Systems vs. Heaps

Fall 2014

By Lauren Porosoff

Imagine it's October, and so far you've dutifully attended four weekly faculty meetings. The first week, you listened to a speaker whom two of your colleagues saw at a community service conference over the summer.

Her 75-minute talk, which was already shaved down from a three-hour workshop, was further cut when the principal took 15 minutes to answer questions about new bus procedures. The next week's meeting was a discussion on whether the sixth-graders should be allowed to bring their backpacks to class, or whether that privilege should be reserved for seventh- and eighth-graders. Your colleagues with strong opinions argued while the rest read the news on their smartphones. The week after, the meeting began with a presentation from students in the environmental club who were hoping teachers might bring their classes to the school garden. Everyone enjoyed a piece of bread dipped in the pesto they'd made from basil they'd grown. The rest of that meeting was a training session on the new attendance software everyone was already expected to be using. People tried not to drip pesto on their computers. The week after that was supposed to be a workshop, run by the diversity coordinator, about how to help students choose Halloween costumes that don't perpetuate stereotypes. Unfortunately, the diversity coordinator went home sick that day, so the workshop was postponed until the next available faculty meeting, in February.

That was just your Tuesday afternoon full-faculty meeting schedule. On alternate Thursdays, you meet with your department. You usually go over purchase orders, hear new mandates from the principal, and complain about the Common Core. The other Thursdays, you meet with your grade-level team, usually to discuss students who need extra help, but lately your team has spent all its time planning an overnight trip.

Do you see the through line? No? You're not alone.

Professional Development Units

Linda Booth Sweeney, in When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Stories,1 offers a helpful distinction between a "system" — where the whole has properties the parts don't — and a "heap." Imagine that after a long day at school, you discover that the car you drove to work has been disassembled into a heap of parts. Even though every single part is sitting there in your parking space, the heap won't get you home. While a system is put together in a way that achieves a purpose, a heap is purposeless. In my experience, most faculty meeting schedules are heaps.

In the curriculum we write for our classrooms, it makes a difference when the parts — content, skills, and assessments — fit together for a purpose. Neurologist-turned-teacher Judy Willis, in her 2011 Edutopia article, "Three Brain-Based Teaching Strategies to Build Executive Function in Students,"2points out that students are motivated to learn when they can envision the end product of their learning and can connect each class to a meaningful goal. She also explains that students better retain ideas and skills when those ideas make sense in an overall context. In order for students to feel motivated to learn, and to learn in a way that will last and transfer, the unit must have coherence. It must be aligned — like the parts of a car — in order to take the students where we want them to go.

What's true for the students is just as true for the teachers. Teachers, too, need the content of faculty meetings to fit together for a purpose. Teachers, too, are motivated when they can envision a clear end product of all those meetings and connect each meeting to a meaningful goal. Teachers, too, better retain ideas and skills when they make sense in a context. In order for teachers to feel motivated to learn, and to learn in a way that will last, their professional development must be a purposeful, coherent system.

Essential Questions for Professional Development

One method for turning the heap of meetings into a system is to use essential questions. A good essential question - for students or for faculty — successfully serves these three functions:

Directs attention to what's most important.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe3 define a question as "essential" if it represents "important questions that recur throughout all our lives," points to "core ideas and inquiries," or helps us "make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how" (emphasis added). Just as they do for students, essential questions can show teachers what professional development topics are most important — based on the values of the school or district.

Piques genuine curiosity.

Students might become interested if a question relates to their lived experiences and addresses a real-world problem that matters to them. A question will hold teachers' interest if it feels relevant to their lives in the classroom. If our curriculum doesn't genuinely interest our students, either they resist by behaving badly or not showing up at all or they passively comply, doing the bare minimum to get the grades they want. Teachers aren't much different. 

Focuses the leader (the teacher of a classroom or principal of a school) so he or she knows what belongs in the unit and what doesn't.

