Deeper Learning and Teacher Professional Development

“Traditional teacher prep does not teach you how to do” deeper learning, says Carrie Bakken, a teacher and codirector at the Avalon School in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Bakken and her colleagues know that if their classrooms and their students are going to meet the deeper learning competencies, then their own professional learning needs to hew closely to those competencies as well. The teachers’ learning, just like that of their students, “needs to be more inquiry-based.”

Teacher learning that values inquiry and that aligns with student learning has been identified as effective teacher professional development, whether in a deeper learning school or not. In 2005 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that

Effective professional development is on-going, includes training, practice and feedback, and provides adequate time and follow-up support. Successful programmes involve teachers in learning activities that are similar to ones they will use with their students, and encourage the development of teachers’ learning communities.

A recent report from the National Council on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) builds on this importance of learning communities, this time focusing on schools that undertake deeper learning specifically. The report, called How Deeper Learning Can Create a New Vision for Teaching, identifies the conditions that enable and support teaching in deeper learning schools, such as “establish a learning culture,” “create shared responsibility for student learning,” and “reserve time for teachers to collaborate.”

But how do these beliefs and conditions translate into professional development activities in schools focused on deeper learning outcomes for all students? What do schools put in place to ensure teachers are ready and well prepared to help their students meet the deeper learning competencies?

For the teachers new to Avalon, their path to better understanding deeper learning starts with the two mentors to which they are assigned. Each new teacher receives a formal mentor who assists that teacher as he or she transitions into the new school and an instructional mentor who sits next to that new teacher—literally and figuratively—and works with him or her on the teaching of classroom projects. Meanwhile, during the schoolwide professional development days, all Avalon teachers study in great depth various topics, modeling the project-based work with which they and their students engage.

“We look at a need” that the school has, continues Avalon’s Carrie Bakken, and Avalon’s staff uses the professional development time to study and come to a solution for that need. She and her colleagues have spent significant time exploring how issues such as restorative justice and racial equity manifest at the school and how to have meaningful conversations with students and colleagues.

Like the Avalon staff, Feowyn MacKinnon, the head at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio, and her colleagues pursue similar extended studies of topics. She and the MC2 team feel they have ample professional development time each year—four hours of time each week and a full week of study after every ten-week school session. This time, MacKinnon says, “allows teachers to explore and experiment … to be learners the same way our students are learners …. The [professional development] [here] allows teachers to explore ideas, dive deep, and figure out how to implement” their projects in the classroom.

As at Avalon, MC2 teachers use the time to answer important questions about their classroom projects: What are the standards within a project asking students to do? What does a project expect from students? What is the purpose of the project, particularly as it relates to the futures of these young people? How will this project be useful for students’ futures?

Inherent in all of their planning is the issue of equity, as 100 percent of students at MC2 are from historically underserved communities. As MC2 faculty plan projects, they ensure that students can access the resources they need to engage fully with the project and succeed. “The most common issue,” MacKinnon states, “is access—to technology, to materials, to afterschool time,” since many MC2 students have jobs after school to help support their families. During their professional development time, teachers identify potential problems with upcoming projects and devise solutions, often involving students in the problem-solving process. “We ask our students to solve those issues of equity,” MacKinnon adds. “We ask kids to tell us their problems and then to solve those problems.”

It’s no surprise that the professional development in schools focused on deeper learning outcomes hews closely to best practices ascribed to effective professional development, as evident from the OECD report. It’s also no surprise that it aligns with the deeper learning competencies, as teachers master their content, think critically, and learn how to learn. But both Avalon’s Bakker and MC2’s MacKinnon admit that each school’s professional development efforts are not perfect, and these imperfections serve as moments for each school to think, practice, learn, and revise, an important cycle for both students and adults.

Abner Oakes is director of outreach and strategic partnerships for the standards, assessment, and deeper learning team at the Alliance.

 

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