Inquiry-Based Learning’s Impact on Professional Development #HackingPBL

Admittedly, it took me longer than it should have to be able to make the distinction between professional development and training.

In short, I now view professional development as the process of building capacity in participants (or attempting to do so), while training generally follows more of a rigid approach with several “rights” and “wrongs.” Overall, I believe both have a place in education. For example, for about the past two years at my district’s elementary level there have been various forms of professional development involving Writing Workshop, but in January a representative from Heinemann is going to be training these same teachers on the new Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System.

At the same time, I have come to realize there is a third category, which can be triggered when we mistakenly believe we are providing deep professional development, but in actuality we are barely scratching the surface with not much more than conversations and examples related to a specific topic. This third category, which falls somewhere in between the other two on the “autonomy spectrum,” can be called discussion.

Since the line between discussion and professional development can easily be blurred, let’s take a look at how each of these categories applies to educators being introduced to essential questions, the topic that serves as the main focus of Chapter 5 in Hacking Project Based Learning.

Discussion on Essential Questions

  1. Participants watch a short video on the significance of essential questions.
  2. Facilitator spends a few minutes talking about what an essential question is and isn’t, how they can be used to drive project based learning and/or higher-order thinking, and how she has seen them used in the classroom.
  3. Everyone discusses how they may already be using essential questions, or how they may aspire to use them in the future.
  4. Facilitator directs participants to a few resources on essential questions, and they have time to look through them while discussing their favorites.

While the discussion may look good on paper, and I have been guilty of leading these types of sessions, I can now say with confidence they generally don’t produce the results for which we’re looking. For lack of a better word, it’s just too “surfacey!” In reality, participants are engaging in a bloated conversation (disguised as professional development), and then they leave with a vague idea of how what they have “learned” could be applied to their particular classrooms/contexts.

Two questions to think about: Do these steps model the type of instruction we want to be seeing in classrooms? If we want participants to embrace a new practice, should they be told why it’s meaningful, or should they uncover why it’s meaningful?

Here’s another option…

Professional Development on Essential Questions

  1. Participants are provided a bunch of questions, one per index card, which they are asked to separate and categorize into two piles. (Some are essential questions, some are not.)
  2. Everyone talks about the piles, and the discussion leads to why some questions are essential and some are “non-essential.”
  3. Based on the previous discussion, everyone works together to create a list of defining characteristics for essential questions.
  4. Everyone discusses how they may already be using essential questions, or how they may aspire to use them in the future.
  5. Facilitator directs participants to a few resources on essential questions, and they have time to look through them while discussing their favorites.

What makes this professional development powerful is the way in which it mimics inquiry-based learning, which is what we want happening in classrooms. The heart of this inquiry involves participants uncovering that not all questions are created equal, and then they use this information to once again uncover and define what an essential question entails. Then, the remaining two steps can be left the same as before.

Three questions to think about: As a result of these steps, are participants more likely to remember and understand the significance of essential questions? As a result of these steps, are participants more likely to be skilled at created their own essential questions to apply to their particular classrooms/contexts? Could this “formula” for professional development be applied to other topics and not just essential questions?

In the End

When comparing the above examples, the inquiry approach is the main difference between the discussion and the professional development…If we want educator learning to model what needs to take place in classrooms (which we should), then inquiry-based professional development should always be an approach we consider.

At the same time, as Grant Wiggins always declared, the goal of education is students being able to leverage what they learn across unique contexts and situations (transfer). So, if this is also going to be our goal when facilitating professional development (which it should), then inquiry can help, but we must also make sure we are intentional about participants understanding the targeted content.

What are your thoughts on discussions vs. professional development? How do you think inquiry can impact professional development?

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