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Aurora Institute

The Future of Teacher Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Adam Rubin

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

This post first appeared at 2Revolutions on May 2, 2017.

“We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.”

– Henry David Thoreau

In all of our engagement at 2Rev, we work to create authentic, personalized learning experiences for educators that model the approach we seek for kids. This photo is from a recent design kick-off with the Bush Foundation in Minnesota. Read more about that work here. (From the 2Rev website.)

How do you learn? It’s a simple question…and yet, you have to think about it. Turn it over in your mind. It’s something I think about a lot. Rather than Calculus, or Shakespeare, or the effects of the American Civil War, consider cooking, or skiing, or teaching your five-year old daughter to ride a bike. How did you learn to do or teach those things? Did you watch others? Talk to an expert? Watch online videos incessantly or read articles and books? Did you listen to a lecture, or two or three? Try and try again? A combination of all or none? How you did it speaks to some important components of the learning process: motivation, learning style, and assessment, to understand how you know you’ve reached mastery of that stage of learning.

In schools and districts around the country, far too often we talk around rather than about this issue of how we, as humans, learn. It is amazing to me, the chasm between this question, which feels central to everything, and how we teach. This is the learning profession, right? The science and psychology of cognition can do a great deal to inform how we teach.

Over the past few years within our practice, how teachers learn has become a much more central focus in how we work. At 2Rev, our focus is building the knowledge and skills of educators – teachers and leaders – to transform student learning. In order to get there, though, our work passes squarely through their willingness and readiness as learners. I’d go even further to say that it is these dispositions of willingness and readiness to learn that drive how we approach creating the learning experience — grounding the work in what is relevant to them in their practice and meeting them where they are from a knowledge and skills perspective. We work hard to create a process of learning that models the destination; whether the focus is personalized, competency-based, or deeper learning. For example, if the content is performance assessments, educators should understand the concept and how to develop, score, and calibrate; but they should also have the experience of completing complex performance tasks as part of their learning experience. Mental models shift when we experience the content as part of the process.

As Ron Ritchhart, a researcher at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero says, “For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.” In order for educators to embody and facilitate new learning experiences, they must experience those for themselves and buy into their effectiveness and power. In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel do a thorough walkthrough of the empirical research on how people learn, throwing many assumptions and ideas you hear passed around like folklore out the window. One quote that rang particularly true for us as we think about the experiences educators need to create and what they need to know to be able to do it. The authors write, mastery requires “both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it,” so how do we rethink teacher training to help them with both?

Thinking about educator learning is not only interesting to me from an academic perspective; it’s critically important for successful systems of learning. There is a significant body of research that places the efficacy of teachers as one of the biggest drivers of student success. A 2012 study by the RAND Corporation on measuring teacher effectiveness found that the biggest school-related factors contributing to student achievement are teachers. From John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, we know that the relationships between students and teachers are important drivers for student success, and that students’ life outcomes, as measured by earning potential, are directly impacted by the quality of their teachers (Hanushek, 2011). In fact, the effects of teachers on student learning are not only quite high, but are cumulative and long-lasting. The effects of just one teacher can impact a student’s future learning for up to four years (McCaffrey et al., 2003), and potentially even after graduating: When students are taught by high quality teachers, they are more likely to attend college, have higher salaries upon entering the workforce, and save more for retirement (Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2011). Student success, in effect, is highly determined by effective educators both in and outside the classroom. So, if educators are such a driver of student success, why does teacher learning so often resemble one-size-fits-all two-day cram-sessions instead of addressing educators unique needs and aligning to best practice in the science of learning?

There are likely a number of reasons why and they are the same, or similar reasons, as to why our students experiences in school are still not up to par. At the heart of it is shifting the perspective of district and school leaders from professional learning as a compliance exercise that has to get done versus a key part of the learning system that can drive demonstrable shift in student learning. Another key driver is the imprint of most traditional pre-service models.

Our team is working to change that. We believe emphatically that the teacher experience needs to model what we want for kids. And we’ve developed a handful of new tools and approaches to do just that.  We are partnering with an array of partners like Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), The Learning Accelerator and Business Innovation Factory to think about Next Gen Professional Learning. And we are beginning to partner more intentionally with higher ed partners to design stackable credentials and a masters in competency-based education that models the content in the process of the learning. In my next post, I’m going to introduce a few different tools and approaches. In the meantime, I want you to reflect on how you learned something recently. Share it in the comments below. Looking forward to reading your responses and continuing the conversation.

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Adam has spent over two decades catalyzing change through the design and launch of social enterprises across the education and community development sectors. He started 2Revolutions to feed this love, and to reinforce a belief that two critical levers we can pull are the birth and scaling of innovative ventures as a way to affect real change. At 2Rev, Adam is able to feed his love of both systems change and practice innovation.