As curriculum specialist Heidi Hayes Jacobs4 puts it, an essential question is "a pragmatic conceptual commitment that frames what you will teach and what you will leave out." In the classroom, an essential question is a commitment to focused, purposeful learning. An essential question about faculty professional development is the principal's commitment to focused, purposeful learning for teachers.

Essential Questions for Professional Development Units

The "essential" questions a school asks depend on that school's values, as articulated in the standards, mission, charter, and/or strategic plan the school follows. Here are a few examples, based on values my school has documented, to show what questions with values-suggesting, interest-piquing, PD-focusing potential might look like:
  • What can our lower and middle school teachers learn from each other?
  • How can we design a school schedule that reflects our school's values?
  • How can we all take responsibility for making sure our students become effective writers?
  • What technologies will best serve our curricular purposes?
  • How can we make sure our curriculum acknowledges multiple experiences and perspectives within and beyond our school?
One of the best ways to invite teachers to participate fully in meetings — to be psychologically present rather than merely physically present for the work — is to ask them what they would value learning. Polling teachers through a survey or town hall could help the principal decide what question to use. Even without teachers' input into what the question is, sustained and purposeful work with any question that directly affects teaching and learning will feel worthwhile to teachers who care about their students and classes. It's the "heap" approach that feels meaningless and leads to burnout.
Using Essential Questions

Here's what a values-congruent meeting schedule, rooted in an essential question, might look like:

Essential Question

How can we make sure our curriculum acknowledges multiple experiences and perspectives within and beyond our school?
Week 1

Meeting: Presentations of lessons, assignments, and units that are exemplars of multicultural curriculum. Teachers have time to ask questions.

Leader(s): principal
Week 2

Preparation: Read Sonia Nieto's chapter on "Adapting Curriculum for Multicultural Classrooms" from Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education1

Meeting: Department discussions guided by the question, "Based on what we learned from the Nieto article, what would it look like to adapt the curriculum in our subject area for your multicultural classroom?"

Leader(s): department chairs
Week 3

Preparation: Bring an assignment you'll be giving in the next few weeks.

Meeting: Assignment-writing workshop guided by the question, "Based on what we learned from the Nieto article, how can we make sure this assignment better acknowledges multiple experiences and perspectives?"

Leader(s): members of the diversity committee
Week 4

Preparation: Continue working on your assignment.

Meeting: Form triads. With the support of the two colleagues in your triad, continue working on designing assignments that better acknowledge multiple experiences and perspectives.

Leader(s): members of the diversity committee
Week 5

Preparation: Observe the lessons of your two colleagues in your triad and be observed by these colleagues.

Meeting: Post-observation conferences in triads, guided by the question, "How can we learn from each other so we all better acknowledge multiple experiences and perspectives in our classrooms?"

Leader(s): members of the diversity committee
Week 6

Preparation: Complete a self-assessment, guided by the question, "How have you grown in your capacity to acknowledge multiple experiences and perspectives in your classroom?"

Meeting: Based on the results of the self-assessment, form professional learning communities that will meet periodically over the course of the year to share experiences, observe each other's lessons, and review each other's assignments in order to continue the work around multicultural curriculum design.

Leader(s): principal
1. Sonia Nieto and Patty Bode, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, 5th Edition, Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008.

Creating a Purposeful, Coherent Meeting Schedule

Now let's imagine that you're a principal at a school where an identified priority is creating a more inclusive curriculum. An essential question you might use to frame a six-week PD unit might be, "How can we make sure our curriculum acknowledges multiple experiences and perspectives within and beyond our school?" This question shows your staff what matters most to you. It might pique teachers' interest — if they care about creating rich learning experiences that reflect their students' lives. Perhaps most important, the question reminds you that if a topic doesn't relate to multicultural curriculum development, it doesn't belong in a faculty meeting — at least, not for the duration of this unit.

