Learning Bets
Chapter: Emerging Insights

Factors that Should Inform Choices of “Learning Bets”

When we invited all those experts, researchers and practitioners to the Roundtable on teacher development, we (naively?) imagined we would extract from them agreement on which learning bets are the best way to grow great teachers. 

However, (as the spectra exercises in Section 4 illustrated) we found instead divergent perspectives among those experts.  Ben Jensen from Australia emphasizes collective learning in the school context.  Romana from Teach For India is leaning into teacher mindsets through experiences and reflection.  Mike from MATCH starts with foundational skills that come through tactical practice.  Others made a compelling case for complex-scenario,  content-contextualized practice alongside meta-cognitive coaching.   

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-9-46-09-amSometimes these different perspectives were compatible with each other, but in many cases they seemed flatly contradictory.

And yet, the more we reflect on all we heard and learned from these experts, the more clear it is that we had been asking ourselves the wrong question.  The right question is not “What are the best learning bets to grow teach
ers?” but is instead “What factors should inform an organization’s choices among learning bets to grow teachers?”

While these experts and practitioners are making different (and sometimes contradictory) learning bets in their training and support programs, they are all considering the same set of factors to inform those choices. 

Programs that produce strong teachers are aligning their learning theory to fundamental elements of their organization’s identity, to a few universal best practices of teacher development, and to the practical realities of their training and support programs. . . in that order.

Here’s a visualization of the factors that seem to be informing learning bets in organizations that are producing a large number of strong teachers:screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-9-51-55-am

The following pages explore each of these factors that should influence the learning theory we employ in our training and support programs. 


Fundamental Questions of Organizational Identity Should Influence Our Learning Bets

How we expect our teachers to learn should align with our organization’s WHY (central purposes), with its WHO (the people we are bringing into the program), and with its WHAT (the knowledge, skills, and mindsets we need our  teacher to attain. 

In the following sections, we will explore each of these three elements of organizational identity and their implications for learning theory.


screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-2-38-56-pmTHE WHY

Our Programs’ PURPOSE Can & Should Inform Our Learning Bets

Imagine a few different teacher development programs, with three different ultimate purposes.  (These different purposes were represented by various attendees at the Roundtable).screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-1-04-54-pm

Recall the various axes of choices we explored earlier.  How would aligning to these different purposes lead a program to different choices on those axes? 

For example, the clearly and narrowly localized aim of Purpose A might put a premium on tactical skill-building through practicing with that school district’s scripted curriculum.  Meanwhile, program designers aspiring to Purpose B should probably lean toward context-grounded learning, and bet on intensive content-centered teaching practice with metacognitive coaching (that allows teacher candidates to adjust to different curricula). 

Purpose C and Purpose D are closer to the aims that most programs in the Teach For All network aspire to.  What are some of the implications of using those purposes to inform our learning bets?

Here are examples of the considerations we have heard from partner organizations who are committing to align how they grow their teachers to the ultimate “why” of their organizations:

  • If our purpose is to produce entrepreneurial leaders, should our  training and support model be much more learner-driven (instead of so organization-directed as it is now)?
  • If our purpose is to build a movement of alumni working collectively to effect systemic change, perhaps we need to design a much more interdependent culture and “collective” learning for our incoming teacher-learners?  Is our current model imprinting on our teachers an individualistic approach to learning and leadership that is inhibiting their collective action as alumni?

What would change in HOW you grow teachers if those choices were even more aligned to the WHY of your organization?

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-2-43-45-pmTHE WHO

Our TEACHER-LEARNERS Can & Should Inform Our Learning Bets

Virtually all of the experts, practitioners, and researchers we have engaged on the question of teacher development have shared a concern that the education sector—and each of our respective programs—does a poor job of considering the unique learning profiles, cultural identities, backgrounds, and perspectives of its learners.

At the Roundtable Dr. Adrienne Dixson and Dr. Todd Rose, in different ways, challenged us to much better align our learning bets to WHO we have coming into our program. 

