A few months ago I was consulting with a principal who was planning to roll out differentiated instruction professional development in her school. A great deal of this planning time was dedicated to researching/deciding what book should serve as the basis for the learning.
After some conversation we started to ask ourselves if it was truly necessary to distribute a book to the teachers.
The Problems and The Solutions
When promoting change, we want to avoid or eliminate as many obstacles as possible, but often times we are creating yet another obstacle when we place a book in the hands of our coworkers.
Here are three ways in which books can impede our progress, along with a solution or two for each potential problem:
- Most “teacher books” are not based on actions, but research and theory. Research and theory generally help to promote interesting discussion and reflection, which can lead to some change. However, if we are talking “bang for your buck,” this is not the most straightforward and efficient way to influence classroom instruction. From what I have experienced, books that are based on “actionable research” (a combination of “how to” and “here’s why”) are the most impactful: The Daily 5, Strategies That Work, Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics, etc. In order for a book to be popular and have a lasting impact, Hal Elrod explains that the most important factor is that its content is actionable and centered around changing behavior. At the same time, he declares that when books are based on promoting thought, they have short-term value because most readers’ “newfound thought patterns are interrupted or diluted and forgotten as soon as they go to the next book,” and a month later 90% of the content is forgotten and “you probably didn’t implement any of it.”
- The book actually has to be read. This takes time, usually a lot of it. As we all know, time is a precious commodity for teachers. To counteract this dilemma, I customarily stick to 200 pages or less when selecting a book for professional development purposes, unless it is a book that can also serve as a reference and be utilized year after year. I love the idea of placing a book in the hands of teachers and announcing something like, “This is the only book related to [insert topic/subject here] that you will be getting within the next two (or three, of four) years!” Under these circumstances, any reasonable number of pages is fair game, as an emphasis is placed on depth and not breadth. (For more on the importance of depth over breadth, see #3.)
- Books can promote coverage-focused teaching, which is one of the “twin sins” of instructional design according to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design. With this mile wide, inch deep approach there is so much to “cover” (mile wide), that there is no depth to the teaching/learning (inch deep). In a previous post I talked about the importance of making professional development more focused by breaking down topics by multiple enduring understandings. For example, go from, “We’re learning about standards-based grading,” to, “We’re studying why percentage grades are unacceptable, how to revamp our grade books, etc.” Now, think about the usual disproportion between how many enduring understandings exist within any given “teacher book” vs. the amount of professional development hours dedicated to that book. Cramming too many objectives into too little time results in learning that barely scratches the surface and sustainable change is less likely to occur. In general, I would recommend starting with the end in mind and not “the book in mind.” Ask yourself, “With what enduring understanding do I want teachers to walk away at the conclusion of the professional development?” Then, only focus on the parts of the book that pertain to these understandings.
In the End
Professional development based on books (and traditional book studies) generally force educators out of their comfort zones by provoking, inspiring, and encouraging us to think more deeply about our practice. At the same, we need to proactively avoid some barriers in order to maximize the potential impact that the learning has on classroom instruction and our students. Otherwise, we will be working harder (not necessarily smarter), spending an awful lot of hours with our noses in books, and the time and energy that we invest will be far from proportionate to the results that are experienced. This is when books can impede our progress.
What are your thoughts on using books for professional development? What barriers and/or successful models have you experienced?
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