Learning vs. Training: The Power of Real Professional Development

Pinky and the Brain Pondering Critical Thinking2Last Friday I had the honor of presenting at the annual fall conference of the University of New Hampshire’s Learning through Teaching Program, and as I looked out at the audience excitedly talking, I was reminded that it was exactly a year ago that I had sat in a room, not all that dissimilar from the one I was currently standing in, in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Last year I was the one listening as the teachers and pedogogistas from Reggio shared the utterly amazing work they were doing with children, and rarely a day passes that I don’t think back to the experience I had there as a learner.

As I wrote about on my return, seeing and hearing the work that both teachers and students were doing in Reggio made me question all sorts of things I had taken as givens, such as helping students build stamina in reading, creating charts to help students hold on to learning, and equating engagement with students being ‘on task.” For me it was the best sort of professional development, the kind that left me reflecting on my practice, questioning my assumptions and coming away with a vision of teaching and learning that I wanted to work toward—despite the fact that I didn’t fully know exactly how I’d get there.

What passes as professional development these days, however, is often simply training for the implementation of a program. That’s not to say that kind of PD is inherently bad; I’ve been trained in many things over the years that I’ve found some use in—from how to take a running record to how to do guided reading. And God only knows how many times I’ve been trained to use a particular rubric to evaluate everything from a standardized test essay to a complex text. But to use a distinction made by the educator and writer David Warlick in a wonderful blog post titled “Are They Students or Learners?“, I think I was a student in those training session, not an actual learner.

What Are You Measuring?As Warlick says students do, I came away equipped “with packaged knowledge and tools for recording packaged knowledge [through] prescribed and paced learning” rather than “with tools for exploring a variety of content, experimenting with that content, and discovering, concluding and constructing knowledge,” which is what learners do. And like students at the end of a lesson, the success of those training-like PD sessions could be assessed by “measuring what has been learned,” not by “measuring what the learner can do with what’s been learned,” which can only happen over time with much thought and often many mistakes.

a_whole_new_mindThis shift from professional development that invites teachers to discover and construct their own knowledge to PD that trains them to implement a program seems unfortunate in many, many ways. All the highest performing schools, for instance, from Finland to Ontario to Singapore, have invested in the very kind of PD that we seem not to value much here, where teachers are given time to explore and collaborate. And if David H. Pink, the author of the best-selling book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Futureis even half-way right, we need to be able to do much more than deliver a script. As he writes in the introduction to his book:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Making meaning, recognizing patterns, and seeing the big picture were all on display in the work I did with the teachers in New Hampshire, where I designed what the teachers in Reggio would call a “context for learning.” Rather than training the group to teach the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I describe in What Readers Really Dowe read one of my favorite short stories together,”The Raft” by Peter Orner, which allowed them to experience and construct an understanding of both the story and the process of thinking that supported that.

Using the simplest and most adaptable of tools—a T-chart that kept track of what we each noticed and what we each made of that (i.e., a question, an inference, a hunch, a connection or an interpretation), we shared out our ideas and talked in a way that allowed us to do the following:

10.25.13 PowerPoint1

10.25.13 PowerPoint2

10.25.13 PowerPoint3

We then explored how we might engage students in the exact same process we’d experienced by setting them up to explore a text by attending to what they noticed and discovering what they could make from that. And to better understand the thinking that involved, we explored a number of texts to notice what kinds of problems they posed for readers and how a student could solve those. We then ended the day with the participants sharing out what they wanted to hold on to—which as you can see from the take-away charts below were as varied as the ideas they’d constructed about “The Raft”:

UNH chart 3

UNH Chart 4

Of course, the real measure of their learning will be what they discover as they explore and experiment with what they learned back in their own classrooms. And my hunch is that, just as with readers, that will depend on who they are, what they notice about themselves, their students and the texts they read, and how they fit those pieces together to create  a meaningful classroom.

And as for me, I learned something, too. As happens every time I’ve used “The Raft,” a few teachers made something from what they noticed that I’d never considered before, which expands and enriches my own understanding of this wonderful story. Also seeing the power of these take-away charts, I was reminded of the kind of pedagogical documentation I saw in the Reggio schools, where the walls were adorned not only with student products but with quotes that captured the students’ thinking as they engaged in the process. I want to work on that more this year, since quotes like these seem as much evidence of learning as any score on a rubric. In fact, I think I may have discovered the next step on my own learning journey.

