HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Toss the Toolbox: Alternative Approaches to Professional Development

by Joni Kolman Issue: Teacher Retention & Development
TOPICS : Leadership

When most administrators hear the term “professional development” they picture their teachers sitting in a room learning about the latest and greatest pedagogical techniques and curriculum from “experts.” The hope is that the teachers will bring back ideas from the outside world and apply them in their classrooms. This typical image is not surprising given the way professional development has historically been enacted. Many scholars consider this approach to be a narrow conception of professional development, ignoring what is known about how adults learn and what teachers need to know and do to be effective teachers. (My analysis is based largely on the work of Cochran-Smith and Lytle, Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Community.) Here I will propose new ways of working with teachers on professional development days, to make them more apt leaders and instructors.

The “toolbox” approach is the most common form of professional development for teachers. Under this model teachers go out and gather the “best practice” strategies for developing curriculum, handling difficult classroom management situations, and pedagogical ideas for classroom application. The major assumption is that what gets put in a teacher’s “toolbox” can be applied in any classroom, with any group of students, and by any teacher who can follow a set of directions.

This approach ignores much of what we know about adult learning, namely that generic staff development does not acknowledge the backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge bases of teachers and thus is often not useful, is boring, or is even patronizing. At one professional development seminar I attended in a day school, focused on applying the Multiple Intelligences theory in the classroom, the speaker did not even acknowledge that most teachers in the room had some experience with the theory, which resulted in the great majority of the room being bored. When schools encourage a “toolbox” approach to professional development, they are not supporting their teachers in acquiring the knowledge necessary to be effective teachers and leaders. Furthermore, as the previous example demonstrates, this approach neglects the contexts in which teaching happens.

Learning theorists David Kolb, David Boud, and John Dewey argue that experience plays a fundamental role in learning in adulthood and that learning from reflection on those experiences is the most effective way for a teacher to become a better practitioner. From this perspective what teachers need to know is how to respond to the particulars of everyday life in their classrooms and schools. This sort of learning cannot happen in a toolbox professional development seminar but can be coached by expert pedagogues based on real classroom experiences. The goal is to help teachers explore how to combine pedagogy and content in a way that helps a particular group of students learn. A prefabricated program that is isolated from the actual classroom experience does not reflect how expert teachers go about varying their practice to meet the needs of the students in the classroom. It is something that can only be understood in the moment. Teachers under this model require professional development that gives them the opportunity to understand the non-explicit knowledge that expert teachers possess.

Professional development based on this conception could involve bringing in expert consultants to work with teachers within their classrooms, sending teachers out to observe expert teachers in action, or engagement in practical inquiry. Practical inquiry is a way for teachers to improve their practice by examining their day-to-day work in the classroom and then reflecting on its utility and effectiveness for meeting the needs of a particular group of students in a classroom. The ultimate goal is for teachers to become more expert in how they teach students as opposed to becoming more adept at gathering materials and reading out of teacher’s guides.

This experience-based approach to professional development is particularly useful with novice teachers and non-professionally trained teachers. Jewish day schools, because of the dual curriculum, often hire people who are inexperienced as teachers but have content knowledge. This approach would provide these teachers with the tools to think about teaching as a non-generic process that requires adaptation and reflection. Moreover, it would help them structure their lessons more effectively and to learn how expert pedagogues think through how to teach content.

Under another conception of teacher knowledge, teachers are seen as “co-constructors of knowledge and creators of curriculum… informed by their stance as theorizers, activists and school leaders” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 276). From this perspective, teachers are more than just experts in curriculum and pedagogy and do more than just teach children content; they are there to support changing the way society treats minorities and are key players in the fight for equality. To do this, they must look critically at what goes on inside their schools, curriculum, and pedagogy to reveal how these elements can be discriminatory. It has been argued that much of the mainstream, generic curriculum serves to ensure that people from the dominant group (white, male, middle- and upper-class, Christian) are seen as superior, and all others as inferior. Knowing this, teachers examine the curriculum to reveal how it may be supporting societal biases, and look at how they unintentionally privilege certain viewpoints in their classroom and how that can serve to discriminate against certain students. Without teachers having knowledge of the power struggles embedded in curriculum and pedagogy, and without exploring its effect on their students, schools and communities, teachers will not be able to teach students effectively. Because of the importance given in the Jewish community to working against discrimination, I believe that professional development in this area is particularly important for teachers in day schools.

If school leaders see an importance in teachers taking a critical stance and working toward social justice, then the implementation of school collectives would serve as a valuable professional development tool. This kind of professional development would allow for teachers to construct local knowledge by taking critical perspectives on theories of learning and the research of others and applying it to their particular community. One example of school collectives is inquiry communities. Inquiry communities get teachers together to examine their assumptions, theory, and prefabricated curricular materials to see the ways these impact how and what students learn and how students are treated. This work also connects the teachers to the larger social and political issues in the particular communities around them. This approach raises awareness that teaching practices and curricula are not neutral; teachers should be examining within their own communities how what they do and what they teach impacts their particular students. Many scholars at major universities work with schools on enacting professional development for teachers that is true to this conception.

Regardless of which approach schools choose to take, the departure from typical professional development opportunities allows teachers to engage with their practices and become better teachers and school and community leaders. Indeed, teachers do require their arsenal of curricular materials in order to run a classroom, but there is much greater value that comes from the other approaches to professional development presented. Without teachers being expert pedagogues and leaders, they will never construct a curriculum that meets the needs of their students. Give the teachers their tools, but use professional development time as an opportunity for teachers to adapt those tools, become excellent practitioners, critical thinkers, and activists, not just vast catalogues of prefabricated methodologies. ♦

Joni Kolman is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, interested in research on teachers, disability, and their intersection. You can contact her at jsk2147@columbia.edu.

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Teacher Retention & Development

Teachers are the most precious resource of any school. The measure of a great school is its ability to recruit and retain great teachers who know their subject and craft, care deeply about all their students, and are passionately committed to their own development and the school as a community. Here, find guidance for finding, preparing and evaluating teachers, and keeping them happy and productive stakeholders.

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