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Setting Goals for Teacher Learning

The expert PD leader doesn’t just ask, ’What ideas should I teach teachers?, but they wonder, ’What teaching practices do teachers need to learn in order to develop new perspectives?’ Megan Webster


Choosing clear goals for teacher learning is one of the most essential —and difficult—elements of planning effective PD for teachers. PD leaders generally need to shift from, “What ideas should I teach teachers?” to “What teaching practices do teachers need to learn in order to develop these new ideas?” Practice-focused questions require the PD leader to think about what they want teachers to be doing in the classroom in addition to planning for what they want teachers to be thinking about. For example, teachers might learn a lot of new concepts from a workshop on “The Principles of Differentiated Instruction,” but if they aren’t given clear illustrations of how to differentiate for their particular ELA students, they aren’t likely to implement what they have learned.

When choosing goals for PD, there are two key questions we need to ask ourselves:

  • What do I want teachers to learn in the PD? (“I want teachers to learn that kids need to talk in order to learn.”) 

Specifically, what practices do these teachers need to learn in order to better support their students? (“I want teachers to build in time for students to conference with each other and with the teacher about their reading responses, at each stage of the response process.”):

  • What should teachers be able to do by the end of the PD? (“Teachers will be able to teach students a routine for conferencing with each other by the time they leave the workshop.”)

Specifically, what will it look like in the classroom if they implement what they learn? (“If the workshop is successful, I should be able to go to many of the teachers’ classrooms and see pairs of students discussing their writing, while the teacher circulates and asks focusing questions to keep the talk on track.”)

High Leverage Practices

If we want teachers to learn, the goals for the session need to be “just right” - not too far away from what they are already doing, but not just a “tweak,” either. For example, a focus on taking attendance more effectively does not necessarily lead to improvements in student learning. In other words, the goals for our session need to be at just the right complexity and just the right grain size.

How do effective PD leaders choose the focus for PD?

Here, research can help. The practices a teacher needs to learn that reliably lead to student learning are known as high leverage practices (HLPs). An example of an HLP is leading a whole-class discussion. In a whole-class discussion, the students and teacher work together on developing specific content, using one another’s ideas as resources. In an effective discussion, a wide range of students:

  • build collective knowledge and capability in relation to the instructional goals;
  • practice listening, speaking, and interpreting in instructionally productive discussions
  • respond to and learn from others’ contributions.

Other examples of HLPs are:

  • explaining and modeling content, practices, and strategies;
  • eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking;
  • checking student understanding during and at the conclusion of lessons
  • See all 19 here.

Grain Size

One of the biggest challenges when designing PD for teachers is determining how “big” or how “small” our goals for teacher learning should be. Many PD sessions aim to achieve goals too BIG for the session. For example, can teachers really learn to “Understand and Engage the Adolescent Learner” in a two hour workshop? Can we really support teachers to learn “How to Teach Students to Comprehend Literature” in a day?

On the other side of the continuum, “Using Pokemon Cards as Incentives for Participation” might be so small a focus that it loses sight of the forest for the trees. What are the big ideas about participation that teachers need to engage with in order to better support student learning?

In other words, what is the appropriate “grain size” for our goals?

Listen to how these PD leaders work through how to articulate the right grain size of goal for a one-day workshop:

David: We want teachers to learn how to respond to literature.

Sabrina: True, but I think that’s too big for teachers to learn in one day.

David: What if it were: How to teach students to respond to literature?

Sabrina: This is more focused, which is great, but is it still too big for a one-day workshop?

David: Okay then: How to teach students to use talk when responding to literature?

Sabrina: This is much more specific, which I love! Do you think teachers could learn this to the point of enactment in just one day?

David: How about: Asking great questions to support more meaningful responses to texts? That way, as they focus on questions, they will still be learning about developing response, in general.

Sabrina: This is both specific and teachable - let’s do it! Asking great questions is not obvious, and teachers need support to learn how to do it better. And, as you say, at the same time, this little piece about questioning will help teachers learn more about the whole response process. Great! 

Here we see how David and Sabrina were trying to find the right “slice” of the whole. We are confident that if teachers get better at asking great questions to support more meaningful responses to texts, that teachers will get better at responding to literature in general.

Assessing Teachers’ Prior Knowledge

We need to know something about our participants’ current instructional practices in order to articulate the appropriate goals for their learning and ensure we are working within their [zone of proximal development.->article 624] Some ways you can do this while you are planning your PD include:

  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Classroom observations
  • Email questionnaires

To assess teacher’s prior knowledge during a PD session consider:

  • [The Line up->article 633]
  • Four corners
  • Quickwrite
  • Concept/strategy list to highlight (red, yellow, green)
  • Concept Maps

The [Learning Continuum for the Teaching of Response->], a planning tool developed by Quebec educators, can help target specific aspects of the teaching of the response process and establish learning goals that are closely aligned with the prior knowledge of teachers.