Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Informed Opinion

Teacher professional development has a bad reputation.

It can cause disruption for busy families trying to rearrange schedules when their children are not in school. For the media that has turned teacher bashing into a martial art, “PD days” are just an excuse for teachers to goof off.

Provincial governments, including Ontario’s, have in recent years cut back on professional development opportunities.

Still, I support Wednesday's “event” at the ACC by the Toronto District School Board to kick off the school year as a necessary condition for student success.

The challenges facing students are varied and numerous. The old school days are gone and we can’t return, nor should we. Our future citizens will have much to do that go way beyond the traditional three Rs.

Teachers need an increasing array of tools and skills to help those we entrust to their care. These include a wider range of effective teaching strategies and the development of skills to best serve as role models for caring, character, individual and social responsibility. The last two decades have made the conditions for optimal learning much clearer than when we went to school. We need to see these conditions in all our schools.

The TDSB’s Wednesday event can set the stage for obtaining these conditions in several ways. First it serves to introduce all teachers and administrators to each other in the system. There has not been a gathering for all since amalgamation to see a big picture beyond the individual classroom or even the school. Other large districts do this. Toronto should also do it every few years.

Secondly, the speakers and their messages are powerful and need to be heard by all interested in education. They should offer a clear direction toward improving student learning.

But . . .

This gathering will go nowhere without follow-up over the next few years. What kind of follow-up?

First, we need genuine professional learning communities in every school so teachers can share their collective expertise to help all the students in their building and to work with the local community. Second, this collective expertise needs to go beyond the isolated and fragmented “pockets of excellence”. It is long overdue to spread the good news about ideas in classrooms and in schools that work. Finally we need sustained and consistent quality professional development. Such professional development is characterized by legitimate choice for teachers to grow professionally rather than being talked at. Such choice can be in the form of workshops, book clubs, classroom research, and additional courses. Many teachers already do these but they are not enough.

There needs to be follow-up to help busy teachers translate the ideas from the exciting workshop to classrooms full of real kids learning real curriculum. Some time outside of class may result in more quality teaching and learning time in class. If the content in our curriculum is important we need to make it meaningful and memorable to all.

Third, let’s be careful about what success looks like when measuring the effects of professional learning. It would be a mistake to reply on test scores alone. However useful EQAO testing may be there for looking at literacy and numeracy, there are other important goals to assess. These include healthy physical and mental habits, critical thinking, artistic creativity, and responsible citizenship. These are increasingly seen as important today and in the future but are not the things demonstrated in a test.

While there are many ways to demonstrate student learning let’s focus on a few agreed-upon directions worked on over several years. End the practice of “drive by workshops” on the latest fad one year to be replaced by a newer fad the next year.

We should be rigorously evaluating our professional development programs through to their deepest levels, whether done by a school district, a single school, or a group of teachers interested in improving their teaching practice. If professional development is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

- John Myers is a Curriculum Instructor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

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