Demonstration classroom takes skepticism out of professional development

teachers“Yes, but that will never work in my classroom,” is a common spoken and unspoken response by teachers to many new initiatives and professional development programs.

When an Ontario, Canada school board decided to improve literacy practices in K-3 classes, it created a professional development program that was designed to preempt this response. The board (similar to a U.S. school district) set up a demonstration classroom that would let teachers see first-hand how the recommended practices worked with students, says a recent study in the journal, Professional Development in Education.

The demonstration classroom was established in an inner city school with a transient student population that was designated a ‘turnaround school’ on the basis of students’ low performance on standardized tests. The school received resources and professional development funds to assist in its turnaround.

Exemplary teacher

In the study published in Professional Development in Education, researchers identify the factors that contributed to the initiative’s success based on interviews with observer teachers.

A Grade 2 teacher with exemplary classroom practices served as the demonstration classroom teacher who modeled the desired literacy practices. To minimize disruption for the students, separate seating was established for teachers and students were trained not to interact with the observers.

The demonstration classroom teacher had served as a literacy coach during the preceding year and so had experience facilitating the professional growth of her colleagues.

For a demonstration classroom to be successful, the mentor teacher must not only model advocated practices, but also must be supportive of colleagues’ professional decision-making, the researchers report.

“Of particular importance in supporting teachers’ abilities to embrace change are their efficacy beliefs; that is, their self-perceptions of competence implementing advocated instructional modifications.”

Demo classroom protocol

Observing teachers could visit the demonstration classroom in groups of 3 or 4 Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays each week between October and June and were asked to book in advance. Teachers were encouraged to observe for a series of 3 full-day sessions, ideally spaced several weeks apart to allow teachers enough time to reflect on what they’d seen and to implement targeted modifications in their own practices.

Each of the 3 visits was intended to focus on different aspects of instruction:

  • The physical classroom and classroom management strategies
  • Explicit instruction with a particular emphasis on guided reading and
    integrated literacy centers.
  • Assessment, evaluation and planning.

Observing teachers spent the morning in the demonstration classroom followed by an afternoon debriefing session. While in the demonstration classroom, observing teachers used templates to record their observations. During the afternoon sessions, the demonstration teacher used debriefing scripts developed with a consultant to guide the dialogue with the observing teachers and to help them set their own goals.

“Supporting changes in practices and beliefs is a complex endeavor that is dependent upon teachers’ abilities to acknowledge the need to modify their own practices, self-perceptions of their abilities to do so, as well as the provision of sufficient support and resources throughout their change processes,” the authors write.

Researchers interviewed 8 of the 98 primary- grade teachers who were observers. The teachers described the demonstration classroom as among their most effective professional development experiences, the researchers wrote.

“I don’t think I would have gained all the knowledge that I did from the demo class if I went to an after school [professional development session]. You can put in a video but it’s not the same. This was a true example of a day,” one teacher said.

As a result of their participation in the demo classroom, teachers said they made changes in their physical room arrangements and class management, guided reading, literacy center instructional methods and assessment practices.

Four themes emerged from teacher interviews about the demonstration classroom.

  • The demonstration classroom served as a catalyst for changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices
  • The mentoring and interpersonal skills of the teacher in the demo classroom were essential to success of program
  • Program organization, cohesion and alignment were essential aspects of the program
  • Ongoing support helped teachers work on their goals

The practices modeled in the classroom were aligned with the goals of the board for improving literacy in grades K-3. Besides the cohesion of the program, the personality of the demo teacher was also deemed very important.

“Facilitating the debriefing sessions required considerable diplomacy and the establishment of trusting relationships,” the researchers write.

“Rather than present a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, the demonstration teacher supported and encouraged participants’ professional decision- making,” the researchers write. “This enhanced teachers’ willingness to take risks with new methods, seek assistance and work towards modifying their practices.”

“Seeing is believing: creating a catalyst for teacher change through a demonstration classroom professional development initiative,” by Arlene Grierson and Tiffany Gallagher, Professional Development in Education, December 2009, Volume 35, Number 4, pps. 567-584.

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