A Fallacy about Teacher Learning

In schools across the United States, professional development (PD) season is coming to its grand finale. Summer workshops end and district-mandated in-services begin.

My #MTBoS Twitter pals know this is a season of schadenfreude for me. They tweet me the ironic misfires, like when a teacher who develops sophisticated lessons around technology was obliged to attend an all day workshop on Google docs. Or when another teacher who travels the country leading sessions on classroom math talk is made to sit through a full day on classroom norm setting.

These examples of bad PD stem from a total lack of differentiation. Those teachers had expertise that did not matter in the one-size-fits-all mandates of their schools or districts. The workshops were not responsive to their needs or respectful of what they had already accomplished.

Even when PD is matched to teachers’ needs, it still often falls short. Anyone who has eagerly signed up for a workshop based on a title and description and left unsatisfied is familiar with this. These workshops are often full of activities, handouts, and tips and tricks, but they do not help teachers make sense of how to get these ideas going in their own schools.

In my view, centering descriptions of what to do in PD stems from a fallacy about teacher learning: to get teachers to do better, we need to change their behavior. 

To be clear, of course it matters what teachers do in the classroom. But actions are not the same as behavior.

Behavior involves a description of a sequence of events, such as:

 A woman was tied to a stake and set aflame. She died.

Action considers the meaning involved, which is derived from who people are and where they socially and historically situated, like:

Joan of Arc, who resisted the English because she heard the voice of God,
was tied to a stake and burned. She died as a martyr.

Teaching involves creating meaning. To develop teachers, we need to make them more effective actors in the complex social world of the classroom. If we only focus on providing activities or developing sequences of behaviors, we miss out the opportunity to grow their ability to interpret situations, make judgments and take the purposeful action that shapes meanings for and with their students.

In order to make teacher professional development more effective, then, we need to take seriously what it means for teachers to learn –– and not just learn what to do, but also how and why as they respond and adapt to the myriad and complex situations they face in their classrooms everyday.