And that’s the power of real professional development and real, authentic teaching: the teacher always discovers something, too, because she or he is a learner.

26 thoughts on “Learning vs. Training: The Power of Real Professional Development

  1. I have to say this: I just love you, Vicki Vinton. So wonderful, so important. I wish I had been there. Was instead in Albany at NYSRA which was a great conference. I got to hear Stephanie Harvey, whom I imagine you know, say: “teaching reading IS rocket science”. Bingo! That is the point. You have to be so skilled, so filled with knowledge and ideas, so ready to bring it together in an instant over and over to help kids, but it has to feel natural to you the teacher, has to be something you do so effortlessly you have the energy to stay attuned to so many varied needs. That is meaning-full teaching so kids can do meaning-full LEARNING. And she ended with this: SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY. The point of course is that we don’t need nine million rubrics and nine million new programs every other month. or someone else’s untested script, if we focus on what works and we know what works. (Thanks to people like you, Dorothy Barnhouse, Lucy Calkins and her TC people, Don Graves, Nancie Atwell, and all the NEW leaders in literacy ie Donalyn Miller, Chris Tovani, I could go on…….

    We just have to trust LEARNING and gather teachers who want to do the hard work and lifelong learning to become rocket scientists. And give teachers the right tools and time and support and dare I say, respect to be the masterful geniuses so many are. I might add, teachers need time and energy and support to read as part of their job. So if they made enough money they could afford to hire folks to help with some of the their outside work chores, so they would have time to do the regular, important work of keeping up and being in a wider community of learners doing the meaning-full work of being an even more-skilled rocket scientist….and all this working with our most precious resource, children. William Glasser says in The Quality School that being a teacher is HARDER than being a neurosurgeon! Neurosurgeon’s clients don’t resist. They cooperate. So teachers know this and researchers have been looking (thank you Peter Johnston, et al) at engagement and meaning-full classroom practices that allow us to help our kids NOT want to resist! Though that becomes harder when one is simply doing test prep so we will supposedly have college and career ready citizens. I think somewhere they did not look at psychology: if kids are engaged and happy and feeling invested, then they are going to resist less and learn more. Here is a radical thought: If people are generally happy, are they angry? If people are not angry all the time will that help society? And I am not talking flippant happiness….I am talking fulfillment and purpose and positive energy. No society moved forward when everyone was depressed, at least I don’t know of any. Oh and by the way, all teachers should read yours and Dorothy’s book What Readers Really Do! It will help them become reading rocket scientists!

    Do you want to go back to Reggio? I want to visit those schools!!

    • Thanks so much, Janet. I LOVE Steph Harvey’s comments! We’ve gotten in to a whole lot of trouble by trying to make things easy and simple (which is different than simplify, which I think of as more about doing more with less). And if teachers didn’t have to spend so much time creating elaborate lesson plans to prove that they’re accountable, they could spend more time collaboratively exploring the texts they’re asking students to read in a way that would allow them to set the students up to do deeper thinking. And I absolutely believe that being a teacher is harder than being a neurosurgeon. But we could learn a lot from the changes the medical world has made about how to train doctors, which is less about memorization and testing and more about real world problem solving. How do you solve the problem of teaching 30 different children all with different strengths and needs (some of whom are resistant)–surely not with a one-size-fits-all program!

  2. Another great post, Vicki! “Trainings” operate with a limited vision of the competence and capabilities of teachers – and, in turn, support a model of education that operates with a limited vision of the competence and capabilities of children. Standing against that tendency means living in the tension between people desperately seeking simple answers to complicated questions and messy lived experience. I think that we’ve been siding with keeping it complicated, which seems to have the combined effect of deeply connecting with the learning of the educators who find us and limiting the numbers of people who do so. A real paradox!
    The group who will be joining you in Boston at NCTE for the Story Workshop panel is super excited. As for me, I’m off to Reggio next week. I’m looking forward to an experience that will likely be as transformative as yours was!

