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How Do You Define Sticky Systemic?

Posted by on in Professional Development
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Professional Development

In the last post we explored the importance of professional development leading to change that is sticky systemic:

When a topic is the primary focus of professional development, the goal should be for change that is sticky systemic. That is, the change should be (1) sustainable and (2) prevalent across the district/school(s).

Since the post was published, there’s been a lot of love for sticky systemic, which is a term I coined when planning for this upcoming year’s professional development in the Salisbury Township School District.

That being said, let’s dive a bit deeper into the meaning of the term.


Here, the key word is sustainable…but to what end?

In Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that one of the characteristics of Level 5 leaders (highest level) is humility, and how there is an emphasis on making progress over getting credit. “Level 5 leaders want to see the company even more successful in the next generation, comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know that the roots of that success trace back to their efforts.”

Now, while I definitely don’t consider myself a Level 5 leader (especially at this point in my career), ideally, sticky changes should endure long after those who led the shifts leave the company or school. For example…The past and current focus of our elementary level professional development, which I am facilitating along with a handful of talented educators, is Writing Workshop. Now, if what we’re putting into place is sticky, theoretically, those spearheading the initiative should be able to leave the district and visit a few years later, only to see Writing Workshop flourishing like never before…I guess you’d be able to call this some type of “Level 5 professional development,” as countless students and teachers would benefit from advancements in writing instruction, while at the same time potentially forgetting (or not being made aware of) “how it all got started.”


Here, the key word is prevalent…but to what end?

In What Works in Schools, Robert Marzano ranks a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” as the school-level factor that has the most impact on student achievement. “A guaranteed and viable curriculum is primarily a combination of many factors ‘opportunity to learn’ and ‘time.’ Both have strong correlations with academic achievement, yet they are so interdependent that they constitute one factor.”

Yes, if we want our professional development to promote systemic change, we need to ensure the resulting instruction is guaranteed and viable. We should be able to look any of our stakeholders in the eye and say without hesitation, “I can guarantee you that [insert type of instruction here] is taking place in all targeted classrooms!” (And, of course, the students are benefiting from it.) For example…As mentioned in the previous post, we created a Writing Workshop expectations document to “establish minimum expectations for what should be taking place in every classroom.” So not only should we be able to tout that Writing Workshop is occurring, but we should be able to drill down deeper in regards to instructional consistencies that are prevalent across all classrooms. However, because these consistencies represent “minimum expectations,” teachers still have the freedom to make it their own depending on the needs of their students and their teaching styles. In other words, there is flexibility within the confines of a vision, or…defined autonomy.

In the End 

A deeper definition of sticky systemic is worth exploring, especially if you plan on “using” the term in your district, as a common understanding of what it means would then be a must…Either way, this post and the last should combine to paint a clear picture of (1) what our goals should be, and (2) how we can get there, whenever we decide to make a topic the primary focus of professional development.

What are your thoughts on making professional development sticky systemic? How else can we define the term? Should professional development have other goals?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.


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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Sunday, 19 May 2019