Spring 2021

Book Study: Differentiated Personal Professional Learning

In this very atypical year, teacher professional development may seem to be a low priority.  However, it is possible to sponsor professional learning that can be completely virtual and may in fact meet the needs of teachers who have been focused on and spent inordinate amounts of time on structuring learning opportunities for their students and delivering instruction in ways that are very different than what has happened in previous years. Having the opportunity for collaborative professional development with their peers may restore some level of normalcy to their professional practice. This article describes one such method of professional development opportunity.

Book study is and has been a popular professional learning strategy. It can be defined as “A group of professional educators meeting regularly to engage in critical reading, discussion, and continued learning with the purpose of enhancing teaching and increasing student achievement.” (Maiorana, 2013, p. 4) However, to have a successful book study, there are several considerations that need to be addressed. In this article I outline the conditions for a successful book study, and illustrate with three book studies of which I was a part.

First, the impetus for a book study must originate with staff, bottom-up versus top-down. This ensures that the book study meets a genuine need, and induces immediate buy-in from staff. Robb (2018) suggest that a book study can be initiated by a school administrator, to address a school or board priority. In my experience, these book studies are sometimes less successful. Some staff may feel that the topic is being forced upon them; some may have little or no interest in the topic; some may actively subvert the book study. Overall buy-in by staff may be significantly lower than when the topic is brought forward internally by staff members.

Second, the book study must encourage immediate action by staff. For example, teachers need to see the immediate application of what they are learning, and be supported in trying new lessons or activities based on the new knowledge that they have acquired from the book study. Waiting until the end of the book study to implement new learnings is generally less productive than incremental implementation of new ideas.

The book itself needs to be conducive to acting as a foundation for professional learning. So very long, unengaging texts, or books that feature only research without indications of how that research can be put into action, are poor choices for book studies. A guideline that I have used is that the book should be at most 200 pages, with relatively short chapters, and written in an engaging style. Books that feature checklists, tables, and figures to encourage engagement are preferred.

Book studies are useful when internal expertise is lacking. If a department or school possesses expertise in the area of interest, learning from peers is possible. With book studies, learning with peers is possible.

In general, book studies are not useful for learning technology, such as interactive white boards, online programs such as Desmos™, or Google Classroom. For technology, multiple hands-on workshops are preferable.

For a successful book study, participants should have access to guiding questions for each chapter (Robb, 2018). These questions will help them focus on the main ideas of the chapter. I have found that one or two guiding questions per chapter is optimal.

There should be leaders for each group in the book study. The group leaders are responsible for generating the guiding questions for each chapter.  Some authors (e.g. Shake Up Learning, 2018) recommend that the leaders read the entire book before the book study begins, in order to have a big picture view of the book’s subject. I have found better success in rotating the group leaders among participants, so that new learning is generated across the group. This also encourages capacity building within the staff. Each group leader needs to read one chapter ahead of the group, in order to generate the guiding questions for the chapter.

There should be forums for both online asynchronous and face-to-face discussions among participants. The online forum should allow participants to post questions, comments, and quotations that resonate with them. Face-to-face discussions should occur at least every two weeks during the book study, with an emphasis on how the new leaning can be applied to the teachers’ classrooms.

If the book study is entirely online, deadlines for posting with respect to each chapter need to be specified so that all participants take responsibility for keeping up to date.

Teachers should be encouraged to develop activities or lessons that reflect their new learning, try them out in their own classrooms, and share the results with others in the book study. This is a crucial step in a successful book study, moving research into practice.

Penick (2018) advocates for more informal book studies, using strategies like “book in an hour”, based on time constraints for teacher professional learning. I have not found these strategies useful, particularly since they preclude taking the learning into classroom practice. The ultimate test of the utility of professional learning is its impact on student success, and the “try it out” phase and follow-up reflection is vital. 

The following three cases studies illustrate the use of book study as a professional learning strategy in action.

Case 1: Many teachers in a large Kindergarten to Grade 5 elementary school were dissatisfied with their current mathematics program. They wanted to institute math talk learning communities in their classrooms, but did not have the internal capacity or expertise in the area. I had done several professional development workshops in the school, so they asked me to recommend a book that could be used as the foundation of a book study. I suggested 5 practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions (Smith & Stein, 2011). The principal purchased sufficient copies of the book so that every teacher had their own copy. Study groups were based on grade teams, with one member of each grade team agreeing to be the initial study lead and generate guiding questions for the first chapter. An online discussion forum was formed so that teachers could post questions, comments, and quotations on their own time. Face-to-face discussion groups met every week. A major part of the book study was the expectation that each teacher would generate and test a lesson based on each chapter. I was attached to the book study as researcher and a provider of expertise if required. At the end of the book study, I interviewed each grade team and compiled sample lessons, together with student work samples to illustrate the success of the initiative (Irvine, 2017).

