Putting Professional Development into Practice: A Framework for How Teachers in Expeditionary Learning Schools Implement Professional Development

Article excerpt


The current small schools reform movement has increased the number of organizations seeking to change education with designs that require educators to rethink their understandings of curriculum, teaching, and learning (McDonald, Klein, & Riordan, 2009; Klein, 2008). The key to the success of these schools is how well the teachers can learn and implement the design, laying a heavy burden on the schools, or, the intermediary organization, to provide adequate professional development. Many of these organizations have invested heavily in professional development as a means of ensuring that the teaching in their schools is consistent with the vision of the organization. Although research highlights qualities of effective professional development, there is little research about how it is incorporated in teachers' curriculum and instruction and how organizations use professional development to implement their vision of schooling, while building new knowledge about teaching and learning (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). Many teachers report changes in their practice following professional development but those reports may not be reliable as further investigation demonstrates few deep level changes (Cohen, 1990; Loucks-Horsley, Love, Stiles, Mundry & Hewson, 2003; Weiss & Pasley, 2006).

This article presents findings about how teachers in one such educational organization, Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound (ELS), transformed professional development experiences into learning experiences for their students. We chose ELS because of its emphasis on professional development as a strategy for organizational success and because its professional development program embodies several distinct aspects that can affect teacher practice and student learning: coaching, training, extended time devoted to learning new content and pedagogy, and opportunities for reflection with peers (Killion, 1999). In 1999, the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) rated ELS as the only program to meet all 27 NSDC standards for staff development which made it a logical candidate when looking at professional development implementation (Killion, 1999).

ELS traces its roots back to the ideas of German-born educator, Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound1 wilderness programs. Hahn believed that moral development should accompany academic learning, and embraced a philosophy of impelling students into experiences that pushed them to discover their capabilities. Building on Hahn's Outward Bound philosophy, ELS promotes "rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship." (Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound, n.d.). ELS targets its professional development to developing teachers' pedagogy and assisting them in implementing community-based learning expeditions.

Significant to the organization's mission of teaching and learning, expeditions are "long-term investigations of important questions and subjects that include individual and group projects, field studies, and performances and presentations of student work" (Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound, n.d.). Expeditions, as described by ELS, are knowledge centered, learner centered, assessment centered, and community centered (Bransford & Darling-Hammond, 2005). We expected that as the core of its curricular design, PD related to expeditions would be an especially salient form of ELS's PD and would help us to see--or not--its reflection in teachers' practice.

We asked the following questions:

1. How do teachers narrate their experiences of ELS professional development?

2. How are ELS teachers' learning experiences reflected in curriculum and instruction via interviews and observable classroom practices?

3. What do these experiences offer us in terms of a framework for professional development implementation? …