Learning Sprints: How to Help Overloaded Educators Continuously Enhance Their Expertise

How do we, as educators, continue to get better at our craft, in order to have the biggest impact on our learners?

Better all the time

If we believe that we are to help our learners to make at least one year of growth for every year of schooling, then it would seem logical that as educators we focus on improving our practice every year we teach. This is not intended to be a deficit approach, but rather a continuous improvement lens where we are seeking to improve, not because we’re not good enough, but because we could be even better. Cultivating a culture of let’s get better, not because we have to, but because we want the joy of developing greater mastery and seeing more progress for the students we teach.

Structure and cultures of effective teacher learning

Schools are often predicated on a ‘continual improvement model’. With teacher professional learning often the mechanism used to push for improvement in practice and higher levels of student achievement. However, in our work with schools we have noticed teachers and schools leaders often grapple with the idea of how to design collaborative teacher learning that will continuously enhance their teaching expertise and efficacy with a a teaching workforce that already feel overloaded. There is no doubt time to meaningfully collaborate to truly impact teaching practice that leads to improved student learning is not an easy task.
As a result we have been working closely with teachers and school leaders to create more effective models of teacher professional learning. Through this work two key ideas have emerged about meaningful teacher collaborative learning:

Big Idea 1 – Time is necessary but not insufficient

Around the world schools and districts have invested in more time for teachers to work collaboratively in order to improve their practice and better impact learner outcomes. Yet many leaders are looking for ways to ensure that this investment in time, is having a real impact on teaching expertise and efficacy. Allocating time for teachers to work together is important, yet insufficient to effective increase teaching expertise. It is what teachers actually do together during this time that will have the biggest impact on the individual, collective expertise, and in turn the student they teach.

Big Idea 2 – We need a process that is both rigorous and manageable

The literature on effective professional learning is clear that teachers need to be engaged in sustained job-embedded inquiry. The closer professional learning is to the school context and classroom the more likely it is to have an impact. This process should provide an opportunity for teachers to frame relevant problems of practice and engage in cycles of thinking, doing, reflecting, and adjusting within their context, with the approach being informed by the best available research evidence. Yet sometimes this form of robust collaborative inquiry is difficult to initiate and sustain for overloaded educators. Too often teachers have communicated that the professional learning feels like one more thing to add on to their already overcrowded list of expectations.

How can we help overloaded educators to continuously enhance their impact?

Over the last two years we have been working alongside hundreds of schools to pioneer a new approach to teacher collaborative learning: Learning Sprints. We have attempted to co-design a process that is both rigorous and also manageable for overloaded teacher teams. Our guiding mantra is simple, ‘if it doesn’t work for educators, then it doesn’t work.” We developed the process to align with the best available evidence on the essential elements of effective professional learning (see Cordingley et al. 2014 & Timperley et al. 2007) and combined it with emerging insights from behavior science on how to support adults to make small incremental, yet critical changes, that the cumulative effect through multiple learning cycles over a sustained period of time leads to significant improvement. In short, we believe in a ‘massive incremental’ approach to improvement in teaching experise. What this means is each change feels manageable, but over 6-9 months of short cycles of improvement it adds up to substantial improvements in how teachers thinks and acts within a specific learning domain area (e.g. Teaching Numeracy, literacy, or essay writing to name a few). Learning Sprints are all about enhancing teacher expertise through better teacher Learning.

Learning Sprint process: simple, relevant and achievable

The Learning Sprints process has been designed to be simple, relevant and achievable for already overloaded teachers and their leaders. Most of all, it is designed to be adaptable to your school context and focused on the challenges specific to your classrooms and learners. During ‘Prepare’, teams engage in disciplined dialogue about student learning and consider relevant research to identify a precise focus for their Learning Sprint. The key here is to define a highly specific focus for the Learning Sprint connected to the impact we want to have on student learning. We believe that teacher learning should start with the question, what do our students need us, as teachers, to learn next. Teachers engage with both research-based and practice-based evidence to support them to design small specific changes to try out in their classroom.

They then go into the ‘Sprint’ phase, where they test out their new learning through short, 1-4 week cycles of deliberate practice in the classroom. Teachers focus on applying their evidence-informed approach with their students and monitor whether or not they are having the intended impact. As needed, teachers also seek out peer and expert guidance to help to develop their capacity in the use of the new approach.  Every week Sprint teams come together for a 15 minute ‘check-in’ meeting in order to provide support, solve problems and sustain motivation.

A Learning Sprint ends with developmental ‘Review’, where analysis of the evidence of student progress is undertaken, and consideration of how to transfer new pedagogical knowledge and skills into future practice. During this phase we trying to slow down the teacher learning in order to make connections and update certain beliefs, assumptions and practices. Teams finally explore where they would like to go next in their individual and collective learning.

Mobilising research evidence through Sprints

There is no shortage of ‘evidence’ in education: we collect endless data on student progress, and are sometimes overwhelmed by the research on the most effective approaches to teaching. For evidence to lead to the development of teacher expertise, we need a way to draw relevant insights from this knowledge, and translate it into improved practice that will benefit our specific students, in our specific classroom setting. That what the Learning Sprints process is designed to do.

Teachers also require external expertise to challenge current orthodoxies about teaching and learning. Without such challenge teams can begin to reinforce their previously held beliefs and knowledge about learning.

Let’s get Sprinting: the power of organisational routines

Organisational routines are regular approaches through which work gets done, and how knowledge is developed and shared. It is an agreed way of doing the work together, often by using set processes and protocols for collective action. Such routines can support disciplined collaboration. Learning sprints are all about enhancing teaching expertise through better teacher learning. It’s not just about people meeting together or engaging superficially with research. It’s deliberately changing how teachers actually go about their work in the classroom, in such a way that  it can better cause learning. Why not give a Sprints a try in your school!

Find out more at www.learningsprints.com or come along to our session at the Annual Visible Learning conference in Las Vegas


References

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into e ective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. 2015.

Deans for Impact: https://deansforimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Practice-with-Purpose_FOR-PRINT_113016.pdf

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development: Best evidence synthesis iteration.Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.


This blog was originally published on the Corwin Connect blog.