HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


When Timeless is Trendy: Professional Development for 21st Century Teaching

by Lauren Applebaum and Miriam Heller Stern Issue: Rising Ed Trends

To enable teachers to succeed in incorporating new tools and methods into their practice, administrators need to put in place frameworks for teachers to engage in shared reflection and inquiry.

Reflection is an ancient practice, and inquiry is as old as humanity’s search for meaning. These timeless practices are the foundations of two mutually reinforcing trends in teacher learning: collaborative reflective practice and practitioner inquiry. In our experience training both novice and seasoned educators, we have found that the skills of reflection and inquiry are essential for teachers to succeed in implementing any of the latest trends in education.

In every generation there is a demand for educators and schools to adjust curriculum and instruction to meet the emergent needs of society. The current call is to prepare students to succeed as entrepreneurs and innovators in a rapidly changing economy and a world in need of repair. In response, project-based learning, design thinking, and flipped classrooms all emphasize the use of teacher guidance to help students think creatively and apply their learning collaboratively and authentically. These practices undergird the core four Cs of 21st century skills: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Twenty-first century skills are not learned by rote like multiplication tables and Hebrew verb conjugation. They are habits of mind, dispositions that are gained through application, practice, a developing self-awareness of one’s thought process and an ability to learn from others. This kind of student learning requires teachers to shift their classroom stance for at least part of the time from a “sage on the stage” model of teaching to a “guide on the side,” to encourage students to wonder, hypothesize, learn from their mistakes and try again. In the affective realm, teachers need to help students take ownership of and feel empowered by their learning.

How can teachers make the shift to 21st century teaching? They must have 21st century professional learning opportunities. Such opportunities will help them develop this same skill set for themselves and model those dispositions and behaviors for their students. As Brandeis professor Sharon Feiman-Nemser writes, “If we want schools to produce more powerful learning on the part of students, we have to offer more powerful learning opportunities to teachers.”

There is a strong consensus in both general and Jewish education research literature that professional learning needs to be reflective, evidence-based and collaborative in order to be effective. Reflection is essential for teachers to be mindful, analytical and deliberate about their teaching practice. Practitioner inquiry enables teachers to investigate their dilemmas and use data to inform their decisions. Collaboration enriches both the reflection and the inquiry, bringing minds together to foster deeper perspective and creative problem solving. While each of these practices can independently be a driver for change, they are even more powerful when utilized together.

If we want teachers to experiment successfully with new methods in their classrooms, they need a space outside of those classrooms to process the results with colleagues. While a teacher might think about the success or failure of an attempt to use iPads in a lesson on the drive home, or muse over it in a journal, reflection is strengthened and deepened when teachers engage in it together. Joseph McDonald, a pioneer in the field of collaborative teacher reflection, notes that “so much of our knowledge of practice is tacit, and becomes subject to critique only when we reflect on it in the company of others.” In our work with teachers, we have seen them struggle to find the time and space to do this reflection unless the school gives them the gift of a regular, structured meeting time as part of its professional development strategy.

One format for this work is a Critical Friends Group (CFG). CFGs allow educators to have focused, structured, sustained conversations about their teaching practice. A CFG is not just a space to vent or self-promote; reflecting in a group setting introduces a level of accountability to a teacher’s work when teachers learn to challenge and stretch each other respectfully and helpfully. Groups of teachers follow “protocols” or conversation guidelines which offer rules to allow for rigorous feedback on each teacher’s questions. These questions might evaluate student work: “Does this essay demonstrate the skills of critical thinking that the 5th grade curriculum requires?” Or they could examine teacher work: “Will this final project for my math class allow me to see if students really understand fractions?” They might consider enduring dilemmas: “I find myself frustrated by student misbehavior during morning tefillah and am not sure if any of my strategies are helping.”

While a CFG can encourage teachers to help each other work on their individual goals, the collaboration can also provide a launch pad for implementing a broader school change agenda. Rather than just dreaming or discussing (or complaining!) together, educators can give each other feedback on specific practice in the service of questions such as, “How can our school culture support teachers and students in creating a culture of 21st century learning?” and “How do we help parents buy into instructional approaches that are different from how they were schooled?”

Similar popular models of collaborative professional learning are Communities of Practice (CoPs) and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). While experts draw shades of distinction between the techniques of each, all three models should enable teachers to explore and develop new methods of teaching and learning through ongoing routines of collaborative reflection, experimentation and analysis, with the goal of improving professional effectiveness and student learning outcomes. One aspect of the CFG model which we find particularly compelling is in the title itself: it defines the participants’ roles in the discussion as both supporting and challenging, and thinking critically, mirroring our 21st century expectations for our students.

While collaborative reflection is an important vehicle for assessing new experiments, these discussions also require an evidence base to overturn assumptions and draw conclusions for practice. Evidence may include but not be limited to student work, classroom environment, artifacts representing school culture (newsletters, extracurricular programming), interviews and surveys of constituents and teacher’s observations. Collecting evidence does not necessarily require an outside observer, who can be threatening; when introduced to the skills of practitioner inquiry, teachers can learn to collect the data and analyze it themselves. A popular form of practitioner inquiry is action research, where teachers test out a new experiment and study the results.

Discovering and making sense of evidence in their own practice empowers educators to self-evaluate and make informed decisions about how to best adopt the instructional trends they hear about. A group of teachers engaging in inquiry projects together might explore what motivates students to do their best work. They might ask themselves, “How can we tell when a student misunderstands during project-based learning?” or “How do we know if those iPad lessons are really enhancing student learning?” These types of questions—alive and present for art teachers and Talmud teachers and math teachers alike—can be the subject of thoughtful reflection and can invite educators to utilize evidence along with their instincts.

For educators, being told they must take on a new approach to teaching can feel overwhelming. Adopting new trends in professional development is a lot like adopting a new exercise regimen: at their core the exercise engages the participant in practices with timeless and clear value, but they are repackaged with new language, choreography and music that can feel unfamiliar, even alienating. The first time you walk into a Zumba class or a yoga studio you might feel overwhelmed by the steps or the level of mindfulness, stability, flexibility and stamina required. But if you have exercise partners to go with, and you return week after week, the new habits can be developed and sustained until the practice feels natural and beneficial.

As university-based teacher educators, we are often invited by heads of school to give “inspiring” one-off workshops to kindle a new idea in the minds of teachers, who are then expected to go off to their siloed classrooms and implement it. This is akin to taking the whole staff to a cardio barre exercise class when no one really knows what cardio barre is and there is no internal support for ongoing learning of the new trendy practice. Even an extended retreat, which can be a shot of educational adrenaline, can fizzle in practice without ongoing conversation, inquiry and support when everyone is back in their classrooms. The effectiveness of the teacher learning lies in the routine. As with exercise, routine collaborative reflection and inquiry foster the stability, focus and strength teachers need to move beyond their fear or discomfort to step up to the challenge of meeting the needs of 21st century learners.

Lauren Applebaum is associate dean of the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a certified Critical Friends Group Coach. lapplebaum@aju.edu

Miriam Heller Stern PhD is dean of the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where she teaches practitioner inquiry. mstern@aju.edu

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Rising Ed Trends

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