Dr. Rose (as he explores in his must-read book The End of Average) revealed how often we design learning experiences to a mythical “average”—an imagined “middle” that we think is within reach of everyone but is actually not ideal for anyone. screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-2-44-01-pm

Dr. Dixson challenged us to recognize how often that “middle” is actually a way of imposing and reinforcing privileged cultural norms and paradigms that may significantly alienate some or many of our teacher-learners. 

“Whom do we imagine as the teacher? We have to talk about who we’re imagining because in many ways that shapes and informs both the structure and the what,” Dr. Dixson said.

For many in the room, this challenge seemed to resonate deeply, especially as programs across Teach For All are working hard to recruit and select teachers who share the background of the students the programs are working with.  Among the questions we have heard program leaders asking are:

  • If we are aspiring to attract and support more teachers who share the backgrounds, experiences, and identities of the students we teach, how are assumptions we make about how people learn reflecting majority paradigms that implicitly devalue our teacher-learners?
  • How much are we undermining our learning bets in the name of efficiency by “designing to the middle”?  What if we acknowledged the variation in time, context, and learner profiles that are inhibiting the growth of many of our teachers—and that they then pass on to their students?
  • If we are recruiting many learners who have grown up with some degree of privilege, how are our learning bets perpetuating that privilege and inhibiting student learning because they are failing to help our teachers see that not all learners learn the same way they do?
  • Are we clear enough on the knowledge, skills and/or mindsets that our teacher-learners bring into our programs?  Can/should we select for different knowledge, skills and/or mindsets in ways that could inform our learning bets

What would change in HOW your program grows teachers if it took more seriously WHO is coming into your program?

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-2-52-57-pmTHE WHAT

How Our Frameworks of KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS & MINDSETS Can & Should Inform Learning Bets

As we virtually toured dozens of teacher development models, we discovered that the teacher-performance frameworks for successful programs are often significantly different.  Some frameworks are built only on teacher actions—some with a few actions, and some with long lists of actions.  Other frameworks are more holistic, defining teacher performance in terms of thematic bundles of knowledge, skills and mindsets.  Consider how aligning learning bets to these different “knowledge-skills-mindsets” models could lead to different design choices:screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-2-54-04-pm

Aligning learning bets to Framework A would involve lots of role-play style practice of atomized tactics that are observed, deconstructed, and re-practiced.  Aligning learning bets to Framework B might also involve significant practice, but with more emphasis on debriefing what’s going on in the teacher-learner’s mind as she attempts to employ complex bundles of knowledge, skills and mindsets.

Meanwhile, Framework C’s broad web of knowledge, skills and mindsets might call for more varied learning bets over the course of a teacher’s learning experience.  And Framework D’s emphasis on “self” and collective action probably suggests learning bets more centered in relationships and disorienting experiences and reflection, all in a culture of interdependence among teacher-learners.  (Of course, generally speaking Frameworks C and D are more like what we tend to see across the Teach For All Network.)

Here are some of the questions we are hearing program leaders explore as they think about the alignment of their learning bets to their frameworks of knowledge, skills, and mindsets?

  • If our teacher performance model emphasizes mindsets as strongly as skills, should our learning bets be more diversified?  Are our learning bets too centered around skill building (practice, etc.) at the expense of mindsets (disorienting experiences, relationships, and reflection)?
  • Should we think more about the “scope and sequence” of when and how we build the knowledge, skills, and mindsets and how our learning bets need to change from pre-service institute training through our in-service support model?

What would change about HOW your program grows teachers if it even more fully aligned those choices to the WHAT (the framework of knowledge, skills and mindsets you want to see in teachers) of your program?


Best Practices Should Influence Our Learning Bets

Next, how we expect our teachers to learn should be informed by some BEST PRACTICES, some basic concepts of ADULT LEARNING THEORY, and by cultural and systemic LEARNING ENABLERS in our organizations.   The following section will explore each of these elements and their implications for our learning bets.


screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-14-19-pmBEST BETS

Metacognition & Practice

As mentioned earlier, we came into the Roundtable seeking to find the  “answer” to the question “what learning bets best grow great teachers?” But we came away perplexed by the disagreements among those luminaries on that question.

