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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 8

When Teachers Drive Their Learning

In one rural school district, teacher-led professional development is not an impossible dream.

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Imagine a school that allows each teacher to choose the area of teaching he or she most wants to grow in, provides time during contract hours to study best practices in that area, and then rewards that teacher for improving his or her teaching skills. This vision of professional development is a reality at seven schools in rural Wyoming. The model these schools use, called Fusion, was developed at Osmond Elementary, a school in Lincoln County School District #2 with 320 students and 15 classroom teachers.
For the last seven years, Osmond Elementary, where I teach, has created a school culture that promotes risk taking and collegiality using Fusion. In this model, teachers collaborate to study, experiment, and coach one another in research-based strategies. School climate surveys show that Osmond teachers have higher morale and more willingness to work together to solve difficult problems since they adopted this method of teacher learning.

Professional Development That Offers Choice

Fusion motivates teachers to continually learn and apply best practices, individually or through study groups. Convenience and choice are essential to the model. Instead of expecting educators to spend thousands of dollars to further their education on their own, schools in Lincoln County provide time for professional development during the school day. Participation is voluntary, and teachers decide how quickly they will progress through the learning process. (Teachers who choose not to participate in Fusion work with principals to develop their own plans for improving professionally.)
The school district has created a menu of hundreds of best-practice strategies teachers can choose from, grouped into the categories of instructional strategies, classroom management techniques, technology, assessment methodologies, district programs, and guidelines for developing engaging curriculum. Near the beginning of the school year, teachers choose several practices that would improve their instruction. Normally, teachers can choose from any strategy on the menu, but sometimes a principal will set school goals that point teachers to particular strategies. For example, several years ago, we focused Fusion on writers workshop at Osmond Elementary.
For the remainder of the year, these chosen strategies will be the focus of each teacher's professional growth. For example, teachers who realize that their students lack background knowledge and vocabulary might select the six-step approach to vocabulary instruction (Marzano & Pickering, 2005) as one of their target strategies.
A teacher facilitator—an individual chosen by peers to take responsibility for implementing Fusion—forms study groups by compiling teachers' choices. These groups meet weekly and regroup throughout the year as teachers study several different strategies. Schools that use this approach find ways to set aside free time for teachers to meet during the school day; we've experimented with having students come to school late or sending students home early on a particular day. We also free up time for teachers to participate in frequent peer observations by hiring a qualified professional we call a roaming substitute, who's available to cover any teacher's classes at a moment's notice.
Within three weeks of choosing a strategy, teachers complete a short reading assignment on that strategy and write about what they've learned. After this independent study, they begin meeting with others who've chosen the same topic. Study groups balance socializing, topic-based discussion, and planning to use the strategy in the classroom. Because group membership changes throughout the year, teachers get to know many different faculty members, which boosts collegiality.
After teachers have gained a grasp of the practice, they observe a peer using it in a classroom setting and then demonstrate their own ability to use it effectively. For each instructional practice, there are observation criteria—specific actions within the classroom that individual teachers must do to show they can use that practice as intended.

Fusion in Action

Let's imagine how a typical educator—Rosina, a 5th grade teacher—might use the Fusion model. The third week of September, the teacher facilitator in Rosina's school hands out a list of best practices ranging from establishing classroom rules to implementing a writing program the district has adopted.
Rosina looks over the list. Her students struggle with reading comprehension, so she puts rule-based summarizing (Marzano, Norford, Paynter, Pickering, & Gaddy, 2001) at the top of her list, along with two other practices. She soon receives a message from her teacher facilitator with the names of teachers in her study group, a schedule of meetings, and a 25-page assignment to read in A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano et al., 2001) before the first group session.
Three weeks later, students are released from school an hour early, and all teachers who are participating in Fusion meet with a study group. Rosina joins her fellow group members in Room 12. For a few minutes, teachers share good news, jokes, and stories of positive teaching experiences. Then they exchange ideas about what is, and is not, working in their classrooms, commiserating on the ups and downs of teaching.
After this informal conversation period, the group leader initiates a discussion about rule-based summarizing. Teachers refer back to the assigned Marzano chapter, articulate what they've learned, and ask questions about concepts still unclear to them. Near the end of the discussion, the group leader hands out a short article about whales, and everyone practices the steps for rule-based summarizing.
After several such meetings, the group creates a checklist of the key features of rule-based summarizing that will guide mentor teachers as they observe group members using this practice. These criteria focus observers' attention on the particular instructional practice to prevent them from critiquing other aspects of the teacher's performance. Fusion promotes the philosophy that every teacher has a unique teaching style and delivers instruction differently. Teachers are encouraged to view diversity as a learning opportunity rather than a reason to judge.
Rosina's next step is to observe a peer using rule-based summarizing in a classroom setting. As part of the model, many teachers become teacher experts in particular strategies and act as mentors to others within their school who want to learn the strategy. (The teacher facilitator responsible for Fusion determines which teachers are considered experts at a particular strategy and keeps a list of these teacher mentors.) Rosina consults an online schedule to find out when various teacher experts are demonstrating target strategies and signs up to observe Stephen, a colleague, later in the week.
As she watches Stephen model rule-based summarizing, Rosina checks off whether he demonstrates criteria characteristic of this strategy, such as using a think-aloud to model how to delete trivial or redundant material or substituting superordinate terms for more specific terms (Marzano et al., 2001).
A week later, after she has experimented with rule-based summarizing with her students, Rosina signs up to have a mentor come watch her demonstrate the basics on a Tuesday morning. Although she feels apprehensive, she knows this master teacher will use the same criteria she herself used when observing Stephen, and she reminds herself that rule-based summarizing, not her overall performance, will be the focus. The goal will be for Rosina and a colleague to learn best practices together, not to showcase a perfect lesson; keeping this thought in mind, Rosina begins to look forward to Tuesday.
After observing and demonstrating the strategy, Rosina gives the Fusion facilitator documentation of her mastery of rule-based summarizing (her observation forms, her response to the study group's readings, and possibly a portfolio of samples of how she's applied rule-based summarizing). Rosina then receives a small stipend matched to the strategy's level of difficulty.

