Many Hands Make Light Work: Connecting Teachers in Professional Learning through Video Cases

May 16, 2016

“I make the point that you need firstly a diagnosis, an analysis of what the problem is. You need a vision of what a better alternative would look like. And then you need a plan to get there—to go from this to that.”

-Sir Ken Robinson

In seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Kiesner, asked us to research a Greek god or goddess as part of a quarter-long study of Greek mythology and to prepare a short oral report to share with the class. I chose Atlas, the Titan god of endurance and astronomy, who, as the story goes, had been condemned by Zeus to hold up the heavens for eternity as punishment for leading the Titans in a battle against the Olympian gods. It was a selection driven largely by empathy. I felt bad for the poor guy/god. Sure, mounting an assault on Mt. Olympus may not have been the most well-conceived plan, but having to shoulder the stratosphere for all of eternity seemed like an unreasonably severe penalty, even by Zeus’ exacting standards.

No one, it seemed to me, should have to hold up the sky all by himself.

Your Own Private Atlas

Replace the celestial spheres with national standards, high-stakes testing, rapid technological change, and increased teacher accountability, and you can see how the Atlas myth provides an apt metaphor for the modern-day teaching experience. The cognitive demands of teaching have escalated dramatically in recent years, and teachers have increasingly been called upon to develop new skills and competencies to adapt to the evolving educational landscape.

At the same time, teacher education programs continue to emphasize abstract theory over specific practice. Once teachers enter the classroom, usually with a limited supply of pedagogical skills, most school-based professional learning models continue to provide staff with few opportunities to view exemplary models, connect with peers, practice specific strategies with support, refine and reflect. This makes for a rather isolating experience, and it’s not surprising to find that, as was reported in Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force, “More than 41 percent of new teachers leave teaching within five years of entry.”

After all, why keep working in a profession when you’re the only one holding up the sky and there’s no aid or assistance in sight?

A Teacher Is Not A Toaster: A Diagnosis

It’s not that professional learning is always an afterthought for teachers.  In fact, a recent report by the nonprofit New Teacher Project (TNTP), revealed that districts spend an average of $18,000 on development for each teacher per year. Rather, from my perspective, the problem is that most professional learning models treat teaching like what Amy Edmundson calls a routine operation, like laptop or car production, which can be “characterized by a ‘well developed and codified process knowledge” that is easily passed on from one operator to the next. This approach works exceptionally well if you are building toasters, but is entirely inadequate if you hope to develop teachers.  Teaching is just too complex, nuanced, and unpredictable for anyone to simply tell you how to do it.  As Ms. Edmundson writes in Teaming, “A script simply isn’t possible”

Going From This to That: A Vision of A Better Alternative & a Plan to Get There

Before you can go from this to that, you need a clear vision of a better alternative. To me, that vision is a resource that matches the needs of teachers in today’s classrooms, with today’s students, and today’s challenges. Since September, my colleagues and I have been working to develop an alternative video-based professional learning model that acknowledges the complexity of our profession, reduces teacher isolation by connecting peers in ongoing cycles of inquiry, and that provides staff with high-quality video models of exemplary teaching practice. To support this effort, we have been piloting ATLAS, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ new online resource that provides an extensive library of video case studies showing National Board Certified Teachers at work in their classrooms.

[The] vision is a resource that matches the needs of teachers
in today’s classrooms, with today’s students, and today’s challenges.

The ATLAS resource helps illustrate this clear alternative vision of high-impact instruction and professional learning opportunities, and taps into the need for teachers to see proven, accomplished instruction in action. With access to a searchable bank of exemplary instructional videos—representing all 25 National Board Certification areas, 16 content areas across four developmental levels, and frameworks that include the National Board, edTPATM, Deeper Learning, and Common Core—all teachers, regardless of experience or area of expertise, can find materials relevant to their individual challenges and growth areas.

This depth of content and ability to tailor professional learning experiences to specific needs is the “that.” Offering teachers access to interactive, visual resources that are customizable to the specific puzzles they’re attempting to solve within their video-based learning cycle helps convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge so that it can be analyzed, replicated, and shared widely.

In the Atlas myth, Atlas is granted a brief respite from his torment by Heracles, but is ultimately condemned to an eternity of suffering.  Ironically, it’s a video-based professional learning resource that shares the name of this ill-fated god that may have the most potential to redistribute the cognitive load across a greater number of teachers so that no one again has to feel like they’re only one holding up the heavens.

Many hands, as they say, make light work.

Josh McLaughlin, NBCT

Josh McLaughlin currently serves as an Instructional Lead Teacher at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia where he works to design teacher driven professional learning experiences that protect and promote autonomy, mastery and purpose.  He is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Virginia Lottery Super Teacher Award winner, the co-initiator of the #APSCHATS Twitter chat and Teaching Channel Teams Administrator for Arlington Public Schools.