Schools: Learning Institutions or Institutions of Learning?

10 06 2009

As educators, we constantly hear how schools in the U.S. are performing poorly compared to schools of other nations and for years, the answer has been to test students more in the hopes we will see improvement. What is missed in the NCLB high-stakes testing world we live in is that the problem is not one of needing to measure more. Rather, it is to get to the heart of what it means for schools to be learning institutions.

Too many schools in the U.S. are institutions of learning. That is to say they support the learning of students following time honored methods and curriculum. Students enter these places of learning and leave with knowledge they collected from their transactions with teachers and other students. While this may seem like semantics, I argue that schools should be learning institutions. That is to say that the entire organization is engaged in the process of generating new knowledge, the institution as a whole is learning. At the heart of this argument is the status of professional development in U.S. schools.

I just returned from an incredible speaker’s symposium on cognition, expertise and skill acquisition hosted by Carnegie Mellon. After two full days of listening to approximately 16 cognitive scientists share their latest research on expertise and skill acquisition, I am more convinced than ever that the answer to our educational decline is in professional development. This opinion is further supported by the recent report by the National Staff Development Council titled Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and Abroad.

First, findings from these two sources:

Skill acquisition and the development of expertise

  • It takes approximately 10,000 hours or 10 years to become an expert in any one domain
  • Experience should not be equated to the 10 years mentioned above.
  • Experience is a factor in skill acquisition and the development of expertise during approximately the first 3 years of entering a new domain. After that, experience is just that- experience. It does not really lead to expertise.
  • The 10,000 hours must be spent in a specific way—Deliberate Practice.
  • Deliberate practice involves solo, deep, intense, concentrated practice and study with specific hierarchal goals leading to the development of new skills within the domain.
  • A mentor plays an important role in guiding future practice. Mentoring is frequent but only accounts for a fraction of the development time.
  • Opportunities to put deliberate practice to the test in social interactions with others in the domain who are also actively working to develop their expertise.
  • Mentoring might take the form of instruction embedded in dialogue where the mentee is presented with a problem, makes an immediate response, reviews the response with their peers the reviews and revises their response. This process might lead to abduction or “lateral thinking”.
  • This intense deliberate practice performed diligently over approximately 10 years leads to the development of skills and expertise in the domain

Findings from Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and Abroad (the following is largely taken directly from the report)

  • Major Claim: “Professional learning can have a powerful effect on teacher skills and knowledge and on student learning if it is sustained over time, focused on important content, and embedded in the work of professional learning communities that support ongoing improvements in teachers practice.”
  • Sustained and intense professional development for teachers is related to gains in student achievement
  • When all teachers in a school learn together, all students in the school benefit
  • Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific academic content.
  • Teachers need substantial professional development in a given area to improve their skills and their student’s learning.
  • Episodic professional development is ineffective. Teachers need extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities.

Other findings

  • U.S. teachers spend about 80% of their total working time engaged in classroom instruction as compared to about 60% for leading competing nations (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, as well as Asian nations: Japan, South Korea, Singapore)
  • Nations above provide professional learning that is structured into teachers work lives.

There are many other findings and I highly recommend reading the report.

Now, as I look at these two lists, I am struck by the similarities between what we know about how expertise are developed and what effective professional development looks like. In essence, it appears these PD programs are inadvertently modeling skill acquisition leading toward the development of expertise in teaching. They are continuous, enduring, deliberate, goal oriented, intense, collaborative and time intensive…and this is just for the learning of the faculty! Schools must no longer be content with the status quo- knowledge factories where quality assurance is determined by performance on tests- state mandated, AP or other. We need to move away from the trappings of institutes of learning and start to see ourselves as learning institutions. We need to actively engage in Lesson Study, Action Research, develop learning communities, visit other schools and classrooms, and have our own practice critiqued. This and more must be deliberate and ongoing. While there are many resources out there that can help us start the process, I recently discovered the National School Reform Faculty web site and it’s rich collection of resources.

While I understand this is no small order, we must not walk away from the challenge. After all, our students are learners and deserve “master learners”, experts in learning and nothing less.

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