Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Supporting Effective Teacher Learning in American Schools

by John Murray — April 13, 2012

Educational reform movements are emphasizing that teacher professional learning is a key component of change and an important link between standards and improved student learning. As students are expected to learn more complex material and new analytical skills in preparation for further education and work in the age of information and globalization, teachers must learn to teach in ways that encourage higher level thinking and performance. A new kind of teaching is needed, conducted by teachers who understand learning and as well as teaching, who can address students’ needs and the demands of their disciplines, and who can create bridges between students’ experiences and curriculum goals. This commentary discusses the gap between current professional development practices in American schools and research-based best practices of teacher professional learning and identifies changes that must be made to transform professional learning opportunities in our schools.

Few in the education world discount the premise that teachers should be supported in the continuous improvement of their practice. In fact, all around the world, nations seeking to improve their education systems are investing in teacher learning. The highest achieving countries on international measures such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) have been particularly intent on developing teachers’ expertise both before they enter the profession and throughout their careers.

Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond has studied the professional development opportunities provided for teachers in the high-achieving nations of Finland, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United Kingdom and has found that their learning systems have many features in common, including 
(a) teacher learning opportunities sustained over time; 
(b) time for teacher professional learning built into teachers’ work hours; 
(c) teacher learning opportunities involving active learning and collaboration; 
(d) professional development activities that are embedded in teachers’ contexts and focused on the specific content to be taught; and 
(e) teachers who are involved in decisions about curriculum, assessment, and professional development.

Unfortunately, several studies (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009; Murray, 2012) have indicated that most American teachers do not receive the kind of well-designed teacher professional development common in many other nations. Not only do most U.S. schools continue to rely on fragmented, ineffective one-day or two-day activities, but relatively few learning opportunities for teachers feature either the intense emphasis on content or the collegial work that has been found to positively influence teacher learning, teacher instructional practice, and student learning. Professional development is supposed to contribute to lasting change in the classroom, and when it doesn’t, we waste valuable time and resources and compromise teachers’ trust that time engaged in professional development is well spent. The time and money spent on traditional professional development is frustratingly wasteful. Workshops and conferences can raise awareness and enthusiasm and can impart knowledge, but the opportunities for reflection, collegial discussions, and continued support that are needed to bring about instructional change are rarely provided.

Most U.S. schools lack the structures and/or cultures to support the kind of job-embedded, sustained, collaborative teacher professional learning that leads to real improvements in teaching and learning. A review of the approaches common in high-achieving nations suggests directions that American schools could take to improve teacher learning and thus student achievement.


One of the key structural supports for teachers engaging in meaningful professional learning is the allocation of time in the work day and week to participate in such activities. Michael Fullan of the University of Toronto has found that over 90% of schools in Finland, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom provide time for teacher professional learning in their regular work day or week. In these countries, 10–15 hours are devoted each week to collaborative learning activities such as preparing and analyzing lessons with colleagues, developing and evaluating assessments with colleagues, and observing colleagues in action in their classrooms. Regardless of grade level, teachers in these countries spend most of their planning time in collegial settings, in the context of subject matter teams, grade-level teams, or large teacher rooms where their desks are arranged to facilitate collective work. By contrast, U.S. teachers typically have 5–7 hours each week for lesson planning, usually scheduled independently rather than jointly with colleagues. As an essential step toward improving teacher professional learning, schools must adjust their calendars and weekly schedules to provide teachers with regular common planning and learning time. Such structural changes provide the essential time needed to build a foundation for successful adult learning.


Unlike schools in Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Germany, U.S. schools have not historically been characterized by a strong tradition of professional collaboration. Rather, an egg-crate culture has been the norm, whereby each teacher spends most of his or her day in a single room separated from other adults. Such cultural norms are not easily changed, particularly if school structures and working conditions continue to favor privacy and isolation; schools must move toward establishing collaborative communities of practice if they are to promote teacher and school change beyond individual classrooms. As mentioned earlier, a necessary prerequisite to breaking down teacher isolation, but one that rarely occurs in American schools, is for teachers to have time in their work day to plan lessons together, share instructional practices, assess student work together, and observe each other’s teaching. The work is not easy because it is often difficult for teachers to open their classrooms to one another and talk about those instances in which their instruction needs improvement. This is why it is necessary for teachers to meet regularly so they can establish the trust needed to have productive collaborative discussions. When such collaboration becomes the norm, the benefits include greater consistency in instruction, more willingness to share practices and try new ways of teaching, more success in solving problems of practice, and more engaged and successful students.