Six weeks isn't enough time to finish learning about multicultural curriculum design. Any meaningful professional development won't be "finished" after a period of six weeks, or a year, or more, because teachers are always in the process of better understanding themselves and refining their craft. Still, there will always be multiple important priorities at a school, and no unit can (or should) last forever. After some reasonable period of time spent on a professional development unit, the teachers would move on to another unit and regularly return to the skills they've learned. After the multicultural curriculum design unit, teachers might turn their attention to, say, technology in the classroom — but perhaps they'd work together in the same groups, and they might spend time during the technology unit discussing how to use online tools as a means of including more student voices and experiences in their classrooms. Even after a unit is over, the work would continue to be woven through the year, much like we make sure we return to important topics with our students.

Also, at any school, issues will pop up that need immediate attention. Structuring faculty meetings on essential questions doesn't mean the school can't respond to emergent concerns. A safety issue certainly should trump whatever was planned; after Hurricane Sandy hit, my school's next faculty meeting agenda was rightly changed so we could discuss how to support our kids. Concerns that don't involve safety can often go into an email, or the principal or head can deliberately reserve time for announcements about day-to-day operations. The point is for principals and heads to protect the most-valued agenda and not let less important concerns hijack meeting time.

Other features of a good professional development unit include:

In-house leadership

"Professional development" is sometimes code for "let's sit and listen to a speaker who's getting paid more for this hour than we are paid for the week." Schools often have a wealth of untapped expertise right under their roofs — use it! Principals can make clear that these particular teachers are getting leadership roles because their expertise connects to a stated priority in the school (as reflected in an essential question that merits ongoing inquiry). When the unit changes, different teachers with different expertise can lead.

Varied instructional methods

We know our students don't learn well from lecture, so why do we think our colleagues do? Even if an attractive slide deck accompanies the lecture, it's still a lecture. Good professional development takes a variety of forms — not only to reach and engage all kinds of adult learners, but because different methods will lend themselves to different kinds of learning. These methods might include:
  • Make-and-take workshops
  • Peer observations
  • Toolbox shares
  • Gallery walks
  • Mini-classes by and for faculty
  • Critical friends protocols to analyze student work, teacher-made assignments, or teaching dilemmas
  • Discussions
  • Speakers
  • Readings

Varied groupings

Common ways to group teachers are by grade level and by subject area, and, certainly, these groupings are important ways for teachers to collaborate. Other ways to group teachers for professional development include their background or comfort level with the topic under discussion, their affinities with regard to social identifiers such as race and gender, and their interest in specific subtopics.

Fostering a Vibrant Faculty Community

When I started working at my school and was reviewing the details of the job with my department chair, she told me that the faculty met every week. I was so excited to hear it — and she thought I was being sarcastic! No, I explained; I was thrilled to get a weekly opportunity to learn and create with my colleagues. At the time, I didn't know why she gave me a knowing sigh. When my new colleagues come to work, I don't want them to get those same sighs. I want them to feel like they're joining a vibrant community, where teachers are excited to undertake sustained, purposeful work together. To wrestle with hard questions that affect our teaching. To argue respectfully about the issues that matter most. To be the community of lifelong learners that so many school missions describe. That kind of community, however magical it might feel, isn't magic at all. It takes the work of dedicated school leaders who are willing and able to design the kinds of experiences for their faculty that they demand for their students.


1. Linda Booth Sweeney, When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Stories. Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications, 2001.

2.Judy Willis, "Three Brain-Based Teaching Strategies to Build Executive Function in Students" (Part 4 of 7). Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.

3. Grant P. Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005 (p. vii, 3, 18, 105, 108-110).

4. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, "Interdisciplinary Learning in Your Classroom: Implementation." Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2004. Web. 04 June 2013.
Lauren Porosoff

Lauren Porosoff has been a teacher for 15 years and has served as a diversity coordinator and a grade-level team leader. She consults with teachers and administrators on designing curriculum and professional development. Lauren is the author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2014).