While that realization led us to shift our focus from universally “right” answers to the factors that inform divergent choices, we are also seeing at least two learning bets that are so common among high-performing teacher development models that we can consider them universally “right” answers. 

If your program is not betting on metacognitive and on practice, you probably need to rethink your approach.

Metacognitive Awareness of Learning

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-15-40-pmDespite the haze of disagreements among experts about different learning bets we see consistent agreement that a program’s learning bets should be clear and explicit for the sake of the program’s learners.  That is, the assumptions we are making about how we will grow our teachers has to be part of our conversations with those teachers. 

Not surprisingly, this is also a pattern we see in the most transformational  classrooms around the globe: in the strongest classrooms we have studied, teachers are having conversations with students about learning itself.  These metacognitive engagements happen more often in our strongest classrooms than in other classrooms—and much more often in those strong classrooms than in our teacher development programs.  Students are growing their awareness of how they best learn in different contexts, and taking ownership of their own learning.

For those of us who are designing a teacher development program, this means making clear to incoming teacher-learners what our learning bets are and building their awareness about how they best learn and can get the most out of the learning bets we are making.  Examples of questions we are hearing program designers ask themselves in light of this “best bet” are:

  • Would our teachers be more inclined to help students grow their understanding of how they best learn if we helped our teachers grow their understanding of how they best learn?
  • Are we not more explicit with our teacher-learners about the learning bets we are making because are not clear enough on what those bets are ourselves?
  • Would we select (and see better self-selection) into our program if we were more clear and explicit about how we help our teacher-learners learn?
  • Should we think more about the “scope and sequence” of when and how we build the knowledge, skills, and mindsets and how our learning bets need to change from institute through our in-service support model?

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-16-50-pmIn what ways would HOW you grow your teachers be different if your program engaged more explicitly with your teacher-learners about the learning bets you are making?

Practice—All the Way to Automaticity

The importance of meaningful practice is a second critical area where all these experts—despite other significant differences—seemed to be in complete agreement.

Behind all these different learning bets is a principle that intensely practicing some elements of teaching so that they become “automatic” helps create mental space to engage with the deeper more difficult judgments and mindsets of great teaching. 
Here’s how Doug Lemov—whose new book Practice Perfect is a great exploration of this principle—put it:

You are always trying to master more things than you can consciously think about while you are teaching. And so some of the things that you have to execute on have to be ingrained in habit; you have to do them without thinking about them or they won’t happen or that in order for them to happen, they will drive out every other conscious thought.

Among the questions we are seeing program designers and teachers ask themselves as they consider the implications of the “Best Bet” of practice include:

  • If we recognize that teaching is ultimately a performance task, are we depending too heavily on reading and watching as learning bets? screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-18-03-pm
  • How could we rearrange our institute to ensure that our teacher-learners are on their feet practicing much, much more?

What changes might you make to HOW your program grows teachers if you emphasized practicing some elements of teaching to the point they are automatic, in order to create mental space to focus on the difficult judgments on real-time classroom leadership?



screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-34-29-pmBASICS OF LEARNING THEORY

Knowledge Is Grown Differently from Skills, Which Are Grown Differently from Mindsets

Another source of best practices that should inform learning bets is fundamental principles of learning theory.  While the intricacies of different learning theories can be overwhelming, a few basic tenets are critically important to keep in mind as we design learning experiences for our teachers:   


Too often, we (and many across the education landscape) pursue a set of objectives with the wrong underlying theory. 

The following reflection from Steven Farr, who served as head of training and support for a number of years at Teach For America, captures the risks of conflating and mixing learning theories:

For a number of years, as the Teaching As Leadership rubric was developed at Teach For America, our focus was on skill development. We deconstructed exemplary and non-exemplary examples, we atomized complexity, we practiced, we checked for understanding with performance.  For all our faults, we could definitely grow the skills of lesson planning, or management.

As we employed our teacher action rubrics, we began to recognize the need to work on mindsets alongside skills.  We studied strong classrooms and identified key mindsets undergirding their success:  growth mindsets, locus of control, high expectations, etc.

And that’s where things got funky. . .

