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In Staff Professional Development, Less Is More (Opinion)

When planning your staff development, less is more!

I recently attended a local education conference that was excellent. The organizers were extremely thoughtful and had planned out every detail of the day.

The keynote speaker was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about education. Every breakout session I attended was facilitated by experts in their field and was filled with a plethora of information and resources that participants could use, but there was just one important element missing: time.

Time is the element that is missing from most meetings or educator professional development spaces. Time to process and digest information. Time to discuss what you heard and how it might apply to your work. Time to think about how to apply this new information and learning to your own practice.

In the book Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, adrienne maree brown writes, “Creating an environment that welcomes all to raise what they don’t know and develops concrete activities to address their questions is an important part of movement facilitation. We are here to build with one another, to deepen trust, to sharpen our skills and analysis so that we build the individual and collective power to transform the world.”

The thing is, we can’t build this individual and collective power if we are constantly just receiving input. We have to have the opportunity to think about the content and apply it to our own schemas and experiences. While this is true for conferences, it is especially true for school-based professional development.

Teachers are often brought together weekly to meet with one another in grade levels, in professional learning communities or with the whole staff. However, these sessions overemphasize calls for “input” at the expense of time for collaboration. Principals can’t keep designing input-filled “sit and get” PDs and expect innovative or immediate instructional changes.

At a professional development gathering I recently facilitated, a school leader reflected that this session helped her digest the input she had received previously. Her next step, she told me, was to think about how to be more intentional about incorporating time for teachers to digest and discuss new content in her future PD sessions. That is a powerful discovery that is sure to impact the staff at her school site and, consequently, the type of instruction they offer their students and the classroom environments they create.

As I reflect on all the conferences and professional development experiences I have participated in and designed over the years, one thing became crystal clear: We have to stop overfocusing on input for educators and need to start providing space and time for processing and applying learning in practical ways. German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is credited with popularizing the expression “less is more,” and while it is often associated with architecture and design, it has important implications for professional development of teachers as well.

We need to stop creating overstuffed professional learning environments where one person is doing all the talking and where the majority of the people in the room are passive participants. Years of research confirms that this “sage on the stage” model is outdated, antiquated, and ineffective, and yet, it is still so common in classrooms, at conferences, and in teacher and leader professional development.

This model is so familiar to so many of us that we sometimes don’t even notice when we are replicating it in our professional development. We need to instead engage adult learners in their own learning to give them the power to transform their thinking and practice in order to make impactful changes for students.

I believe that it is crucial for school leaders to slow down and make time for discussion and collaboration in our professional development spaces. These spaces should respond to what our teachers are actually doing, thinking, and experiencing.

Not only is it just good teaching and grounded in plenty of research on learning theory, but it is the only way we are going to truly empower teachers to make the changes we want to see in our educational environments and the world.

We talk about important teaching strategies like student-centered instruction, chunking, wait time, and think-pair-shares and yet we fail to model the use of these strategies in our professional development spaces.

The next time you are planning professional development for your staff, I encourage you to think deeply about how to use the time and prioritize opportunities for open discussion and sense-making to process and internalize any new information or data that has been collected. It is not a waste of time; it is essential for learning, growth, and development.

We have to model these learning best practices for our teachers, so they can understand and utilize those practices with their students. When given the time and appropriate structures to unpack their own experiences and ideas, teachers can figure out their own next steps. When we empower teachers in this way, they are more likely to offer the same opportunities for students.

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