Catching up with the Professional Learning Collaborative

What will teachers be learning this year? What do teachers need and who is meeting that need? Catch up on the evolution of professional development with Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, Remake Learning lead for the Professional Learning Collaborative.


Few professions ask as much of their practitioners as the teaching profession, not just in the day-to-day practice of education, but in the amount of professional development teachers must complete to maintain their license.

Professional development, also called professional learning, is a key venue for equipping teachers with everything they need (skills, resources, relationships, mindsets) to help their students reach their full potential. No wonder that 78% of teachers cite professional learning as their main source for instructional ideas.

The trouble is that professional learning has a bit of a bad reputation. It’s synonymous with boredom and bureaucracy. But that’s changing.

The Professional Learning Collaborative is the working group of Remake Learning that’s advancing a new vision for professional development. Allyce Pinchback-Johnson has been leading the working group since 2018 and she’s got big plans for this coming school year.

Professional learning is a really important part of the education system, but if you’re not a school teacher or administrator, you might not know about it. So to start things off, what should people know about professional learning?

When I think about Remake Learning and all the different perspectives people bring to it, what I’m pretty sure we can all agree on is that there are fundamental issues with the current way that education is set up. Nobody living right now created this system, but there are ways we perpetuate it. So for me, Remake Learning is a way for everybody from every different vantage point to reflect and see how they’re perpetuating it and how they can change it.

And professional learning cuts across all of that. When you think about “remaking” something, taking the initiative to implement change, you have to have some do some learning along the way. The people operating the system need to learn, too. That’s what professional learning is.

So the question that professional learning helps to answer is how can we get better and smarter at what we do so we can do a better job getting children what they need?

Even beyond K-12, everybody should want to personally engage in professional learning, but what’s special about educators is that they have to do it, they’re obligated to. But we can all benefit from some kind of capacity-building to continue to move forward.

Professional Learning is a major investment, not only for school districts, but every entity that commits to supporting its staff and team. When we think about the millions of dollars that are spent on this, we need to make sure that what we’re doing is meaningful and makes it back to the people we’re trying to serve.

The Professional Learning Collaborative just got together for a summer happy hour. How did it go and what did you learn?

It went well. We had a nice mix of people come out, working group members, some teachers and others. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around the thematic approach for the Professional Learning Think Tank.

What’s the Professional Learning Think Tank?

Well, as we headed into the second year of the workgroup, it was really clear from my conversations with members that we needed to take a step back and take some time to reflect as staff developers. The Think Tank is an opportunity to do that. Over the next year, we’re going through a process to reflect and grow together.

The first session is Motivation, which will really be about reconnecting with the “why” and tapping into our inner selves and our purpose as staff developers.

Then Collaboration gives us an opportunity to work together in different ways. In the past, we’ve come in with an agenda, but by taking a step back and allowing people to network and find ways to collaborate that work for them, they’ll be able to tell us what they’re trying to get out of this process. It’s really about allowing the participants to lead. We’ll fuel that with a little bit of seed money to help people do some things they’ve wanted to do, but just needed the time and space to do them.

Then in Inspiration, we’re getting back to the root of our work, either by looking at a really high-functioning example or by working with kids. A lot of staff developers haven been out of the classroom and spending time with adults, but at the end of the day our role is to better serve kids.

Finally, in Creation we’ll bring it back around and create something that really reflects the learning of the workgroup, the network, and the region at large. We don’t know what this will be yet. It could be something scalable, like finding something that has worked and sharing it as a model. Or, it could be something that we build like a guide or resource.

Overall, the Think Tank is a way for us to think about ourselves as staff developers in a different way than we’ve done before.

Sounds like it will be a really important year for the Professional Learning Collaborative. How’d you get to this point?

What was important in the first year was trying to get to know the people in the work group, understand them and the work that they were doing. What came out of that were a few themes.

What do highly-effective professional learning systems look like? We worked with Sevenzo to look deeply into one example in the Sto-Rox school district.

Equity continues to be a focus and will be embedded and explicit in everything we do. As staff developers in the region and in the work group, we are still predominantly white, so that leads us to the question: are there people of color leading this? Equity is the role and responsibility of everybody. Education in general is a predominantly white institution, so we’re asking people to step up and be vocal about equity.

One question that I continually ask people I meet: how are you measuring impact? Often times, if they have any measures, it’s test scores. That’s great, but what was the intended impact at the outset? I haven’t seen answers to that yet.

Now, those were important themes for us to discover as a work group. But instead of us saying “here are the things we are going to do to address these issues,” we are going to have people reflect on themselves, the roots and origins of their work to figure out how we collectively answer those questions. A bottom-up approach to understand and make progress on these issues.

How could people learn more and get involved if they want to?

We want to continue to expand our work group. There are certain perceptions of the work group, Remake Learning, and education in general that exist. I want the work group to be open to different people being part of the experience, so as we think about this Motivation session that will kick off the Think Tank, we’ll have some people with experience in formal education space, but we’ll also have nontraditional perspectives. It’s important for us to be open and engage in those types of things.

I want people to think about and be very conscious of the question of “who’s missing?” Are there certain school districts, are there certain roles that aren’t represented in the room? For instance, teachers have mentioned that they have a role and importance in their own learning, so what are we doing to think about how teachers can play a role, and not just the recipients of training? Sometimes in these spaces, the people we are serving aren’t part of the conversation. How are we making sure that things are being done with people, not to them?

If people want to get involved, they can sign up for newsletter. That’s the best way to know what’s coming up next.

I’m also really looking forward to going to more professional development sessions, so I’d encourage people to let me know of a session that’s coming up that I can attend. I’ve been invited to lots of summer sessions and I’m looking forward to continuing that this fall.

Published August 20, 2019