Laché Williams can attest to that. She teaches a fourth-grade class of all boys at L.W. Conder Elementary School in Columbia, S.C. She uses blended and project-based learning. But Williams said she didn’t start out this way. “When I started teaching I was so focused on classroom management. I think I did whole-group, direct instruction the entire year during my first year. I was so afraid of small groups. I was afraid of losing control of the class.” Williams said, “Today, I’ve learned to let go but still maintain the structure I need along the way.”For example, Williams gives her students pacing guidance to make sure projects don’t take too long and checks in with them to see where support might be needed. She models good conversation and collaboration skills and has the boys play games that build teamwork.Justin Holbrook, who teaches fourth-grade at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, leads a highly student-led classroom. He typically meets with rotating groups of students twice a month to gather feedback on how things are going in class and get ideas for improvements. And he empowers students to take turns leading their peers in a math lesson each week. He acknowledges that many teachers fear handing over control of learning to students in this manner. However he says strong professional development that can help teachers be more student centered.More guidance for teachers“Professional development should be led by teachers, and the voice of teachers should lead things. If we want kids to dictate their own learning, we need to dictate our own learning as well,” said Holbrook, who meets with his students twice a month to discuss what could be improved in class and empowers them to research and lead a math lesson once a week.Linda Darling-Hammond, President and CEO, of the Learning Policy Institute, agrees professional development needs improving. “I think it is often the case that a lot of professional development is not structured to be deeper learning for teachers. They’re often pulled together in an auditorium or teachers’ lounge to be lectured at,” she said.Darling-Hammond noted some strong professional development opportunities are emerging, like the High Tech High Deeper Learning conference, in which teachers direct their learning, collaborate, and work on projects. But she said that’s not reflective of the majority of professional development teachers receive. Teachers need good professional development that helps them learn not just how to take a step back but also how to create structures that enable students to engage in deeper learning, Darling-Hammond said.She says teachers need to gain the skills needed to encourage and support strong, independent learning in their classrooms. For example, they need to know when to provide students with feedback, how to empower them to choose projects wisely, and which strategies to use to guide students toward working productively in groups.In Burgin’s Arlington, Va. School, professional learning is teacher-centered. Teachers are observed and get feedback on areas that need improving. They then chart a course of action. “They have me, coaches, their peers, all available to them, but they set a plan and select how they’re going to improve,” Principal Lynne Wright said.Or as Burgin put it, “Our professional development isn’t about ‘read that book that’s flying off the teacher book shelves,’ or ‘do this fad that everyone is talking about.’” Rather, she said, “It’s what I feel embodies deeper learning.”Inside Burgin’s classroom, the benefits of that approach appear evident. Burgin smiles while talking to visitors as her eyes wander across the room and zero in on a desk belonging to a girl named Eva. “Problem-solving!” she exclaimed pointing to a plastic pencil sharpener wedged under a leg of the girl’s desk. “That sharpener is broken and not useful for sharpening pencils anymore, and her desk has been wobbly. Look at that! She solved the problem on her own,” the teacher said beaming.
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