The notion of “summer slide” is familiar to us all – that a certain amount of what is learned during a school year is forgotten or “lost” during the summer or times of disuse. While studies vary, the general finding is that the less certain concepts/skills are utilized, the greater the loss. We commonly lament the existence of summer slide for students – and seek ways to combat it. But knowing how easily skills loss occurs, do we work to combat that same slide for skills we as educators acquire?”
Most us have experienced having once been quite competent at something (e.g. playing the flute, booting a soccer ball, speaking a foreign language, calculating the volume of a sphere) – only to find ourselves “rusty” after returning to the activity after a significant hiatus.
But why do we retain some skills – e.g. riding a bike – while losing others? Some researchers posit that the more we value a skill and the harder we worked to develop it, the more we will retain it. Even after long periods of disuse, we more quickly regain those skills we value and worked at to master. And while using new skills feels awkward and unnatural to learners of any age, learners are more likely to push through the discomfort when they see value and relevance in what they are learning. And all skills require repeated practice.
Complex skills – like critical thinking and using analytic process- develop over an extended period of time. As with other skills, they feel awkward when learning and require repeated practice. Even with carefully designed workshops conducted to provide participants with enough of a grounding to address issues using process, practice is still needed. The more complicated and critical the issue or situation and the more stakeholders involved, the higher the level of required skill. Just as with students in schools, this ability develops over time – with practice, feedback, and reflection on successful and less successful use. And, as is true with all professional development, using the skills back on the job prevents skills loss.
Some ways districts can ensure skills stick:
- Set a goal to use skills at least 2-3 times within 2 months of a workshop (use soon after a workshop dramatically affects continued usage)
- Model use of skills at meetings, when making recommendations, etc.
- Expect others to use the skills in these or other situations
- Seek opportunities to practice applying skills on real issues
- Privately and publicly reinforce use of skills to encourage further use
- Have expert resources on staff who can support/coach use of skills
- Find one type of decision (e.g. hiring, purchasing, etc.) in your systems and require use of process for those decisions
Like all education, professional development represents a significant and potentially invaluable investment. It’s worth ensuring it pays off! What steps do you take to make sure that your professional development sticks?