Professional Development that Makes a Difference
Part 3 – The Critical Component
If increased student learning is the goal of professional development then consistent and generalized transfer of the new learning to the student learning environment is necessary. In the 25 years of research conducted by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers the component that had the greatest impact on successful transfer was a system of collaborative implementation teams. Regardless of how good the initial training was, transfer rarely happened without some kind of long-term coaching and staff collaboration. The resulting change wasn’t sustained without the ongoing support of leadership and the alignment of systems within the organization.
Collaborative Implementation – The Evolution of Coaching
In the early days of their research on professional development that resulted in transfer, Joyce and Showers became convinced that coaching was the key. The challenge was ensuring each teacher got sufficient practice and feedback and was motivated to work through any implementation obstacles that they encountered. They found that having an expert provide individual teachers with long-term feedback and support made a significant difference in getting to sustained and generalized transfer of the new learning. Because long-term coaching by an expert is often impractical, their model evolved into a peer-coaching model with teachers spending considerable time learning to give constructive, non-evaluative and technical feedback to each other.
This coaching/peer coaching model produced some very positive results:
|Practiced more frequently and developed greater skill||Often practiced not at all|
|Used the new skill more appropriately, applied it in different lessons and shared more with others||Rarely went beyond the examples shown in the initial training|
|Retained the new skill over time and expanded its application||Were often unable to even demonstrate the skill 6-9 months later|
|Were much more likely to involve students, explain the purpose and rational of the change and make clear what was expected of them (this turns out to be a very important component)||Rarely involved students and often met resistance from them if the teacher occasionally tried the new skill; which reduced the likelihood of implementation even further|
|Exhibited greater understanding of the concepts, purposes and uses and were much more likely to generalize the practice to other areas||Rarely strayed from original examples and were less likely to be able to explain the concepts, uses, etc.|
Coaching produced many of the vital components related to successful professional development and change: increased practice, greater conceptual understanding and increased student involvement and understanding. While peer coaching was clearly producing much better transfer than professional development with no coaching, it was not without problems and limitations:
- Peer-coaching with individuals or small groups of volunteers did not meet the needs of major school improvement efforts where whole grades, schools and districts needed to be involved in the changes.
- Learning to provide good technical feedback was very time consuming, required extensive training and was usually not needed once the practice was mastered.
- Teachers often found themselves slipping into a supervisory dynamic which created pressures on both the coach and the teacher being coached. This not only distracted them from the original intent of the change effort but sometimes resulted in strained relationships and unproductive tangents.
“Teachers learn from each other in the process of planning instruction, developing materials to support it, watching each other work with students and thinking together about the effect of their behavior on students.”
As a result, Joyce and Showers made significant changes in their model to one we are calling: Collaborative Implementation. In this model teachers completely omitted giving each other direct feedback. Instead, a system was developed in which teachers were all members of collaborative implementation teams with collective responsibility to implement the new practice or program. In this system, teachers:
- participated in common professional development
- committed to practice and use the new knowledge, skill or program
- supported each other by engaging in collaborative planning
- developed lessons and materials together
- shared their implementation experiences and products
- collected data on both the implementation of their planned change and on student progress
- participated in collective problem solving regarding both the implementation of the change and student progress
- observed each other with the goal of seeing additional examples of the innovation in practice
The impact of the collaborative implementation model proved to be significant with no loss of the advantages of peer coaching. In addition:
- implementation was significantly simplified without the training required to provide technical feedback
- the supervisory dynamic and its potential fallout were avoided
- a common vision and goals to work toward it were put into place
- collaboration skills and use of data improved
- a shared language was developed across the whole staff
- a culture of change with norms of study and experimentation was achieved
- significant increases in teachers’ “learning to learn” skills occurred
The structures created for the collaborative implementation teams and the norms that supported continuous improvement built capability for implementing future changes. Joyce and Showers reported that many collaborative implementation teams were able to implement new changes on their own without the benefit of additional formal training. (It should be noted that while coaching by an expert may sometimes be impractical over the long-term, it can be especially effective within a collaborative implementation team structure where the coach can work with the whole team)
“… setting school-wide goals, engaging collectively in training and working collaboratively in teams to implement new learning and evaluate its effect, is well worth the effort both in terms of faculty cohesion and student learning.”
As noted in Part II of this series, implementating a collaborative implementation system is a significant departure from the ways schools have traditionally tried to change. It requires changes in the organization and in the way professional development is delivered. It also requires the development of certain skills and knowledge on the part of the teachers to increase their own learning skills. Part IV of this series will look at the skills teachers need as learners to master and implement new skills .
You can read more about the Joyce and Showers research and model in their book, Student Achievement Through Staff Development published by ASCD.