By Lois Brown Easton
Reviewed by Michael Fisher
Instructional Coach and Consultant (New York)
Teacher Leaders Network
I appreciate the opportunity to read and review Lois Brown Easton’s book on Professional Learning Protocols. It is a book that I know will have an impact on my own practice as a staff developer, and I’ve already used and shared many ideas from the text.
Because I work with schools helping teachers to set up Professional Learning Networks, both in-house and digitally, this book is specifically geared to my work with fellow educators. Many times, when I go into schools, teachers have not had much of an opportunity to meet in collegial groups, and they are satisfied with the “island mentalities” they have been allowed to cultivate over many years. This leads to not only missed opportunities, but also to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of constantly being under attack for failing to do this or that.
Easton’s career includes 15 years as a teacher, and long service as a curriculum leader and professional developer in Arizona and Colorado, including work with the Coalition of Essential Schools. In her introduction, she promises that through the use of protocols, teacher communities can “achieve trust and create a culture that is essential for collaborative work on issues of substance.” Schools can’t wait for a perfect culture to begin using protocols, she says. Instead, “it is through their use that the culture will develop and trust will emerge.”
Protocols, Easton tells us, are:
• Processes that help groups achieve deep understanding through dialogue.Over the course of six chapters, Easton then explores the whats and whys of protocols and how they can be put to use to examine student work and professional practice, to address learning issues and problems, and to promote effective professional discussions. Each chapter describes various protocols in step-by-step detail. (See sample chapters here.)
• Structures for groups that allow them to explore ideas deeply through student work, artifacts of educator practice, texts relating to education, or problems and issues that surface during the day-to-day lives of educators.
• Guidelines for conversation based on norms that everyone agrees upon in order to make the dialogue safe and effective.
• A facilitated set of steps which everyone understands and has agreed to that permits a kind of conversation that people don't usually have when they discuss things.
• A constructivist approach to discussion that allows for deep development of ideas as certain people talk while others listen and then the talkers listen and the listeners talk, with each round characterized by reflection and exploration.
• A way for educators to build collaborative communities, sometimes called critical friends groups (CFGs) or professional learning communities (PLCs).
The protocols in this book help to inspire the atmosphere and culture of trust and collegiality that is necessary to open and maintain conversations among teachers. When there is a framework of understanding, and a foundation of value for everyone’s participation and unique voice, it helps everyone move forward.
Besides the great examples she describes, Easton creates a defining framework around protocols and how they should be used. This supplies teachers and meeting leaders with detailed tools from which they can choose to facilitate different types of gatherings, whether the purpose is to share ideas, analyze a specific problem, or deal with something unpleasant in an honest but supportive way.
I especially liked that the author included a section on protocols to use with students. I am always being asked what I think about the peer review or peer collaboration process and what resources I have. Using protocols is a perfect way to examine, review, revise and discuss student work. The protocols listed facilitate both student to student interactions and teacher to student interactions.
This book also contains protocols for examining professional practice and for addressing issues and problems. Out of these, I found the Success Analysis protocol to be immediately useful, and have used it several times in professional development recently with wildly successful results. In fact, I just proposed to another staff developer that she may want to include a reference in her new book to this particular tool, as the content she is writing about is quite conducive to using protocols.
Overall, I see Protocols for Professional Learning as very necessary to the field and unique in its delivery. It’s short (70 pp.) and to the point and written in such a way as to be immediately useful to practitioners, be they teachers or administrators. It could also be useful, in part, to students, as they construct ways to be mutually supportive but also understand that all voices are necessary and needed. I was impressed and excited by what I read, and look forward to more from Lois Brown Easton and ASCD’s Professional Learning Community series.