Releasing Teacher Energy

Fusion takes its name from the scientific process of combining the nuclei of atoms. Lincoln County has discovered that, just as atomic fusion releases energy, the combination of three key elements—motivation, time to develop professionally, and teacher leadership—releases powerful teacher energy.


Choice is a powerful motivator in adult learning (Knowles, 1980). Offering teachers a menu of alternatives for what they will learn is highly motivating. More than 200 research-based strategies are available to Lincoln County teachers. And the distinction Fusion makes between overall teacher evaluation and the peer observations' focus on specific strategies creates an environment of enjoyable risk taking. Teachers experience professional development as an opportunity to learn with colleagues rather than something to resent or fear.
The financial rewards associated with Fusion strike a delicate balance between external and internal motivators. On completing the process for mastering each strategy, teachers receive a stipend ranging from $50 to $500, depending on the complexity of the instructional practice they've tackled. For example, rule-based summarizing, a fairly straightforward activity, carries a stipend of $50; mastery of writing workshops as conceptualized by Calkins and Martinelli (2006) brings a higher stipend. If educators provide documentation that they have effectively used what they've learned across the curriculum, they earn points that can be accumulated for a permanent increase in pay.
Most teachers at Osmond Elementary would tell you that they initially got involved with Fusion for the money. However, these same teachers would also tell you that after a few months, their motivation shifted from money to learning best practices and witnessing the difference these practices made with students. Some teachers spend hours, over a period of two or three months, to earn $50. Obviously, money isn't the motivating factor; self-improvement and an influence over student achievement are. One teacher involved in Fusion said,
In the past six years, I have learned more proven practices in education than in the 30 years since I graduated from college. I have had the opportunity to watch good educators use these strategies, and I have had them come watch me use them. … Yes, I have had administrators come into my classroom [before using Fusion], but there wasn't real help in their observations.


Incorporating professional development into regular contract hours is crucial. When Lincoln County first piloted Fusion, we tried holding study groups before and after school. Mornings were not ideal: It was difficult to engage in higher-order thinking skills at 6:30 a.m., and teachers were preoccupied with preparing for students' arrival. Conducting study groups after school was troublesome because teachers were involved with after-school interventions or felt exhausted after working with students all day. Only when we found ways to corral teachers' time during contract hours did their participation level and the quality of discussions improve.
Osmond's roaming substitute is an essential piece of the time puzzle. The arrangement not only enables teachers to engage in peer observation, but also frees up time for teacher leaders.

Teacher Leadership

This approach fosters leadership opportunities by creating the roles of teacher expert and teacher facilitator. Teacher experts in a strategy locate and share materials that help colleagues master best practices, oversee the development of observation criteria, model proficient use of the strategy in a classroom setting, and determine when other teachers have completed the mastery process.
Every teacher has talents to share and can become an expert. For example, Gina, an inexperienced teacher in our district who struggles with classroom management, has special expertise with nonlinguistic representations (Marzano et al., 2001; see also p. 84 of this issue.) She is considered the teacher expert for this strategy even though she isn't viewed as an overall master teacher. Educators interested in learning how to use nonlinguistic representations consult with Gina. Enabling all teachers to become experts creates a positive, reciprocal relationship between new teachers and veterans.
The teacher facilitator arranges for Fusion to operate in his or her school while continuing to teach full-time. This leader trains the roaming substitute, organizes study groups, oversees the scheduling of peer observation, and takes responsibility for budgeting and tracking finances. The position of teacher facilitator normally lasts 3–5 years. This prevents burnout and gives other teachers the opportunity to hold the position. Allowing facilitators to teach full-time avoids the problem of removing effective teachers from the classroom. It also helps facilitators maintain their colleagues' respect, stay in touch with teaching realities, and experiment with target practices within their classrooms.

The Need for Differentiated PD

The effectiveness of individual teachers is tremendously important to students' lives. In a study that analyzed the achievement scores of more than 100,000 students across hundreds of schools, William Sanders and his colleagues concluded, "More can be done to improve education by improving the effectiveness of teachers than by any other single factor" (Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997, p. 63). The increasing diversity of the student population in the United States is bringing increasingly complex teaching challenges; all teachers will need to master a large repertoire of instructional strategies to succeed with all students.
In rural Lincoln County, we've found Fusion to be a powerful tool that improves teacher effectiveness. As an educator who's been involved with Fusion for seven years, I've experienced how great it is to be part of a faculty that not only values teachers as professionals, but also encourages each of us to improve.

Calkins, L., & Martinelli, M. (2006).Launching the writing workshop (grades 3–5). Portsmouth, NH: Firsthand/Heinemann.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy(2nd ed.). Chicago: Association/Follett.

Marzano, R. J., Norford, J. S., Paynter, D. E., Pickering, D. J., & Gaddy, B. B. (2001).A handbook for classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2005).Building academic vocabulary: Teacher's manual. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wright, S. P., Horn, S. P., & Sanders, W. L. (1997). Teacher and classroom context effects on student achievement: Implications for teacher evaluation. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 11, 57–67.

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