Hello, I hope you are doing well. Today was a big day for two reasons. One, it looks like England is dropping the quarantine requirements for international travelers from “amber” countries, which means that I’ll be able to visit my sister and father next month. Two, it was the first day of HQI Live! In Milford—the orientation day for the participating adults; the student participants start on Monday. And much as I am tempted to write about the first, I’m going to stick to the second.
I wrote about HQI Live! two summers ago when it first took place in Milford; you can read about it here. To summarize, it is a weeklong experience in service of creating a district-wide shared understanding of high quality instruction. Two years ago, the educators in attendance were all the administrators in the district plus two teachers from each school. This year, almost all the participants are teachers, with a team of administrators serving as facilitators of adult learning. And it is awesome.
In this Coaching Letter, I’m going to use what’s going on in Milford to talk about really good practice for the design of professional learning. Here’s my list:
- Get right into the experience. No long introductions, no norm creation, no talking heads at all. Just the bare minimum explanation to get participants into the first task, into the experience. Just to be clear, I am not against the creation of norms. But sometimes taking time at the beginning to create them feels performative and disconnected from the rest of the work of the day. And there may be more power in talking about what norms have been generated implicitly, and how that happened (see #6 below).
- Pull back the curtain on the design work that goes into creating the task. Again, the normal way of facilitating a professional learning experience is to present it as a perfectly formed package, without referring to all the thinking, energy, time and effort that went into the design. What happened today was that the facilitators did a little fishbowl to let the participants into the thinking behind the day, to enable them to make the connection between the task they were just asked to do and the learning intentions.
- Use the experience to generate a shared understanding of (in this case) high quality instruction. (When I say “in this case”, I mean that it could be about something more specific, or something else entirely—today it was about HQI.) It was not lost on the participants that the facilitators were modeling several practices that are/should be/will be part of the district’s definition of high quality instruction, including but not limited to: modeling, intellectual challenge, experiential learning, reflection, agency, productive struggle, and so on.
- Allow time for thinking. This is also known as wait time, but by calling it wait time we fail to honor its purpose. [A little edu-geekery, because wait time is one of the constructs that we use all the time but pay little attention whence we acquired it: the term was first used in an article by Mary Budd Rowe, an education professor, in 1969, called “Science, Silence, and Sanctions”. I couldn’t find a copy of that not behind a paywall. Rowe summarized her own work in this article, from 1986. And then there is a technical survey of the literature on wait time by Kenneth Tobin which, funnily enough, mis-states the title of Rowe’s original article. Not many people know that. This one line in his abstract seems to sum it all up nicely: “Wait time appears to facilitate higher cognitive level learning by providing teachers and students with additional time to think.”]
- Allow time for reflection. The participants were provided with notebooks, and time to write about what they were thinking was built into the facilitation plan, and one of the facilitators explicitly talked about how valuable it was to him to write during HQI Live! two years ago and how he has gone back to his notes since then. I’m also glad that it was a male who talked about reflection, as I think that there is an implicit association of note-taking and reflection as things that women do—I may be wrong about that, but it’s the mental model that I have.
- Create a safe space (also known as psychological safety—see CL #58, and also This HBR article about Boeing by Amy Edmondson is definitely worth reading, as is this NYT article about a hospital’s pediatric surgery record and the decisions of its leaders, which I have written about before). At some point early in the day today, one of the participants said something about a safe space—or words to that effect. So I asked the group how they knew it was a safe space, because no-one from the facilitation team had said anything about that—there had been no explicit creation of a norm to that effect—see #1 above. I wrote down the answers that I got:
- Facilitators exposed their own vulnerability, and did so in an authentic way;
- Previous experience of participants in their buildings;
- Relationships with each other;
- Clarity of the instructions;
- The culture of the organization—struggles are good and mistakes are learning (I wrote that one verbatim because I like it so much);
- Knowing that everyone was in the same boat;
- Expectation that risk-taking is expected;
- Covid provided an opportunity for teachers to take risks, judgment removed.
These are pretty much the same criteria that we used in designing the Acceleration NIC, which launched a couple of weeks ago (see CL #145 for a brief mention, and read about NICs in this Harvard Education Letter—I’m sorry that the link to this in CL #145 was a dud). I know how much time and energy and thought goes into planning this kind of experience, so a big shout-out to the Milford administrators who planned today: Fran, Tom, Sarah, Sean, Amy and Anna. I hope they think this CL does their work justice.
If you want other resources on professional learning, here are my favorites:
- A manuscript that Richard and I worked on that has not yet been published (but I’m going to get back to it, honestly): Doing to Learn and Learning to Do;
- Professionals Learn Best When; this is a planning resource that Richard developed several years ago and I modified slightly—it is gratifying how similar it is to what I have listed above;
- Coaching Letter #99, which is the only other Coaching Letter I could find that is explicitly about adult learning.
Interestingly, in CL #99 I was eager to close the loop between adult learning and continuous improvement. And today, I want to close the loop between this Coaching Letter, which is #148, and the last Coaching Letter, #147. In the last CL, I was trying to make the distinction between PLCs as an exercise in compliance, versus PLCs as groups of educators engaged in action research around a shared problem of practice connected to the enactment of their district’s definition of high quality instruction. What happened today was the creation of a community of learners. And, just to be explicit, it happened without anyone using the term PLC, or collaboration, or norms. It happened because a group of leaders put scores of hours into creating meaningful professional learning, and the creation of a learning community was a collateral benefit.
Unfortunately, as Michael Quinn Patton points out in Developmental Evaluation, it is often the case that experiences like today’s are “you had to be there” occasions. I can do my best to distill it for you, but it doesn’t really convey how magical it was to watch it all come together. I hope this encourages you to create your own… And as always, if I can help, please let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge