This past month I received a pair of questions related to structuring professional learning related to data use from a data coordinator within the SEEC region…
How do I most effectively use educators’ time when providing data use professional learning? How much freedom do you give educators to “explore” data and how much direction do I give?
Both of these are great questions! In regard to your question about freedom to explore data, it really depends on two things (which I will address more in-depth below):
- the content and goal for the professional learning
- the participants’ level of knowledge/experience with the content of the professional learning
- Content and goal of the professional learning
The content and goal of the professional learning, in most cases, should provide you with a general sense of how much “freedom” to give educators to explore with data. There are a number of different types of professional learning, but when it comes to the goal it typically boils down to a combination of one or more of the following:
- Increase in content knowledge/awareness
- Development or enhancement of skills (i.e. procedural or experiential learning)
- Discussion or collaborative learning
If the intention of the professional learning is to increase educators’ knowledge or awareness in a specific topic or content area, then I would recommend a more structured approach with less emphasis on exploring data. For example, if I wanted participants to learn (become familiar with) each of the different types of data in education (e.g. formative assessment data, summative assessment data, behavioral data, attendance data, school climate data, etc.) I would want to introduce each concept first, and then either provide examples of each data type or allow participants to self-identify the data they currently collect and what type it falls under.
In a situation where the professional learning is intended to increase educators’ skills in using data or navigating a data system, I would also recommend a more structured approach. What you are teaching is procedural knowledge (how to do something), so the learning should be broken up into small, easily implemented steps. For instance, if I was teaching educators about how to navigate each of the reports in the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS), I would first identify what each of the reports are, what data is included in each report, and show any special or unique features each report may have. Once participants have an understanding of what data is included and how the system works, the professional learning could then become less structured. For example, I may have participants explore the data system and identify what data is missing, or find links between certain pieces of data or reports, or even explore what questions they can answer using the data that is presented.
Lastly, in discussions or collaborative learning, the format can be as structured as or less-structured compared to the other two professional learning goal examples highlighted above. In a more structured example, educators may all read the same book or article about something data-related and discuss their perspectives/reflections on the reading. This could be a great way to help educators understand how data can be interpreted or used in different roles or contexts, or even throughout the whole education system. In a less-structured example, an administrator may present the group of educators with a question or problem that currently exists (e.g. Why are our student achievement scores below our district goal?). Working as small groups (or a large group) participants may investigate data/evidence such as the number of students receiving interventions, attendance rates, quality of teachers, or even alignment between the curriculum and end-of-year assessments to determine the potential causes of the problem. In this type of situation, there would be a lot of time devoted to exploring data to learn more about the context behind the question in order to propose solutions.
- Participants’ level of knowledge/experience with the content
The participants’ level of knowledge/experience with the content of the professional learning will also influence its delivery and overall structure. Participants’ level of knowledge/experience should also be taken into account when identifying the expected learning goals or objectives for the professional learning. If participants have little knowledge or experience with the content, then more time will be spent introducing the content and why it is important/relevant. On the other hand, if participants are knowledgeable or have previous experience with the content of the professional learning, a less-structured approach with greater opportunity for data exploration, discussion, or collaborative learning may be appropriate.
Much like teaching students, effective professional learning always has a goal or learning objective in mind – the desired state which participants are expected to achieve after completing the professional learning. This goal should be in alignment with a needs assessment you have conducted prior to the learning (the “why” for providing the professional learning) and provide the foundation for the structure of the professional learning (the “what/how” people will get there). Once a goal (or goals) has been established, it is important to ensure that the goal is attainable, aligned with the professional learning activities, and systems are in place to provide ongoing support to ensure the goal or learning objective is reached.
Using time effectively
In regard to the initial question about using educators’ time most effectively, it depends on how much time they have to devote to the professional learning opportunity, participants’ level of commitment to the learning experience, and how relevant or valuable the content is to their position/role. If the learning is not relevant (much like when learning is not relevant to students) there is a greater likelihood for participants to become disengaged with the learning, which may lead to barriers or even distractions to others’ learning. The relevance of the content can also impact a participant’s commitment to the learning experience. If it is not relevant to their work, they may be less likely to put in the effort needed to get the most out of the learning opportunity. Be sure to solidify beforehand at the start of the professional learning why they are there, what you expect of them as a participant (the learning objectives), and how it is relevant to their position/role. Simply put, if the professional development is not relevant to the educator, in most cases it will be a waste of their time.
If there are different amounts of time participants are able to devote/commit to the professional learning experience, or level of experience with the content, make accommodations for it. One option would be to have those with higher commitment levels or more time available to devote to the professional learning to be engaged in more sessions or for a longer period of time throughout the day. These participants could then become the trainers to those with less time or energy to devote to the learning. Additionally, if the time commitment to complete the professional learning (i.e. reach the desired state) outweighs the time allotted to the professional learning experience, it may be useful to modify staff schedules to allow for more time to be invested into the learning experience. Lastly, be sure to differentiate the content for those with varying levels of ability/knowledge/experience with the content.
Before you provide any type of professional learning, be sure to address each of these questions:
- What is the goal of the professional learning (or the problem you want to solve through the professional learning)? What is the desired state you want participants to be in after completing the professional learning?
- Who should be included in this professional learning? Or (if the selection of participants isn’t an option) who will be participating in the professional learning?
- What is the participant level of knowledge/experience with the professional learning content (High/medium/low; variable)? If there are differences in knowledge/experience, how can I differentiate for each participant to ensure everyone receives the appropriate amount and type of content?
- How much time do participants have to devote to the professional learning? Should some participants receive more professional learning than others?
- Is there ongoing support or systems in place to ensure that the learning from the professional learning is able to be transferred into practice? How can I ensure that the learning will be applied?
If you have any feedback or tips/resources related to professional development regarding data use, please post them in the comments section below!
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If anything in this article was confusing or unclear please, please, PLEASE let me know by emailing me at Chris.Thompson@k12.nd.us with the subject line “Data Champions” and I will do my best to clarify my unclarity!