From Special Occasion to Regular Work

January 11, 2009

A Carnegie Perspectives repost

By Pat Hutchings

The author of this month’s Carnegie Perspectives is Pat Hutchings. Pat is Carnegie’s vice president, and among her many responsibilities is her deep involvement in Strengthening Pre-collegiate Education in Community Colleges (SPECC), a joint initiative of Carnegie and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to address basic skills education in 11 California community colleges. This work involves campuses in sustained, reflective, evidence-based ways to improve the teaching and learning of underprepared students. A number of the SPECC reports, essays, tools, and products from this three-year project are available at:

From Special Occasion to Regular Work

For the past several years the Carnegie Foundation has been working with a group of California community colleges to improve student success in pre-collegiate math and English. One of the themes that has emerged as central in this effort—which we call Strengthening Pre-collegiate Education in Community Colleges, or SPECC—is the need for different ways to think about and conduct professional development.

Part of what needs to be different is language. Though most educators aspire to be life-long learners and to improve in the various facets of their professional work, being “developed” is not an altogether appealing prospect. For starters, it sounds like something that happens to you; even worse, there’s a sense that something’s broken and needs to be fixed. In contrast, many of the SPECC sites have adopted the language of “faculty inquiry,” pointing toward a process that begins with the questions that good, thoughtful teachers have, and need to understand more fully, about their own students’ learning. In this spirit, SPECC campuses have created Faculty Inquiry Groups (FIGs) that illustrate powerful professional growth and learning characterized by three key principles.

First, opportunities for teachers to grow and develop must be sustained over time. Professional development often takes the form of one-time workshops and presentations by outside speakers that may or may not be related to the campus’s goals for student learning. SPECC participants have been energetic in pointing out the limitations of this model. “We believe that the one-hour, lunch-time faculty development workshop has little impact on the transformation of faculty attitudes and behavior,” one campus team reported. In contrast, they noted that their work in the Carnegie project “has taught us that if we are serious about making radical changes to the way we deliver instruction, we must work intensively with a select group of faculty over an extended period of time.” Some FIGs established in SPECC have continued for more than a year now.

A second principle is the importance of collaboration. One of the most persistent impediments to educational improvement is that teachers have—because institutions provide—so few purposeful, constructive occasions for sharing what they know and do. Thus, one of the most important moves a campus can make is to create occasions for educators to talk, to find colleagues, to be part of a community of practice. As an administrator at Merced College remarked during a SPECC site visit, “Good things happen when teachers talk.”

Of course talk is not enough, and not all talk is created equal. With this in mind, some campuses have worked their way toward carefully structured routines and protocols for collaboration. At Los Medanos College, for instance, a group of English instructors organized themselves as a kind of graduate seminar, with clear tasks in preparation for each meeting and an emphasis on developing new tools and materials—course assignments, for instance, and assessment instruments. At City College of San Francisco, several faculty groups employ a carefully structured process of classroom observation, which is then grist for discussion during their meetings.

The third defining feature is a focus on evidence about student learning. SPECC campuses have served as laboratories for exploring how to bring different kinds and levels of evidence more effectively to bear on the improvement of teaching and learning.

Most important, certainly, is information at the classroom level, generated through the regular routines of teaching and learning: student performance on exams, projects, papers, problem sets, office consultations, and grades. This kind of information is at the heart of powerful feedback loops. But an important lesson of SPECC’s work is the power of viewing classroom data through the lens of larger institutional trends and patterns. Most campuses have a good deal of such information: data about student demographics, enrollment, retention, and the like. What’s needed are occasions to raise questions that fall into what might be described as the “missing middle”—the gap between information from individual classrooms and institutional data in the form of big-picture, aggregate trends and patterns. The power of focusing between and connecting these two is nicely illustrated by a story from Los Medanos College where the Developmental Education Committee realized that their efforts to reshape curriculum and pedagogy needed to be informed by evidence faculty members did not have, including—and especially—patterns of student course taking and success beyond the level of individual courses. The Committee approached the Office of Institutional Research, and the two groups worked together to develop a data-gathering plan that would address the questions faculty wanted to understand more fully. The result was a report tracking students from pre-collegiate courses in English and math into the first level of transfer English and math courses. This was not the kind of information Institutional Research staff members were in the habit of preparing; nor was it a perspective that faculty were accustomed to seeing. But it turned out to provide a powerful rationale for redoubling efforts that keep students moving through the developmental sequence without stopping out.

Fortunately, the three principles proposed here are becoming increasingly commonplace; some readers will recognize them from Carnegie’s work on the scholarship of teaching and learning. But it’s worth remembering that this different way of thinking about professional development really is different—maybe even radical—predicated as it is on an understanding of teaching not as a matter of individual expertise employed in the privacy of one’s own classroom but as a set of practices that have and need a social and organizational context. Seen through this lens, “professional development” should not be a separate or special occasion but an integral feature of the way educators do their work everyday. What matters in such work is who talks with whom, how often, with what information in the picture, and around what shared questions, processes, and goals. These turn out to be hard things to change, which is why having new models—like the ones developed on the SPECC campuses—is so important.

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