Cognitive Engagement-The Missing Part of Professional Development

A week ago, during my participation in #leadupchat, I tweeted:

76 likes and 57 retweets later I recognized this resonated with my PLN and I began to wonder why it had such an amazing response from so many people. In addition my tweet was acknowledged by @BAMRadioNetwork as the top quoted tweet in education for the week. See more here:

This tweet is a reflection about my own cognitive engagement in my leadership and work. I’ve become a dedicated participant in #leadupchat because it cognitively engages me. Regardless of the topic, I find myself being able to deeply think about my work and my leadership when I participate in this chat every Saturday morning at 9:30 EST. However, I realize this kind of critical thinking doesn’t always happen for me during what I’ll call traditional style professional development. In fact, in most face to face PD that I’ve experienced I feel like an audience member being trained on what to do or focusing on making sure I am exhibiting good listening behavior. I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes I spend more time and effort in ensuring I am giving the impression that I am paying attention, rather than engaging in what’s being presented.

So after so many acknowledgments of this tweet, I began to think about how professional development has changed since the start of my career as an educator in 1999. I was stunned when I realized that other than the edcamp model, PD hasn’t really changed. It still follows the model of a presentation and listening style. We sit as audience members while someone trains us, shares with us, or shows us how to do something. We occasionally get a turn and talk opportunity with a partner or participate in a gallery walk to review the ideas or answers to questions posed to us written on large sticky note paper. These things are great ways to document conversation, but does it push us to think insightfully and critically about our work?

What’s Missing?
What happens when we disengage from years of the same “I do-you watch” style of professional development? Do we lose our empowerment to act and to enter into the cognitive space that leads us to believe that our actions impact our work?  When we fail to empower others, do we create doers or thinkers?  You know, those who say, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it’?  Is this the prevailing feeling after a professional development session in education? Are we training or developing capacity in others to lead, think, and problem solve? Are we presenting a narrative of problems and directives? Or are we inviting others to think through and problem solve with us? Are we silencing the voice and thoughts of others because our focus is training and not development?

Somehow, I think we’ve missed the mark on this. Isn’t it odd that we push the methodology of the mini-lesson, guided practice, independent practice model in the classroom with students, but in our teaching of teachers, we abandon this approach all together? If being a reflective practitioner is an empowering way to improve our skills as leaders and learners, why do we leave this exercise as an independent act to be done after work? Is there a way for us to create an opportunity for teachers to do this as an embedded practice of professional development? I find this especially needed for administrators.

Leading is thinking and doing, yet an incredible amount of time is spent simply on doing. Have we emphasized the cognitive side of school leadership enough in school administration? Or have we created a situation that has pulled us away from being able to differentiate between the ability to get things done and the ability to do things right? Is there a better way to cognitively engage teachers and leaders so that it allows them to innovate and improve their efficacy? Are we really training instead of developing others? Training focuses on telling individuals what to do, while development gives individuals the opportunity to think about what to do, how to do it, and connect it to why it needs to be done. How often do we get the opportunity to work on our thinking? How does traditional PD perpetuate the doer vs. thinker model? Is it our allegiance to the presentation PD model in education that keeps us from breaking free from this? And if so, why? The process matters as much, if not more than the product.

What If…?
What if we approached professional development with a problem based or project based approach the way we approach student learning? Would teacher engagement increase? Would teacher innovation and efficacy increase? Would we develop more teacher leaders and improve the leadership efficacy of administrators? What if we applied the same methodologies for engaging students in the classroom to adult learning in professional development? What if we added more choice, differentiation, and more opportunity to actively learn and reflect on our individual preformance? What if we abandoned any professional development that followed the presentation style model of presenter speaks and audience listens? Last, but not least what if I’m wrong about this whole thing? I highly doubt that, but you never know.

As evidenced, this has led me to more questions than answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @latoyadixon5 or leave your comments on my blog!

I’m on a never ending quest to improve my ability to think critically, insightfully, and reflect appropriately. Perhaps together we can create an opportunity for cognitive engagement for educators everywhere!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: