This post, produced by the Hybrid and Distance Learning Collaborative (HDLC), first appeared on the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning at WestEd blog and appears here with permission. The HDLC is a COVID Education Equity Response Collaborative initiative.

When COVID-prompted shutdowns moved instruction out of the classroom, learning to use new tech tools was one of the primary hurdles faced by district staff and teachers. While the sudden move to distance learning was traumatic and disruptive for everyone, early findings from our yearlong series of interviews with district staff show that educators came together to learn and adapt in new ways. And what they learned could help make professional learning better for everyone in the future.

We heard that in some places, and for many teachers and students, there were insurmountable barriers to successfully getting instruction online. These barriers were connected to racial and income inequality, particularly barriers related to attendance and access to tech devices and WiFi.

But when it came to the experiences of educators coming together to learn new instructional technology, interviewees experienced new ways of approaching both technology and collaborative learning. Interviewees said they hoped that many of these new approaches will permanently change the way tech and professional development are handled in their districts.

Picking Up Where Standards Implementation Left Off

Several years before COVID, during the period when new academic standards such as the Common Core were being adopted, many school districts were trying to figure out how best to support their staff in implementing these standards. That meant teacher professional learning also needed to be rethought for the era of these new standards. Many districts were grappling with the inadequacy of traditional professional learning models to support those shifts. Three days of “sit and get” learning at the end of the summer, divorced from teachers’ everyday experiences in their classrooms and designed without much input from teachers, weren’t cutting it anymore.

The pandemic forced district staff and teachers to collaborate in ways that often reflected, at least to some degree, best practices for supporting teachers to learn new standards. Some of those best practices for standards implementation were documented by the Math in Common initiative (2013–2020), which supported 10 California districts in implementing the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.

In this blog post, we will explore some examples of how the Math in Common districts successfully supported implementation of new content standards — and how some of those best practices were reflected in the efforts of one California district to support its teachers as they shifted to adopting a new online learning tool.

Starting Slow, Small, and Collaborative

For example, a major learning from the Math in Common network was that professional learning was “more likely to generate classroom change than one-time, centralized, and decontextualized trainings” when it:

  • Occurred at a teacher’s school during or after the school day
  • Focused on lessons and the details of daily practice
  • Included coaching as well as ongoing collaboration with peers
  • Was supported by coaches positioned as “messengers and mediators” connecting school sites to the goals of the district office

Another major learning from the Math in Common network was the importance of starting professional learning “slow and small.” This often was accomplished through cohort structures, where new math professional learning was offered to small “opt-in” groups before being rolled out to larger groups. The key features of these structures were:

  • “Begin with the willing” — early cohorts were composed of motivated volunteers
  • Iterate each successive cohort based on early learning and feedback
  • Build buy-in and word-of-mouth to make later cohorts more appealing

To some extent, districts participating in Math in Common had the luxury of time to determine the best modes of professional learning to support teachers in standards implementation. However, during the COVID shutdown, school districts were in emergency fire-fighting mode and generally did not have the time and capacity to design elaborate new professional learning strategies to support teachers in distance learning. But in our interviews with HDLC districts, it was clear that many found success using the same elements of strong professional learning that worked for standards implementation to help their teachers take up new tech tools and ways of teaching online.

From Crisis to Canvas

We were particularly struck by one district’s months-long journey to implement the Canvas learning management system. One administrator summed up this journey by saying, “I think it was very painful. But I think it’s been a success.”

Here’s how the district, which we’ll call Highland Unified School District, supported their teachers through the implementation of Canvas, what they learned from the trial-and-error process, and how their choices aligned with best practices learned from professional learning to support standards implementation.

It’s our hope that the lessons from both implementing standards and from implementing new tech tools can help inform districts’ strategies for reopening, reengagement, and rethinking teaching and learning in fall 2021 and beyond, as they work to institutionalize bright spots and positive changes from the last 18 months.

