The benefits of embedded learning opportunities for teachers, by Eric Camburn

Creative Commons image by Flickr user afsart

Creative Commons image by Flickr user afsart

How can teachers’ workplaces support the cultivation of more effective ways of reaching their students? Most current reforms point to the improvement of teaching as the main vehicle for improving student learning.  For example, discussions of teacher effectiveness and teacher quality in all their various forms assume a need for widespread improvements in teaching skills. Similarly, providing more intellectually rigorous and relevant instruction as stipulated by the Common Core State Standards will require teachers to substantially change how they teach.  Understanding how to structure teachers’ workplaces so that they support substantial and lasting improvements in teaching is thus a critical policy concern.

My American Journal of Education Article, Embedded Teacher Learning Opportunities as a Site for Reflective Practice: An Exploratory Study, examined whether and how providing teachers with ongoing, peer-scaffolded, in-school learning opportunities encouraged them to experiment and reflect on their teaching.  All 80 elementary schools I studied implemented a comprehensive school reform (CSR). Reform designs introduced embedded learning opportunities for teachers by adding teacher leadership positions and encouraging structured teacher collaboration. I found that these two kinds of embedded learning opportunities were positively and strongly associated with reflective practice, and the effects of these variables were twice the size of the effect of traditional professional development.

Reflection is believed to play a central role in workplace learning by helping practitioners make sense of dilemmas and challenges that arise in their work and then helping them develop potential solutions. There is growing evidence that professional development that engages teachers in active reflection on their teaching either through joint work with fellow teachers, or by working with instructional experts, can be particularly effective in supporting the adoption of new instructional practices.  Recent research further suggests that professional development experiences that are situated in the school and classroom contexts of teachers’ work is more effective than traditional professional development.

Teachers are the ultimate arbiters of teaching reforms.  Consequently, adoption of teaching practices that goes beyond superficial implementation is more likely if teachers are given opportunities to experiment with, reflect on and adapt new practices to local needs and conditions.

Each of the CSR programs I studied added teacher leadership positions to schools that were intended to support teachers’ adoption of new instructional practices. For example, America’s Choice required schools to designate a Design Coach and a Literacy Coordinator.  Design Coaches taught teachers how to analyze student work and how to develop student assignments.  Literacy Coordinators assisted teachers’ implementation of a literacy curriculum by modeling instruction, observing teachers, and providing feedback. Each CSR program also required schools to establish routines in which teachers collaboratively worked on the stipulated changes to teaching.  For example, schools implementing America’s Choice developed two kinds of teacher work groups.  Teacher meetings, were intended to be regularly-occurring gatherings in which teachers and instructional leaders met to discuss issues that arose as teachers implemented the America’s Choice instructional design.  Study groups, were smaller groups whose purpose was to solve specific implementation problems that arose, and to share solutions with the entire school faculty.  Both types of work groups brought together classroom teachers and teacher leaders.

Using survey data, I tested whether teachers’ engagement in reflective practice was related to the kinds of professional learning opportunities they experienced.  I measured teachers’ participation in two kinds of “traditional” professional development (either focused on instructional issues or schoolwide issues such as school governance).   I also measured teachers’ participation in the embedded learning opportunities provided by the CSR programs—peer collaboration on instruction, and work with instructional experts.  Among these four different learning experiences, the embedded experiences were by far the most strongly related to reflective practice.  Teachers’ participation in traditional professional development focused on instruction was positively and significantly related to reflective practice, but the size of the effect was approximately half that of the two embedded learning opportunities. Perhaps not surprisingly, traditional professional development that was not related to classroom teaching was not significantly related to reflective practice.

There are important implications I think can reasonably be drawn from this study and related research.  The larger study of which this article is a part found widespread evidence of changed teaching in schools implementing CSR programs. Taken together, those results and my findings suggest that the kinds of improvements to teaching called for by current reforms will be more likely if schools provide teachers with regular, ongoing, peer-scaffolded, in-school learning opportunities.  One of the major lessons from research on standards based curriculum reforms in the 1990s is that simply communicating desired teaching goals (for example through standards) is unlikely to result in deep, long lasting changes in teaching practice. Instead, these kinds of substantial changes are much more likely if teachers are given sufficient time, opportunities, and support to try out and critically evaluate new ways of working with their students and the curriculum.   Teachers are the ultimate arbiters of teaching reforms.  Consequently, adoption of teaching practices that goes beyond superficial implementation is more likely if teachers are given opportunities to experiment with, reflect on and adapt new practices to local needs and conditions.

Eric Camburn is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. See more on his work here.

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