    • Lucky you, Matt! I can’t imagine you would have anything other than an astounding experience in Reggio–even the walk from town to the Center is transformative. As for the seeking simple answers to complicated questions and messy lived experience, I keep finding writer after writer and thinker after thinker, whether it’s Alice Munro or Daniel Pink, who believe just the opposite: that we need to embrace complexity and not fear messiness. I’m aware that those of us who agree are often in the minority. But we’ve got passion on our side. And I’m so grateful that places like Reggio & the blogging community exist, as they’ve helped those who feel the same to connect.

  3. Hi Vicki- Your posts always leave me thinking, questioning, digging deeper, wanting more…thank you! As a literacy coach and an American with dual citizenship between the US and Italy (Emiglia Romagna specifically), I am fascinated to know more about what is going on in the Reggio schools. Please tell me! I am a colleague of Grace White from Wyckoff and will be presenting with her at NCTE in Boston. I look forward to connecting with you…thanks again!
    ChrisFuller

    • And thanks in return, Chris, for both sharing your thoughts & retweeting. I’m afraid I haven’t had time yet to dig into the NCTE program but I definitely want to go to your session and meet you & Grace in person. And maybe if there’s time to snag a cup of tea or coffee we can talk about Reggio, which was indeed a transformative experience.

  4. It was really heartening for me to see the traces of thinking the teachers you worked with engaged in such deep thought. How wonderful it must have been to be there to share that, for you and for them!

    Thanks for the link to the Capacity Building Series on pedagogical documentation (and for the link to David Warlick’s work. As I read, it occurred to me that, in some small way, trying to write about my classroom has led me to a surprising and wonderful discovery, something (perhaps) akin to what this kind of documentation does in another, related way — that is, the act of telling a story of the classroom helps me to focus and to notice, to see what is happening, to know the kids and accept their place in the world, to not see each as one-who-lacks this or that “skill”, but as one who is, and someone who will be.

    The one is very different from the other, and calls forth a different “me” in the classroom, too.

    • The group in New Hampshire was, indeed, amazing, and that time we spent together was a gift for me and I think for them, too. I love the whole idea of documentation–and was so excited to see Ontario embrace it as well–but, of course, it takes time that’s too often spent with teachers having to produce something–rubrics, assessments, lesson plans, etc.–often to prove something to someone else, not to deepen their own understanding.

      And, on an entirely other note, I was searching last week for something I’d read by Frank Serafini about PD, and while I couldn’t find that, I stumbled on this: http://www.frankserafini.com/publications/serafini-fidelity-2.pdf. It’s an article he wrote called “A Question of Fidelity,” that looks at what could happen if we pledged ourselves to children’s literature rather than to programs. Thought you might find it interesting.

  5. Thank you thank you thank you!!!! That’s exactly how I feel right now. No one gets it that the kids needs to learn, to struggle, to question and to come to their own ideas. Because you cant give a weekly assessment!!!!!!

    • I’ve tried to avoid jumping on the conspiracy theory bandwagon for quite some time, but as the voices mount for reframing education around problem-solving and creativity, I do have to wonder whether that’s not what the powers that be really want. And don’t know about your school, but the kids in the middle school I was in yesterday were vacillating between literally crying over their state assessment scores from the spring and feeling totally burned-out by how many tests they’ve had to already take this year, which has included a two-day 63-question multiple choice cloze reading test and a standardized pre-assessment where they had to read 4 or more insanely complex social studies texts, write short responses to each and an argument essay about all four. Brutal.

  6. I have struggled for years to get to the point where I am promoting learners versus lessons motivated by testing expectations. I ended last year knowing that my students had to become more aware of their learning and thinking process. Thinking is so challenging, especially for the learner who has been given the role of student for so many years. They are looking to give the correct answer. The simple know and wonder t-chart from What Readers Really Do has provided my students with a safe structure to hold on to while they are looking for their thinking. Finding patterns in their jots was another simple, yet effective way to ferret out what might matter more in our text. Then comes the really challenging stuff of what might those patterns be telling us. While making meaning and finding their thinking is still a struggle, those simple and clear strategies give a my readers a beautiful beginning. I’m continually challenged and inspired by this process of reading and making meaning. Thanks for providing beautiful beginnings and the wonderful (and difficult) process of learning.