Because our theory of development was not explicit and intentional, we didn’t think about learning bets when we added those mindsets to the list of things we were trying to grow.  We then applied the same learning bets that we used for knowledge and skills to those mindsets. . .and created a real mess.   You can’t have someone read about mindsets and grown them (like you can do with some forms of knowledge).  And you can’t have someone “practice” mindsets and grown them (like you can do with some forms of skills).  Mindsets require a different set of learning bets than skills: relationships, experiences, and reflection.  For a couple years we struggled through the frustration of misalignment between our objectives and our learning theory.

Among the questions we are hearing from partner organizations as they ponder these different theories of learning are:

  • Would our institute be more effective if—in addition to the work we do to design the objectives, we asked ourselves what learning theory best applies to those objectives, which are in fact a hodge poodle of knowledge, skills, and mindsets?
  • Do we have systems and structures in place in our program that actually inhibit mindset development, given its dependence on relationships, disorienting experiences, and reflection?

In what ways would HOW your program grows teachers change if you better aligned your knowledge, skill, and mindset objectives to their respective learning theories?

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-50-35-pmLEARNING ENABLERS

Learning Bets Only Flourish in Organizations With Certain Cultures and Systems

As we interrogated leaders of successful teacher development programs about learning bets, a set of patterns emerged that   we at first had a hard time categorizing.  We certainly didn’t see these coming.  It seems that there are some organizational conditions—here we are calling them “learning enablers”—that while not exactly learning bets themselves, are conditions that maximize the impact of learning bets.

So far, we have identified four of these “enablers,” each of which we will explore below: screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-51-57-pm

Prioritization: Fewer Bets Done Well

A number of the program leaders we have engaged described the same pattern in similar ways:  “for a while we tried to do a little bit of everything, but now we are making more progress by narrowing down our learning bets. “

Tim Daly shared the experience of the New Teacher Project:

For years we used to cover a broad array of topics because we thought we needed to equip folks with everything. But we couldn’t go in much depth. In general we found that our teachers weren’t any different from their peers, and sometimes they started off worse and they caught up when we had less to do with them rather  than when we were with them.

And now, with its FastStart program, TNTP is shifting course by narrowing down to a small number of core skills, dramatically increasing practice time, and deselecting candidates who are not progressing well enough.

For Tim Daly, the power of prioritization is not only a matter of effectiveness but also of organizational learning:

I think we just have to say “let’s just lay a bet.”  It may not be the right bet, but let’s just commit, rather than try to do a bunch of different things in a kind of a low intensity or not very deliberate way.  Then it is quite possible that if we explored all the pathways, we might find out the one we bet on is not the best, but I think we felt like what we had been doing before was trying to do a bit of everything.

Meanwhile, Morva MacDonald, representing the University of Washington and very different learning bets, also emphasized her program’s commitment to do a few things well:

Why four practices?  It actually goes back to what to something Tim said which is you can’t teach everything to people as they are beginning to teach. You don’t actually have enough time so you do have to make some hard decisions about what you should focus on. It’s helpful to have a common language. I want teachers in our programs be able to talk to each other about the work of teaching. You want the core practice to be something you can practice and teach.

Across the board, the strongest teacher development models suggest that we make more progress doing a few, purposeful things well than trying to do a little bit of everything. 

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-3-54-00-pmAnd yet, we are hearing from a number of partner organizations in the Teach For All network that they are struggling with a large and unwieldy number of learning bets.  Teacher are expected to learn by reading, and by watching, and by practicing, and by discovering, and through technical coaching, and through disorienting experiences—all at once. 

Several program leaders have described that their programs have over several years only added new “learning bets” to their programs until the program becomes an unwieldy and sometimes internally inconsistent experience for teacher-learners.

Public-ness: A Culture of Welcomed Critical Friendship in Classrooms

Every teacher development expert that joined us—even as they often disagreed with each other about what “learning bets” are best—was aligned in their conviction that the act of teaching must be PUBLIC. 

Jennifer Green of the Urban Teacher Center described her own program this way:

One bit of feedback I get that I appreciate is that our people are humble and they feel like their work can always improve.  And that’s what we work on but I don’t work on it in a theoretical way, I work on it by beating you to death about it.  Your practice is always public.  That’s notion one.  Our practice is public in support of kids.

