Teaching the Teachers

Applying the principles of adult learning to in-service professional development.

Topics: Teacher Effectiveness

With time being a precious resource, school leaders must maximize their opportunities to provide focused professional development (PD) that advances individual teachers’ and systemwide growth. To do so effectively, instructional leaders must nurture a culture of innovation and engage teachers with PD designed to meet the needs of adult learners.

In The Adult Learner, Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, and Richard A. Swanson outline six core factors behind “andragogy,” or the practice of teaching adult learners:

  • The learner’s need to know.
  • The self-concept of the learner.
  • The prior experience of the learner.
  • The learner’s readiness to learn.
  • Their orientation to learning.
  • Their motivation to learn.

The following professional development design framework addresses these factors by including seven features intended to cultivate the strengths of adult learners while simultaneously meeting a school’s needs:

  1. Communicate the why, how, and what of your school’s professional development goals. Too often, instructional leaders jump into the “what” first; they should instead illuminate the purpose of learning and move people to act. Adult learners need to understand why the topic is important, how it is relevant to their needs, and what they need to know that might be of immediate benefit. In practical terms, the “why” might include a synopsis of current research, the sobering facts of the school’s current reality, an examination of student assessments, or all of the above. What principals ask of teachers must be grounded in the context of school data, student and staff needs, and long-range school improvement plans.
  2. Delve deep into teacher practice through multiple, successive sessions on a focused topic. Too often, PD takes a fairy-dust approach: a sprinkle of reading here, a drizzle of math there, and a dollop of technology over there. Creating a miniseries of training sessions that spans four to eight weeks gives teachers the time and space to focus on discrete learning modules. Instructional transformation takes place when staff have the time needed to examine the science and art of teaching beyond a curriculum’s boundaries.
  3. Model to build clarity. Teachers consistently report that modeling is an effective PD strategy. A modeled PD lesson increases the likelihood of transference to classroom practice, and teachers might need to see the skill modeled with students before they apply the teachings independently.
  4. Work through meaningful problems of practice collaboratively, and prepare for immediate implementation. A core principle of adult learning theory is the timely application of new learning. Allowing staff to practice a new skill with colleagues during professional development helps work through problems of practice prior to implementation with students. Communicate realistic expectations for the practice of the instructional skill or strategy between weekly meetings, and create a space in subsequent sessions for teachers to reflect on struggles and successes experienced in implementation. A responsive and recursive cycle of practice and reflection ensures that professional learning is personal.
  5. Gather implementation data through direct observation. Classroom observations are a way for school leaders to contribute to and participate in learning. Formative assessment of adult learning offers a firsthand familiarity with the instructional talents of every teacher that can help build collective efficacy. School leaders should offer a general road map of topics and learning objectives at the outset of each professional development miniseries, then respond to staff needs by adjusting pacing and content.
  6. Collect staff feedback to make adjustments to future professional development. No two groups of teachers are alike, so professional development should be adapted to meet the collective needs of staff in a unique setting. Give teachers an opportunity to provide feedback upon completion of each PD series to find out which supported adult learners’ needs and which didn’t. Maybe they want less reading and more video examples, or perhaps they require more time to debrief and plan for classroom implementation.
  7. Celebrate professional growth and student achievement. When a PD series comes to a close, honor staff and student accomplishments. Publicly acknowledge the adult learning that took place and how it affected student achievement. Share successes on social media, host a party, or create a celebratory video to culminate the journey. Making changes to instructional practice is hard work and should never be taken for granted or go unnoticed; show appreciation for a job well done.

This framework can increase the effectiveness of school-based in-service teacher training in improving teacher practice and student achievement. Because adults are self-directed, Knowles says, they should be actively involved in the learning process. School leaders need to cultivate a culture of continuous improvement, give learning purpose, and protect time for teachers’ professional development.

The professional development design framework provides structure and predictability to school improvement efforts while respecting teachers as professionals who are motivated to hone their craft. Through an ongoing cycle of study, modeling, practice, reflection, and evaluation, such a framework can lead to an enduring transformation of practice.

Jennifer VanSlander is an assistant professor of literacy in teacher education, leadership, and counseling at Columbus State University.