Creating Transformational Change: Structures for Designing a Professional Development Series
A suggested sequence of sessions that encourages learning, application, reflection, and the sharing of promising practices.
Effective professional development can be defined as structured professional learning that results in changes in teacher practice and improvements in student learning. Features such as strong content focus, inquiry-oriented learning approaches, collaborative participation, and coherence with school curricula and policies can be the difference between good and great professional learning experiences.
Since the 1970s, there has been a growing body of literature about learning and the application of reflective practice, which is a way of allowing educators to step back from their professional experience, develop critical thinking skills, and improve future performance.
When educators can learn a new idea or concept, apply this learning to their specific context/content area, reflect on the experience and share their experiences with colleagues — a cycle we call LARS — they can bring their professional learning experience to fruition.
Using the LARS model
The LARS model is a structure for developing ongoing professional development sessions that prioritize developing community knowledge, shared practices, and deepening reflection on what works, and why. In the planning process, facilitators should conduct a needs assessment to determine the strengths and struggles across the community and strategize an area of focus.
For example, one school recently discovered student performance in reading was struggling. After conducting a series of Learning Walks, the school leadership team noticed that literacy instruction was inconsistent across classrooms. The leadership debriefed their experiences and came to the conclusion that if teachers were using similar instructional strategies for Before, During and After reading, students would have increased their comprehension and confidence. The leadership team reviewed several research-based strategies and identified two strategies for each stage of the reading process, for a total of six literacy strategies to share with the whole school. They began to use the LARS framework to structure a 12-week PD series. They knew that they needed two weeks per topic: one session to introduce the strategy and make a plan to implement it, and a second session to reflect on their implementation and make adjustments.
The first session in the LARS model is focused on learning a new strategy, and making a plan to integrate or apply that strategy into instruction. This workshop should communicate the essential components of the topic, provide active engagement and an exchange of ideas between participants.
In leading the first workshop on literacy strategies using the example above, the facilitators would share more about why literacy is important across content areas, as well as the concept of Before, During and After reading strategies. They’d then provide a hands-on experience with the first literacy strategy. They may choose to model the strategy using a professional text, show a video of a teacher using the strategy in a real classroom, or create a challenge for teachers to collaborate on developing a model after learning about the strategy from a shared text.
At the end of the workshop, teachers consider how they can implement what they’ve learned into their practice. This is the apply portion of the session. Participants can complete an application plan where they write ideas about how they can implement the strategy, and what artifacts they will be able to bring to the next session. When teachers choose for themselves what to implement and what they want to bring back to the group, they have increased ownership in the process. By asking all participants to bring an artifact to represent what they implemented, we are able to create reciprocal accountability within the community. Additionally, when teachers across the school begin using a shared strategy at the same time, it exponentially increases the students’ understanding of how to use that strategy, and kickstarts the impact of that strategy on their learning experiences.
Reflection and sharing
The second session has a focus of reflection and community sharing. In Session 2, participants regroup through written reflection using either open-ended journaling practices, or by responding to a variety of prompts specific to the focus strategy. By reflecting on their experiences of implementing the strategy, teachers are able to synthesize the impact of that strategy on student learning and their own teaching practices. Their reflections become concrete texts and when shared, culminate as an archive of the professional learning that has occurred. After reflection, participants share their artifacts and experiences together in small groups, identifying similarities and differences in the samples of student work and their implementation experiences. Participants may celebrate successes, as well as take the opportunity to identify challenges and ways that their process can be extended.
After the first two sessions, the school may choose to retry the focus strategy, or to move onto the next topic, with the expectation that teachers will be adding to their instructional tool kit with each new move they learn.
Using the LARS cycle supports the most challenging aspect of professional learning: application.
Without application, learning just floats in the air as a neat idea. Engaging in the LARS process as a school community and/or department builds in time to apply new skills and reflect on them with colleagues. The reflection aspect promotes individual thinking about what went well, and how individual teachers might tweak it to make more sense for their classroom. This can become a rigorous process where teachers in the community test and vet instructional strategies that are most effective for their unique students. The LARS model is a cycle of inquiry that lends itself to not just learning a new concept, but creates a structure that helps communities cultivate ways of working, learning and growing together to meeting the evolving needs of students.