ONGOING, JOB-EMBEDDED INFORMAL LEARNING
Staff development is much, much more than 20 hours of required experiences. In fact, most of the staff development occurs informally, through asking for assistance from colleagues, sharing ideas, team meetings, attending conferences, or hearing what people learned from a particular speaker. The fourth Thursday of every month is always a staff development faculty meeting and those sessions usually incorporate new information and knowledge, practicing a skill or dialoguing within the team, or reviewing content learned previously.
Teacher, Shallowford Falls
What teachers told us, repeatedly, is that the everyday work of schooling is, itself, an occasion for learning. Because teacher learning is so ingrained in their schools culture, any opportunity for conversation can spontaneously turn into an occasion for learning. As one International High School teacher says, "Every conversation between two professionals is professional development. I think its one of the main reasons this school has enjoyed so much success."
But this kind of professional culture developed only over time through the deliberate cultivation of collaborative structures at the school. Teachers participated in team meetings, grade-level meetings, and interdisciplinary curriculum development groups. They were part of study groups, action research groups, and dialogue sessions. In fact, the sheer number of different arrangements for teacher collaboration and conversation about teaching and learning was striking (see "Informal Learning Structures").
Some informal learning structures important examples being peer and expert coaching have traditionally been considered follow-up. Occurring after a formal training experience, they help teachers take what theyve learned so far and make it work in the classroom. Coaching, whether by fellow staff or outside consultants, helps teachers to reexamine what they have been taught, figure out how to integrate it into their current instructional and curricular unit, and gauge its effectiveness. In these schools, coaches often include peers, who are able to observe and help each other on a routine basis. Teachers see themselves participating in processes that allow one professional to help another learn and grow. (See "Coaching at Montview Elementary School.")
At these schools, informal learning has an additional significance. Because the thinking is not outside-in, informal structures like coaching are not seen as only one part of a more "comprehensive" training; instead, training is considered to be only one part of an ongoing process of teacher learning.
With this mindset in place, teachers can create opportunities for sharing and learning within their daily work. In the hall or lunchroom one teacher might mention to another, "Im having trouble getting three of my students to finish editing their final writing project. Youve gotten all your kids to finish. What strategies did you use?" Teachers talk over lunch about individual students, trade ideas about assessments in grade-level meetings, and discuss curriculum integration in cross-disciplinary teams. They serve on leadership teams, plan units of instruction, and share what works with each other. The power of this kind of learning is that its practical and immediately relevant to what teachers do in their classrooms.
At the heart of many of these structures and processes is inquiry: disciplined study of what works in the local context. These teachers want to understand their students and how they learn. They ask questions and reflect on what is or isnt happening. They look to theory, research, and each other for promising practices to try out. They examine student work closely to analyze student learning and get clues for improvement. They try things out and study the effects over time. Again, these inquiry processes have become embedded in how these schools operate. But the schools have also used some explicit structures such as teacher study groups or teacher research projects. (See "Action Research at Wilson Elementary School," for the story of how one school staff incorporated action research to investigate and improve their practices in mathematics instruction.)
INFORMAL LEARNING STRUCTURES IDENTIFIED
Analyzing student performance
Attending content-area meetings
Being observed by other teachers
Conducting action research
Conducting trial-and-error experiments
Conversing with colleagues
Creating student learning activities
Creating teacher portfolios
Implementing new ideas
Interacting with visiting professors
Observing other teachers
Organizing educational initiatives
Participating in meetings
Participating in self-studies
Planning the budget
Planning with grade-level team
Reading articles and books
Serving as a peer evaluator
Serving on committees
Serving on a leadership team
Sharing from conferences
Studying student work
Supervising a student teacher, intern, or teaching assistant
Visiting other schools
Working on classroom, school, district, or community projects
Working through conflicts
Writing action plans
Writing for professional publications