When time for teacher learning is built into the regular work day and week of teachers, their development activities can be ongoing and sustained and can focus on specific issues over time. Job-embedded professional development time also supports the kind of context-specific teacher learning and action research that is effective in bringing about both individual and school change. Action research on a topic is common in many Scandinavian and Asian schools. Teachers in these countries often participate in collaborative research and study on topics related to education (new methods of teaching, curriculum development, integration of technology into classroom instruction, and so on) in their ongoing work. Schools in these countries also provide teachers with time and support for studying and evaluating their own teaching strategies and school programs and for sharing their findings, both with their colleagues and through conferences.

A highly developed practice in Japan and China is the research lesson in which groups of four to six teachers develop lessons together, observe colleagues teach the lesson, and work together to further refine the lesson. Every teacher periodically prepares a lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific learning goal. A group of teachers observes while the lesson is taught, usually documenting the lesson through videotape, narrative, and checklist observations that focus on areas connected to the learning goals of the lesson. Afterward, the group discusses the lesson’s strengths and weaknesses and makes suggestions for improvement. The research lessons enable teachers to improve specific lessons, reflect with other teachers and receive feedback based on observations of their classroom practice, learn new content and teaching strategies, and build a culture that emphasizes collaboration and continual improvement.


Induction programs for new teachers are mandatory in many high-achieving nations. Most of these programs include reduced responsibilities for new teachers, mentor teachers who participate in the induction activities, and training for the mentor teachers. In China, for example, new teachers participate in extensive peer observation, lesson preparation, and teacher research groups. In addition, teachers in their first two years have a reduced teaching load to allow for meetings with mentor teachers, observations of master teachers, and collaborative planning sessions with other new teachers. Like a medical residency program, such induction programs allow new teachers to learn from experienced professionals as they grow on the job. American schools have traditionally treated new teachers much differently, often giving them the heaviest and least desirable teaching and coaching assignments. The result has predictably been a large number of overwhelmed, relatively ineffective young teachers who often leave the profession within several years because of burnout. Our schools must begin to view teacher induction as part of a larger program to nurture and support all teachers to grow and develop in the teaching profession.


Other fields do a far better job of providing ongoing learning opportunities and support for their professionals. Professional learning in U.S. schools in its current state is deeply flawed. Teachers lack time and opportunities to view each other’s classrooms, learn from mentors, and work collaboratively. The support they receive is fragmented, intellectually superficial, and typically ineffective in bringing about substantive changes in teaching practices and student learning. It is time for our schools to engage in learning the way other professions do, and the way other higher achieving nations do with their teachers—continually, collaboratively, and on the job—to address common problems and important challenges where they work.

So, why is there a gap between teacher professional learning practices in American schools and professional development practices in high-achieving nations like Japan, Finland, and the United Kingdom? What barriers exist that must be overcome if our schools are to transform their professional development practices? First, professional development programs in our schools are typically based on the false assumption that significant teacher insight and learning requires external direction. This assumption leads to teachers being sent to conferences to learn from experts, and bringing the experts to the school to speak and conduct workshops. Because formal follow-up conversations to these events are rare and because informal avenues for sharing and discussing what is learned are typically absent, these “outside” professional development events do not influence teacher instruction or student learning. More damaging, though, is that this false assumption leads to a reduction in collaboration and conversation among teachers, the very things that schools most need to establish sustained effective professional learning. The assumption that teacher learning must be externally driven must be challenged and changed for progress toward quality professional learning in schools to occur. Second, and perhaps of even greater importance, American schools have long been characterized by a culture in which teachers work in isolation and are insulated from opportunities to engage in and demonstrate professional learning and growth. The professional development activities that do exist are typically not even built into the regular work day of teachers, disconnecting them from the daily issues faced by teachers and communicating in a not so subtle way that professional learning is far down the list of priorities that schools have for their teachers. Efforts to close the gap between best practices and current practices must begin by creating a culture in which continual job-embedded professional learning becomes part of the culture of our schools.

Other nations, our competitors, have made support for teachers and teacher learning a top priority with significant results. If we want our students to develop the higher order thinking skills they need to succeed in the 21st century, we need teachers who possess higher order teaching skills and deep content knowledge. Our schools must not squander a significant opportunity to leverage improvements in teacher learning to improve school and student performance.


Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Washington, DC: National Staff Development Council.

Murray, J. (2012). Professional learning opportunities in U.S. independent schools.London, England: Lambert.

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