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Planning for Teacher Improvement: Four Characteristics of Effective Adult Learning

As a transformational leader, you listen to the needs of your teachers and support their journey to more effective teaching practices while being sure to keep a focus on the end goal: improved student proficiency in mathematics. The pedagogical shifts that teachers must make from traditional teaching methods to the rigorous, sense-making methods required of new, high-quality math standards are difficult for most educators. The learning that teachers must do before these shifts are implemented effectively in classrooms can be daunting. While, no doubt, you know the hallmarks for effective instruction for students, what about those of professional learning for adults?

Adults learn differently than children do, and they need professional learning opportunities that recognize that.

When planning your professional learning program for teachers this year, keep in mind four best practices of adult training described below. You’ll help your teachers build and apply new pedagogical skills more effectively if your program adheres to these practices.

1 - Respect the wealth of experience that adult learners already have

Teachers are truly the best life-long learners we’ve met, and even expert teachers acknowledge there are areas in which they could grow. Not valuing the expertise teachers do have, however, immediately turns them off from any professional development opportunities you provide.

While teaching through the Standards of Mathematical Practice may be very different from the way teachers have developed their own understanding of mathematics and the teaching of math, it’s important to validate the strengths teachers bring to the table as they embark on their own learning of these new standards and associated teaching methods.

Instead of leaving teachers feeling like their past successes are hollow or their expertise is invalidated, you can highlight how their experience will serve them well in shifting math pedagogy to help their students master the new standards. Perhaps an elementary school teacher is great at conducting discussion in literature circles or a middle school teacher enjoys providing students with an open-ended math problem based on the latest local news. These examples can easily translate to the effective teaching practices of facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse and implementing reasoning tasks. If teachers cannot yet see the connection between their current practices and teaching methods that improve student mathematical proficiency, do some of your own observations or elicit assistance from a trained observer to look for and point out those strengths.

A further advantage of acknowledging teachers’ expertise is that - given a well-structured professional development program - teachers can support each other in practicing their new pedagogical skills. One teacher’s challenge may be another’s expertise, so making those strengths known helps teachers to help each other.

2 - Tap into teachers’ intrinsic motivations

Although teachers of young children may use extrinsic motivators, like sticker charts and point systems, educators know that these are just scaffolds for helping children develop their own intrinsic motivators, like pride in a job well done. In his book “Drive,” Daniel Pink described how autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose all motivate great performance at work. Teachers certainly all start out with a strong sense of purpose…no one goes into education for the money! So administrators should consider these motivators when designing a professional learning program as well.

Allowing teachers to select their own professional learning goals gives them autonomy over their learning and taps into their personal motivations. Indeed, Jarvis (1987) posited that adults are motivated to learn something new only when they recognize that their current knowledge or skills are insufficient. Since teachers need to feel that tension themselves in order to accept the challenge of learning a new practice, ask them what new knowledge or skills they need to address their students’ needs.

The goal of professional development in mathematics should be to help a teacher shift from teacher-centric to learner-centric instructional methods (McGatha & Bay-Williams, 2018). Making clear the purpose of improving student learning outcomes in math, while tapping into teachers’ own sense of purpose, helps teachers embrace this shift. It’s also important to recognize that each individual teacher may need to take a different step, so be sure to differentiate the learning opportunities provided.

3 - Provide learning opportunities that are immediately applicable

How many workshops have you sat through, thinking “What a great idea!” only to be stymied as to how to actually implement it upon returning to your professional life?

Once your teachers are motivated to make some improvements, they’ll want to work on those immediately. Instead of creating professional development workshops that only focus on ideas and rationales, be sure to cover skills teachers will need to effect a pedagogical change and to incorporate some time for teachers to practice those skills.

Whether the skills require big or small shifts, practice, first in a safe learning space and then in the classroom itself, is necessary. Effective teaching techniques can become part of a teacher’s toolkit only if repeated and improved over time. Indeed, skills mentioned in professional development workshops but not practiced generally don’t make it back to classrooms.

4 - Recognize that adult learning is a process of interaction between an individual and the context

In Jarvis’ model of learning (1987), he underscores the importance of reflecting and recognizing the social environment that impacts adult learning. That is, even with a good skill-based workshop, it can be difficult to translate new skills to the unique circumstances and patterns of behavior in a classroom. When teachers attempt new instructional methods in the classroom, they may be met with any level of success. It is critical to the learning process to reflect on what happened and how the teacher may need to adjust an approach or provide additional support to students as they - the students - get used to the new expectations. This level of dedication to learning is very difficult to sustain. Ongoing support to teachers in the form of follow-up workshops, team meetings, administrator feedback, peer observations, and instructional coaching can help teachers work through challenges that come up as they try to implement new instructional skills.

The benefit of providing this ongoing support is that it creates an environment of continuous adult learning in the school and motivates further improvement. As mentioned previously, ongoing team-based support allows teachers to showcase their own expertise in helping their peers and, possibly, to be more willing to accept help as they struggle with their own challenges. Furthermore, tying job-embedded instructional coaching to professional development workshops allows teachers to develop skills connected to big-picture ideas, thus aligning the goals of teachers and administrators as they work together to improve student outcomes.

Adult learners have a wealth of experience, are intrinsically motivated, want to see immediate improvement, and still recognize that true learning is an ongoing, interactive process. One-and-done professional development sessions meet none of these needs for adult learners, and research has shown that the most effective professional development is interactive and sustained. As you plan your professional learning program this year, keep in mind teachers’ unique needs as adult learners. You are more likely to achieve your desired student learning outcomes!

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