Finding The Sweet Spot

By Learning Forward
April 2016

Earlier this year, I engaged in professional learning with a group of elementary school teachers. We were investigating Madagascar hissing cockroaches and how they behave under different conditions. Throughout the experience, teachers gathered observations to help construct a scientific explanation and developed additional questions to be researched and investigated. One of these questions had to do with the differences between male and female cockroaches.

As the teachers worked independently, my curiosity took over. I went to the National Geographic Kids website and began to read about hissing cockroaches. Suddenly, the room became disturbingly quiet. It turns out that my computer was connected to a projector, and all of the participants were reading along with me.

Although having learners read from a projected website isn’t best practice, I believe that I hit the sweet spot. Allowing the teachers to experience a hands-on investigation created an intrinsic motivation to learn more about cockroaches. I left this session with a new question: How can we create experiences that intentionally take advantage of participants wanting to learn more?

Literacy coordinators in Colorado’s Cherry Creek Schools have also been thinking about that sweet spot in literacy professional learning and believe they may have stumbled into it.

In the past, much of our literacy professional learning was centered around the acquisition of knowledge and skills that would improve classroom literacy practices. But, as with students, gaining knowledge and understanding doesn’t necessarily mean the learner can use new skills. Because of this concern, the literacy coordinators shifted their approach.

Now, the learning begins in a master teacher’s classroom, where teachers can see the knowledge in practice. The master teacher — in a real classroom with real students — instructs using the very knowledge and skills that teachers have been studying. She models the science and the art of pulling it off. The teachers are able to see the academic application unfold before their eyes.

After the experience, the coordinator and the master teacher debrief with the teachers. That’s where the sweet spot comes. In this moment, there is a palpable hunger for learning in the room. The questions for each teacher’s own practice begin to bubble up, and the afternoon is spent planning for upcoming lessons — with a new, deeper understanding of the academic knowledge partnered with a developing tactical understanding.

At Cherry Creek, this lesson observation is part of the learning cycle we use now and part of a robust literacy professional learning approach:

Teachers come in with a shared understanding of research-based literacy practices.

Teachers are immersed in a master teacher’s classroom, where those same practices are embedded in authentic instruction.

As a result of the experiential learning, teachers are intrinsically motivated to dig into, refine, and apply the practices to their own instructional planning.

Teachers have time with peers and coaches to design purposeful and authentic student learning experiences informed by the knowledge and experience of the immersion.

Coaches and peers observe teachers implementing new practices and provide targeted feedback and coaching.

By combining academic learning with experiential focus, teachers can attach learning and strategy to their own ideas, students, and curriculum. This cycle can take the plethora of sound educational best practices from isolated knowledge chunks into authentic practice for student growth.


John Eyolfson

John Eyolfson is president of Learning Forward’s board of trustees.

Learning Forward is the only professional association devoted exclusively to those who work in educator professional development. We help our members plan, implement, and measure high-quality professional learning so they can achieve success with their systems, schools, and students.

The Learning Professional

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