Over and over, our guest experts and our leaders from across the network emphasized the importance of public practice—and our tendency to slide into the culture of “privacy” around teaching:

  • Ben Jensen from Australia’s Learning First: If a good teacher is plateauing after two years then they have stopped improving through experience. By themselves, they are not getting better.  What we’re learning suggests that we need to share and process teaching together.  This would be SO powerful.  We are a corps of teachers publicly working on our practice, naming it, making it explicit.
  • Esther Drake, from Teach For America: I LOVE the recurring emphasis on public practice—it’s a beautiful departure from an individualistic culture.  Close-the-door teaching was my experience.  My own act of teaching was my individual act.
  • Morva McDonald, from University of Washington: We want to make practice public. Why? Because we want to leverage participation because if you sit and think about it on your own you actually don’t get enough perspective on the problem in front of you. So, we want to open up the practice of teaching.

Leigh Kincaid from Teach For All brought this point home by pointing out how the “public act of teaching and learning” drives improvement at every level of our work:

     Fear or fear of failure also seems to be massively at play so I was struck by this idea . . . around “making practice public” at every level: 

    • At the org / program level: The value of being explicit and “making public” whatever your bet is and why. This was clearly a theme. I may not agree with all TNTP’s bets but I sure as hell do respect their bravery in declaring their bets and commitment to follow them through so publicly. 
    • And at the teacher level: Tim Daly talked about this phenomenon of teachers often not having an accurate sense of their performance or growth even if “they were told otherwise” by an administrator. It made me think of Morva’s push on communities of practice that regularly see each others’ work and share their own as critical friends
    • And at the coaching level: Ellen had a moment of saying she “sometimes wonders what coaches  are actually saying when they close the doors.” So I thought about the need to do more to support coaches as the ones who actually place the bets. The value of “making practice public” seems very relevant for them too.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-4-08-29-pmUnfortunately, a culture of “privacy” seems to pervade classroom teaching around the globe.  In every country we have asked about, teacher development programs are working against an implicit assumption that it’s personally invasive for teachers to observe each other or be observed.

[A random aside from Steven Farr:  I was introduced to that culture of privacy as a first year teacher in a funny (maybe?) way.  When my university-based coach came to observe me in my first-year as a teacher, she apologized for having to watch me teach.  “Teaching is the second-most personal act,”  she said. True story. Back then, I thought that was just pretty awkward.  Today i think it is absolutely ludicrous—and damaging to the learning of teachers and students.]

As Teach For All’s Leigh Kincaid paints so clearly, recognizing that teaching must be public is what drives teacher learning. If we take away the sheepishness about watching and learning from each other’s practice, we can all learn and grow faster for the sake of our students–and we will be modeling exactly what we are asking of our students.  Let’s trust each other to see failure as an opportunity to learn, and let’s grow together.

Professionalism: High Expectations of Teacher-Learners

Another “enabler” of learning bets that recurs in our conversations with leaders of strong teacher development programs is a commitment to treat their teacher-learners as professionals who are expected to work hard, perform well, and to varying degrees drive their own learning. 

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-4-37-40-pmAn element of that professionalism seems to be a focus on results more than process.  That is, teacher candidates are evaluated not on how much time they spend learning but whether students are growing.

The implication is that we make different learning bets when we think of our learners as professionals with powerful assets to leverage for the sake of students, versus “empty vessels” that we need to fill with knowledge and skills and mindsets.

An interesting sub-current of this “professionalism” principle seems to be a growing trend to “counsel out” more teacher candidates earlier, if those teacher candidates are not growing on a pace that will make them ready for their students. 

The New Teacher Project, the Urban Teacher Center and some of the Teach For All partners are thinking more and more about “off ramps” right before the transition from pre-service training to classroom teaching.  The The New Project removes roughly 1/4th of its teacher-learners after summer training, for example.