Identifying the problem: We spoke to two STEM administrators in Highland, who we’ll call Alicia and Jody. By April of 2020, it was already clear to them that “it was craziness to try to use Google Classroom to run all your schools” and that they needed a better and more comprehensive learning management system for the district. There was initial resistance to taking on such a huge implementation project. “We’re a big ship. It’s hard to turn a big ship,” Jody said.

Coaches as conduits; starting with the willing: Once the choice was made to go ahead with Canvas, the Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) team started planning the rollout. Instead of issuing what might feel like an overwhelming, top-down edict that everyone take up Canvas at once in the same way, the C&I team thought through their own relationships with teachers and school sites.

“We got everybody into small groups and triads,” Alicia said, “and basically decided how to morph [the early Canvas trainings] and to make it their own, while still presenting it in a team way to teachers.” This setup positioned coaches and other C&I staff as conduits and mediators of the district goal, allowing them flexibility to adapt for local conditions at the school sites — a similar coaching model that many districts in the Math in Common network used to support standards implementation.

Highland coaches were able to leverage their relationships with teachers, starting with small groups of individuals who they knew had the bandwidth and interest to be early adopters of Canvas. This also mirrors an element of successful standards implementation employed by the Math in Common network, in which cohorts of interested volunteers could join early rounds of professional learning, then build buy-in among their colleagues by sharing their positive experiences.

Everyone’s a learner: When new math standards were introduced, it wasn’t immediately clear what full implementation should look like in classrooms. This often meant coaches and administrators had to study and interpret the standards right alongside teachers, making professional learning a far more collaborative, horizontal, and humbling exercise than it might have been in the past. Ultimately, this helped everyone engage in productive struggle and made for richer learning about the standards, at all levels of the district system.

The move to adopt new tech tools followed a similar path for many HDLC districts. Regarding Highland’s implementation of Canvas, Alicia said, “It was an all-team effort really to say, ‘Look, we’re all in the same boat. We’re learning this too.’” Jody continued, “We got to share our own stories because we’re learning right alongside them. We might have done the training in Canvas even a week or two before. So we can speak to their experiences, and we can share the same frustrations they’re experiencing.”

Gathering data and acting on it: Guided by their experiences with previous professional learning efforts in the district, the Highland team asked teachers for feedback after every round of Canvas professional learning. “We asked, ‘What’s meeting your needs, what’s not meeting your needs?’” Alicia said. When teachers attended the next Canvas training, they found changes were made according to the feedback. “So teachers know that we hear them,” Jody said, which contributed to more buy-in for the professional learning.

Bringing professional learning closer to everyday teaching: From feedback surveys they gave to participating teachers, the Highland team knew teachers were frustrated that initial Canvas trainings were “generic,” meaning they weren’t tailored to different use cases by lesson or content area. “We’ve always known that the power comes from when teachers are talking about the content area in professional development,” Jody said. “We just didn’t have the capacity in the beginning to do that” while they struggled to implement the basics of the new technology.

Once the basics of Canvas were covered, the team could shift toward what Jody called, “content-embedded professional development” with more leadership input from content-area coaches. “So it’s not a generic Canvas training or a generic formative assessment training. It’s, ‘How do you use all the features of Canvas to formatively assess students in the area of math or science or English language arts?’”

Teachers don’t use instructional practices, tools, or content standards in isolation. Rather, each piece contributes to the complex dynamics of classroom instruction unfolding from minute to minute. Long before either COVID or the Common Core, research showed that successful professional learning should support instructional changes in the context of teachers’ daily practice, not in isolation.

COVID, Common Core, and What’s Next

“I won’t say that we’re all transformed. I think we’re just all exhausted at this point. But I do think when you make it through a really difficult, critical situation where you have to think deeply, we’re going to come out of this with an understanding of what’s really important.” – Highland USD participant

In our interviews with HDLC participants, we heard over and over that despite all the challenges, everyone had seen some positive changes in the way adults approach teaching and learning. The question for this fall will be how to draw on districts’ hard-fought learnings from previous implementation efforts in order make these positive changes stick.