Case 2: The mathematics department in a large secondary school approached me, a vice-principal, and expressed a desire to broaden their instructional strategy repertoire. When this was discussed at a heads’ meeting, many other departments in the school expressed similar desires. I suggested a book study, as part of a broader school initiative around instructional strategies. Initially, we surveyed staff anonymously to determine which instructional strategies were currently being used. At a staff meeting, we used a dotmocracy to identify dominant strategies as well as those strategies about which staff expressed interest in learning more. The book study was based on The art and science of teaching (Marzano, 2007). This book was selected for several reasons: the title reflects that successful teaching has both a technical component (the science) and a creative component (the art); the ten chapters each address different aspects of research-affirmed instruction; the chapter titles are action-oriented, with titles such as “What will I do to help students generate and test hypotheses about new knowledge?” and “What will I do to establish and maintain effective relationships with students?” The superintendent of schools purchased copies of the book for every staff member. Department heads functioned as group leaders, and generated guiding questions for each chapter, focused on their own subject areas. Each department formed an asynchronous online discussion group, where they posted questions, comments, and sample teaching activities and lesson plans based on the chapter content. At each department meeting, teachers demonstrated sample lessons and debriefed their effectiveness after trying them out in their own classrooms. After the book study, a group of interested teachers constructed an instructional strategies reference guide, a print plus online resource for teachers’ use going forward.

Case 3:During an  Intermediate/Senior Mathematics preservice course, several of my students approached me with a desire to learn more about research-affirmed instructional strategies. I suggested a book study, with a choice from three books: The art and science of teaching (Marzano,2007), Visible learning for teachers (Hattie, 2012), and Mathematics formative assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning (Keeley & Tobey, 2011). Each student was asked to choose one of the books for a book study. For students who did not wish to participate in the book study, they were given an alternative activity related to classroom management, based on the Classroom Dynamics material available.1 For the book study, students were given the following instructions:

  1. Read the book. I suggest reading one chapter at a time and then discussing that chapter. An asynchronous discussion forum for each book is available in the learning management system under our course name. Guiding questions can be found there, which you might want to consider before reading the chapter.
  2. As a group, discuss the chapter. Especially consider how the information applies to you, a beginning teacher.
  3. Write up a summary of your discussion. 
  4. Post your writeup to the learning management system.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for each chapter.

Multiple copies of each book were placed on reserve in the university’s instructional resource centre. When the students went to their practicum placements, they were expected to construct at least some lessons based on what they had learned in the book study, and write about the results in their reflective journals. When the students completed their course evaluations at the end of the course, the book study received multiple mentions as a very valuable activity that related research and practice.

Maiorana (2013) identifies four characteristics of effective professional development: the PD allows for collaboration among peers, it deepens teacher understanding of content knowledge; it is focused on implementation of curriculum and instructional practices, and the PD occurs over an extended period of time. Book studies satisfy all four of these criteria, and can be a useful source of professional learning. They are especially powerful when they come from a grassroots orientation, initiated by teachers who have identified a learning gap in their own practice and expressed a desire to change. The Appendix to this article identifies some possible books that can form a basis for a book study, sorted by topic. Many other choices are possible, but these are some that I have used or seen used successfully.

The principal has a significant role to play in any book study.  First, to provide support and resources. This may involve ensuring that sufficient copies of the book are available; act as a resource for teachers who have questions; technology exists for asynchronous discussion groups; possibly to provide time for groups to meet face-to-face. Secondly, the principal needs to encourage participation, and possibly suggest participants for the book study from among staff.  The principal also needs to provide recognition of participants. For example, showcase lessons based on the book study at staff meetings, or recognize teachers who have assumed leadership roles during the book study.

Book studies are an excellent strategy for staff professional learning.  The key is to obtain buy-in from a critical mass of staff, which typically occurs when the book study arises from a need identified by teachers themselves. 

1 www.edugains.ca/newsite/math/supporting_classroom_practices.html. References
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Keeley, P. (2008). Science formative assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Keeley, P., & Tobey, C. (2011). Mathematics formative assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Brahier, D., & Speer, W. (2011). Motivation and disposition: Pathways to learning mathematics. NCTM 73rd yearbook. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Oxon: Routledge.
Irvine, J. (2017). A whole-school implementation of math-talk learning communities. Journal of Mathematical Sciences, 4(1), 25-39.
Maiorana, M. (2013). Professional development: Book study. Retrieved from www.slideshare.net/maioranam/professional-development-book-study
Marzano, R. (2007). The art and science of teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development..
Marzano, R. (2017). The new art and science of teaching. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Lang-Raad, N., & Marzano, R. (2019). The new art and science of teaching mathematics. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Penick, C. (2016). Professional development: Tips for effective book studies. Retrieved from www.leaderinme.org/blog/professional-development-tips-for-effective-book-studies/
Riggs, E., & Gholar, C. (2009). Strategies that promote student engagement (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Robb, E. (2018). Book studies: Home-grown professional development. Retrieved from edublog.scholastic.com/post/book-studies-home-grown-professional-development
Shake Up Learning (2018). How to plan an awesome book study. Retrieved from shakeuplearning.com/blog/how-to-plan-an-awesome-book-study/
Small, M. (2008). Big ideas from Dr. Small: Creating a comfort zone for teaching mathematics—Grades K-3. Toronto ON; Nelson.
Small, M. (2009). Good questions great ways to differentiate mathematics instruction. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Small, M. (2009). Big ideas from Dr. Small: Creating a comfort zone for teaching mathematics—Grades 4-8. Toronto ON; Nelson.
Small, M., & Lin, A. (2011). Big ideas from Dr. Small: Creating a comfort zone for teaching mathematics—Grades 9-12. Toronto ON; Nelson
Small, M., & Lin, A. (2010). More good questions: Great ways to differentiate secondary mathematics instruction. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Smith. M., & Stein, M. (2011). 5 practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Whitaker, T. (2012). What great teachers do differently (2nd ed.). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

By: Dr. Jeff Irvine

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