    • Once again, I’m reminded of my own struggles to learn Italian–I took Beginning Italian three times before it really took hold. And given how complex the thinking behind text-based interpretation is, I think many students need multiple opportunities to experience that before it starts to stick–especially those who, for often developmental reasons, are more literal thinkers. But I do believe they’ll get there, provided the climate in the classroom is right, which I’m sure is the case in your room.

  7. It WAS a wonderful day and it was so great to have you here. I have received a great deal of feedback about how teacher’s thinking changed! Woot Woot! Just taking the time to slow down and really dig into The Raft made the thinking visible and the conversations around that thinking created even more levels of understanding based on who you were talking to!
    I am so glad you made the trip! See you in Boston!!
    Tomasen

    • Hi Tomasen (and Vicki),
      Are you presenting at NCTE Tomasen? If so, I will try to come. (I am. On my poetry program.) I hope to meet you there. I will send you my cell number via FB PM and hope you will find a chance to check in. I will definitely be at Vicki’s session! I am trying to get Vicki/Dorothy here to Central NY to do her “magic” because I think it would make such a difference to teachers implementing the CC and not “liking” the scripted or pre-packaged programs…..I hope you can post some of the teacher reactions on your blog! PS at my sessions and when I meet teachers, I always have What Readers Really Do and I tell them that all teachers need to read Vicki and Dorothy’s book! But having her/them in person, what a gift!

    • I cannot tell you how much I loved that day! The teachers were so open & receptive and so very, very thoughtful. And I loved spending more time–and laughing–with you. It should keep me going until NCTE when I might need another laughing & thinking fix.

  8. Thanks for another great post to get us all thinking. I googled the short story “The Raft” so that I got to read exactly what you were talking about. Once you read that it’s easy to see how the conversations could flow in so many directions… and that’s what we are trying to do with kids. Give them a way to build a conversation and meaning together. I love when you wrote “meaning is a construct..” (somewhere; I forget where:)

    • Oh, I’m so glad you clicked through and read the story, Pat! God only knows what its Lexile level is but it’s so very rich and it definitely invites all sorts of complex thinking. And my hunch is we both believe that what kids make of the texts they read is as important, if not more so, than the text itself.

  9. Vicki,

    I will admit that I even won a prize for professional development that was “training” so I am pleased to now have more words and ways to articulate how much the Pavlovian “training” can hinder students and adults as we need to move to “learning” for life. As Julieanne already indicated the “Know/Wonder” and “patterns in post-its” are so critical for students holding and doing the thinking! It is simplistic to think that a basal reading series may have “all the answers” but it also requires so much “sifting through the stuff” that would be better served in reading and in conversations with students about their learning.

    This is one of my most favorite blogs for learning, Bless you!

    • And bless you, Fran, for always taking the time to respond (and tweet)! I’m so, so glad to have connected with you & Julieanne & others from the What Readers Really Do book club and to hear how you & the others are fitting that with other thinkers and writers such as Chris & Kate. It’s such a learning and thinking community and I’m honored to be a part of it. And if any powers that be actually took the time, they’d find all the documentation they’d need–here and on twitter and the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon–to demonstrate that we have great thinking teachers all across the country.

      • Fran,
        I want to join your book club! DO you have it online? I also need to check out the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon! Sounds wonderful!

      • I didn’t run the book club, Janet. It was organized by a group of amazing teachers, which includes Fran McVeigh, that have formed an incredible online professional learning network. My hunch is that the same group is reading Chris & Kate’s new book together and will be discussing it via Twitter, where lurking is welcome. And, if you’re interested, here’s a link to the Storify transcript of the session I joined them in this summer: http://storify.com/azajacks/what-readers-really-do-final-twitter-chat-7-28-13.

      • We are chatting about Chris & Kate’s book on Twitter in one week – Monday, Nov. 11th from 6-7 EST. So excited to have both Chris and Kate join the conversation!

  10. Pingback: Just the Facts, Ma’am: Setting Students Up to Solve Problems in Nonfiction | To Make a Prairie

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