learning style. No duh! Of course, kids like to be active! About ten years ago, I completely abandoned Gardner and realized that I never followed up my instruction after giving the students their assessment — it was simply like having them take a survey on Facebook: which learning style are you? My efforts and their analysis yielded no instructional rewards.

A colleague of mine, who always finds great articles, recently posted a piece by Ulrich Boser entitled: “What Do People Know About Excellent Teaching and Learning,” published online by the Center for American Progress. Boser is a Dartmouth-educated author and consultant. His bio states that he tried a stint at teaching English, but it seems his passion focuses on the analysis of teaching and learning. Although he is not in the teaching trenches, his article is provocative. His thesis is that education myths prevail, and, thus, the public in general, and education theorist specifically, disregard the “science of learning” as he calls it.

When discussing our teaching (often after a few beverages), a dear friend of mine has lamented to me: “The problem in education is that everyone has been a student, but not everyone has been a teacher.” I have always thought that a profound statement. So much so, that I lead with that quote when I teach an undergraduate class for pre-service teachers. After they dissect the meaning for themselves, I tell them that the purpose of the class is for them to see the “other” side of the desk. Some of the students are not planning on becoming teachers, and are taking the class for other reasons. These students are important as well because they are future taxpayers. Boser supports the idea of seeing the other side of the desk when he writes:

Since almost everyone in the United States has spent some time in schools, they are eager to expound on the quality and effectiveness of the latest reform or approach. But what’s clear is that experience in schools does not give someone a deep understanding of instruction. This is evident in the literature on teaching, and there’s a library of studies that show that pedagogical training helps teachers in the classroom.

Boser goes on to give examples of educational myths and then he writes something even more important. He gets to the crux of the problem with the educational reform movement, illuminating why teachers are often cranky on staff development days. He writes:

These attitudes about teaching help explain why teaching is so devalued. If people believe that it’s easy for someone to perform well in the classroom, then society shouldn’t reward teaching because the job doesn’t require rigorous training. In contrast, it’s widely accepted that doctors and lawyers need a great deal of training to succeed, and people in those fields get paid a lot more. Those fields also do a lot more to support younger professionals. In medicine, there are residency programs, while law firms typically have systems to have experienced partners help younger lawyers.

That is it. Staff days are non-instructional days. These days take away from time needed to implement effective teaching. Teachers want valuable, rich, “robust” (as Boser states) instructional science. We want our profession to be valued and supported.

Boser is refreshing however because he offers some insightful recommendations to change the conversation:

Policymakers at all levels should do more to promote the science of teaching and learning, including:

Funding a center within the U.S. Department of Education to develop more practitioners guides that focus on the science of learning. Some of the Department of Education’s practitioners guides have a dedicated following. But more could be done, and some of the guides have not been sufficiently disseminated. The department should also create a program similar to the White House petition program, through which parents and teachers could suggest ideas for guides and produce material that is easily disseminated to the public.

Providing more funding for research on the science of learning and the translation of that research into practice. The National Institutes of Health currently gets far more funding than the Department of Education’s research arm.26Policymakers should realize the benefits of learning science research and allocate more funding to basic and applied education research. Much more funding should also go to helping educators apply the research into classroom contexts, as David Daniel has argued.27 “The science of learning does not design interventions for use by educators,” Daniel says, thus recommending more “translation” efforts.

Policymakers at all levels should help modernize the teacher workforce. As part of its TeachStrong effort, the Center for American Progress and its partners have outlined a set of principles that would dramatically modernize and elevate the teacher workforce.28 A few of the recommendations are particularly relevant, including:

“Reimagin[ing] teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates.”29 By ensuring that teacher preparation programs have rigorous standards for entry and training, policymakers can raise the status of the teaching profession to levels of other, more highly regarded careers. Improving teacher preparation would help correct the public’s conception of teaching as a profession that does not require training, knowledge, and a specified skillset.

“Increas[ing] compensation in order to attract and reward teachers as professionals.” By increasing compensation for all teachers and shortening the amount of time it takes for a teacher to achieve maximum salary, policymakers can send a clear signal to the public that teaching is a challenging career that requires advanced training and continued skill-building.

Policymakers at all levels should support demonstration projects of successful, next-generation learning. Such projects would go a long way toward building public narratives that support good practice. Recommendations include:

Developing so-called super charter schools based on the science of learning. Taking a page from the Small Business Innovation Research program, the author proposes that each state that receives Title I funds set aside 0.5 percent of those funds for super charters. These competitive contracts would help schools rethink education in ways that support the new science of learning. For instance, a school might develop a proposal to do more to space out student learning over time.

Providing active learning grants. Policymakers at the federal or state level should consider funding district-level programs devoted to developing more active forms of learning, such as quizzing, pretesting, and elaboration. This pilot program would help districts and schools develop active learning programs by providing funding as well as waivers for some current requirements. Similar to the innovation grants offered by the Department of Education, winners would need to work to publicize their lessons learned.”

These recommendations offer a path for teachers to begin the conversation with colleagues, politicians, and the public at large. This a plan that embraces cognitive science and its application in the classroom. These recommendations also offer those that care about education an action plan.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment, ask questions, and/0r share your experiences. 


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