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Aurora Institute

Adult Learning: Creating Buy-in

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Ali Brown

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Support Professional Learning

This post and graphics originally appeared at 2Revolutions on May 17, 2017.

Designing and facilitating high-quality professional learning experiences is such important and challenging work. I must admit that in my first year of formally leading professional development, I cried a few times in school bathrooms during session breaks — not so dissimilar to swallowing back tears in the teacher’s lounge during my first few months of teaching in the Bronx. I remembered (and often forgot) lots of mediocre professional development experiences as a teacher. How could I avoid repeating this pattern and actually make a difference with the little precious time I had with busy educators? On a larger scale, this question weighs upon the United States educational system, with much research pointing to huge wastes of time and money poured into largely ineffective efforts to develop teachers. (See TNTP’s The Mirage and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development.)

As the director of learning transformation at 2Rev, I am lucky to be able to pursue my obsession with designing and facilitating effective adult learning as a core part of my role, which has, not surprisingly, helped me learn a lot about what works and what’s most important when it comes to educator professional learning. In my next few blog posts, I’ll share several key principles that we’re arriving upon as we continue to experiment with different approaches to adult learning. Some of these are likely unsurprising and clearly backed by research, yet worth being reminded of. Others are intuitive but much easier said than done. I’ll share these principles with some broad rationale and then drill down into some specific practices and tools that we’ve found to be effective in living out these principles.

Today I’ll focus on a first, and maybe one of the most important, principles: creating buy-in.

Establishing a common purpose that everyone can get behind is vital to any lasting and effective learning endeavor. Yet how often do educators actually get the chance to be part of creating a shared vision that inspires real and lasting action? More often than not, a vision is already established for educators. Those who established this vision may feel a sense of purpose, but the transfer of that vision and purpose can rapidly shift to an exercise in compliance. This leaves educators with few options but to try and appear to be on board while continuing to resume business as usual; past experience reveals we can bet on the fact that this new, shiny idea will soon be gathering dust like all the previous ones.

At 2Rev, we have a number of practices in place for creating buy-in with educators. One is shared visioning. We collaboratively work with educators so they can establish their own north star for the work. For example, educators at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester, New Hampshire, collectively generated the attributes of learners and principles of learning to shape their school-wide transformation process.

This vision, which you can see in the image above, became the guiding force for their efforts to design students’ experience at school. The evidence speaks for itself in this case: the school transformed from one of the bottom 10% performers in New Hampshire to the state’s 2015 Elementary School of Excellence. In 2016, 100% of staff continued to express strong commitment to their collective vision. (Read more about Parker-Varney’s transformation here.)

In our work, we also focus on creating space early on in any process for educators to express their excitement and their fears about achieving their vision. One exercise we like to use is circling around to share “worries, fears, and doubts,” making time for people to voice their concerns and have them genuinely acknowledged. Often colleagues are the ones who are most effective at assuaging these concerns, both in the moment and over time. This exercise provides essential information for facilitators and leaders so that we’re able to meet people where they are. We humans are emotional creatures, despite all of the intellectual and cultural forces that attempt to bury this fact. Ignoring the real feelings and needs that are present when change arises is, in the end, less efficient than addressing and moving through them.

Barriers to achieving a shared vision often emerge early on in the visioning process. Instead of viewing the emergence of these barriers as symptoms of negative attitudes, we like to use them as fodder for further engendering ownership. These barriers can be formed into problems of practice that individuals and teams work together to solve through their professional learning. We frequently use design thinking as a powerful process in which educators can develop experiments to test potential solutions to problems preventing them from realizing the vision they’ve established.

These kinds of processes place educators squarely in the driver’s seat of their learning and empower them to shape the path toward the vision they’ve played a key part in establishing. This amounts to a radical shift away from compliance oriented, “sit and get” professional development sessions to one where educators are in the driver’s seat. Without making this shift, it will be impossible to achieve the deep, authentic learning experiences we want for kids and adults in our system.

In my next post I’ll dive into the importance of building relationships and walking the talk; two parts of our practice that I have found to be instrumental in our ability to be effective partners in transformation.

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