This is proving to be a highly charged conversation, with some of our colleagues arguing passionately that we must believe in the ability of all of our teachers to grow into the leaders we need them to be for the sake of their students—just like we ask them to do with their students.  Others argue that “de-selecting” our teacher-learners does not mean that those candidates cannot learn to become great teachers but that our unique theory of development is not a good fit for them.  And that “de-selecting” more teachers is the best thing we can do for our students.

If we accept that there will always be some degree of unpredictability in our selection model, who should bear the burden of that unpredictability?  Children when we put teachers who are not growing quickly enough in classrooms?  Or adults when we deny someone a classroom despite considerable effort in our preservice training?

Progress: Investigating What Learning Bets Are Working

Another “enabler” of intentional learning bets is a culture of learning in an organization.  While some organizations are doing a good job learning about the teacher actions and mindsets that are drive student growth, few if any are learning about learning—investigating whether particular learning bets are having more or less impact on teacher development.

At multiple points in the discussions and debates among experts and Teach For All leaders, the “medical sector” was brought up as a model of well-curated learning.  The medical field has many people performing research about what works, well-respected clearing-houses of studies and insights that help the field decide what to act on, and well-developed mechanism for sharing innovations that work. 

Why don’t we have a similarly robust system of learning in education?

Radha Ruparell, who works on learning and leadership development at Teach For All, shared this reflection after this discussions:

I think we can be more rigorous in our approach to taking bets. There are entire movements out there now around “lean experimentation” that help provide a methodology for how to make bets. I think there is so much we can learn from these. For example, being: (a) really explicit about the bet you’re making (b) laying out a clear hypothesis that you’re going to test (c) having an explicit timeframe in which you will test that and a bar by which you will measure if that has been successful or failed (d) process to make a decision to pivot and change course. While we have explored this a bit with our learning org work, I still don’t think we’re great at working on bets/experiments in a structured way particularly around (d) changing course when we fail. I was struck by something that Ted Quinn said about coaching experiments they ran at TFA where, even when the results suggested they should abandon their approach, no one wanted to do it. I believe it’s because we need to invest in building a culture and processes around experimentation/bet-making that we don’t have yet, and part of this is creating a culture where failure and pivots are accepted as important parts of the process.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-4-44-21-pmscreen-shot-2016-10-20-at-4-44-27-pm“Learning Enablers,” In Summary

Our inquiry into learning bets is revealing that certain commitments by, and cultural aspects of, organizations make   learning bets work: screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-4-47-10-pm

Reflecting on these “learning enablers” is leading a number of program designers across the Teach For All network to pursue some difficult questions:

  • How much is our frequent addition of new learning initiatives costing us in teacher and student growth because we are “throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks” instead of building expertise in few areas?
  • How are we challenging the prevailing culture of privacy in education that is inhibiting learning among and by teachers?
  • How should we “counsel out” teachers who are not growing well enough to serve their students?
  • How can we infuse systems and rituals of learning in our organization that will help us know which learning bets are working?

In what ways would HOW your program is designed change if you it took more seriously these “learning enablers” that maximize the impact of your learning bets?


Practical Realities Should, Eventually, Influence Learning Bets


A final lesson from high performing teacher development programs is that consideration of practical realities—like how far away a program’s teachers are from each other, or how many coaches a program has, or the relationships with a university partner—must be considered for their influence on a program’s learning bets.  AND, that we must consider those considerations after we use the other two families of factors.  Organization Identity and Best Practices should first determine what learning bets we would ideally make, and then we consider practical realities to see what must be compromised. 

We too often let the logistical constraints of time, place and resources be the primary factor determining our learning bets.  We can often change those “constraints” more than we realize.  So, along with elements of organization identity and best practices, practical realities must inform our learning bets, but they can’t be the first and only driver of those choices.

Among the questions we are hearing partners grapple with are:

  • If we ideally would have more collective-learning to align with our organization’s purpose, can we change how we place teachers to all them to work together more?
  • With more clarity about the learning bets we want to make to align to organization identities and to the best practices, can we change the negotiations we are having with our university partners?

What would change in HOW your program grows teachers if practical realities related to when and where learning happens were considered after other factors influencing learning bets, and your program determined to change some of those practical realities if necessary?

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