All Learners Are Created Equal

All Learners Are Created Equal


“Your mind is not different from that of your students.”

Daniel T. Willingham

For many years, the prevailing assumption in public education was that what works for students is not the same as what works for adults. Why else would we have excellent constructivist educators delivering 90 minute Powerpoint-assisted lectures to their peers in PD sessions?

We’re all keenly aware of what doesn’t work in traditional professional development offerings. But what we often fail to do is consider principles of learning when we design professional development programs. Were we to take Willingham’s statement seriously, we would consider mimicking what works with students when we consider what works with adults.

With that in mind, at Summit Public Schools we develop professional learning experiences that mirror our students’ academic experiences.

Learners Need Purpose

Great teachers attend to student motivation every day. Last week, I spoke with a sixth grade student at one of our schools who explained why he was learning about point of view in writing as well as why he believed that the four-square note-taking method he used was more efficient than the information organizer at the top of his playlist. This sixth grader’s teachers had clearly given him the chance to develop mastery, the autonomy to choose the way in which he does it, and a purpose for learning.

However, when it comes to applying the same concepts of mastery, autonomy, and purpose with professional learning we are not always so effective. A few years ago, we adopted a powerful communication and collaboration platform for our teachers and then asked, “how can we make sure that everyone uses this tool?”

We were asking the wrong question, as evidenced in the nearly unanimous indifference with which our faculty met the new platform. Instead, we should have asked, “what is the value of collaboration, how can we communicate that value, and how can we ensure that our systems organically align to allow that collaboration to happen?” In essence, we could have saved time and money by utilizing Google Docs, a collaboration platform that is intuitive, free, and was already being used by most all of us across the organization.

Learners Are Self-Directed

Every week, our students work with their mentors to set learning goals, hatch plans to meet those goals, reflect on the products and process of their learning, and use those reflections to set new goals. Students don’t set goals about just anything; instead, we have clearly articulated what content and cognitive skills they need for college readiness based on research and standards (CCSS, Next Gen Science, the California standards), as well as in our work with the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE). Students use these research based frameworks to guide them towards setting meaningful goals.

Adults deserve the same approach. We not only need to believe in and understand the frameworks in which we set goals, but we need mentoring and guidance as we set goals, as we plan to meet them, and as we engage in the process of learning and reflection. We are self-directed learners inasmuch as we are given the tools to be.

While we are excited to continue developing on this front, Summit has built systems around self-direction for both students and faculty. In our 40 days of dedicated professional development every year (not including a six week paid summer learning institute called Summer of Summit and three to five day long site orientations for new and returning faculty members), we follow the same goal setting process as students--in the same systems--with the same mentoring.

Experience Is The Richest Resource 

Our students have eight weeks per year of expeditionary learning. They work with our own faculty as well as with community partners to have perspective-changing experiences.

Experience is the richest resource for learning--not only for our students, but also for ourselves. This is not a new idea. Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in 2006 that “professional teaching is inherently collective, something to be developed with colleagues who are partners in learning and problem solving.”

Meaningful collaboration is perhaps the most important experience we can offer one another as educators. For example, for one hour every week, course-level teams (CLTs) from across our network get together via Google Hangouts to discuss upcoming projects and share instructional practices. Grade-level teams (GLTs) meet weekly within each school to review student data. At least four times a year, all faculty members have the opportunity to go on “Days Away,” in which we visit colleagues in other schools. Typically we visit other Summit schools, but this year we’ve been as far away as Chicago with teaching faculty on school visits to Intrinsic, Noble, Urban Prep, and Global Citizenship Experience. These experiences help us integrate new ideas into our work while collaborating meaningfully with colleagues.

Learners Learn in The Context of Application to Real-life Situations

As often as possible, our students engage in project-based work that meets the standards of the Buck Institute of Education. “Authentic audience” and “student voice and choice” are project qualities to which we aspire. Additionally, every student receives ten minutes per week of one-on-one mentoring. While these conversations typically begin with discussions of goal setting and academic performance, they frequently move towards social-emotional mentoring, discussions of mindset, and students’ life experiences. Mentors understand that students’ experiences must be honored, and that academics must be placed in the context of students’ lives.

Similarly, it is imperative that we consider adult learning as being always in the context of application to real-life situations. Imagine the pain of spending forty or more working days per year being told things that don’t matter to you, or that don’t help you do your job any better!

Professional learning, then, must be self-directed and contextual. When teachers set goals, administrators follow up to provide resources to help them meet those goals. Sometimes those resources are books, videos, or articles. Often, the best resource is another person, a conversation. We help put educators in touch who are in similar places in their careers, engaged in similar problem solving.

The Most Potent Motivators Are Internal

Not only is intrinsic motivation well-researched, but we see the effects of it playing out every day with students and with adults. Instead of hashing out the many ways that internal motivation works, perhaps it’s most important to consider intrinsic motivation through the lens of a teacher and a mentor. Nobody can intrinsically motivate me except for myself. The same is true for you. Internal pressures cannot be “applied for us.”

However, I believe that if we really get to know our students and each other, and we together define where we want to go, and we are vulnerable enough to honestly describe our challenges, our hopes, and our questions along the way, then we don’t need pizza parties, bonuses, and points systems. Those external motivations only become distractions in finding our way, together, to shared goals.

Learning is an end in itself, and we can create a virtuous cycle by developing professional development models that mirror best practices for student learning. When this happens, schools will truly be organized for learning.

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