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Teacher Institutes

author: Susan Loucks-Horsley, Catherine K. Harding, Margaret A. Arbuckle, Lynn B. Murray, Cynthia Dubea, and Martha K. Williams
description: "Teacher institutes are intensive learning experiences that typically serve the purposes of substantive content and professional renewal. They may present new ways of thinking about school subjects or alternate methods of engaging students in learning. Whatever the emphasis, it is the intensity of study that most characterizes the institute as a professional development option. They offer focused, continuous investigation of topics or themes that cannot be explored in occasional workshops. Frequently, institutes run from one week to three weeks, providing time for reflection and assimilation of information in a setting conducive to collegial learning. Institutes feature time, space, and support for teachers who want to explore new frameworks for thinking about their jobs and are willing to dedicate the time and effort required to change."

This article is reproduced from the book "Continuing to Learn: A Guidebook for Teacher Development" (1987) co-published by Learning Innovations, a Division of WestEd (formerly The Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands) and the National Staff Development Council. Used with permission of Learning Innovations (781-279-8220).

published in: from "Continuing to Learn: A Guidebook for Teacher Development"
published: 1987
posted to site: 08/11/2000

Teacher Institutes

Before I got there, I didn't know if I'd want to stay all week-- summers are very precious. I also wasn't sure I really wanted to spend that much time on one topic. Yet this was the best professional experience I've ever had. It was the only time I felt like teaching was regarded as a true profession, where teachers really learn theory in depth and apply it to what we do in the classroom. I felt intellectually stimulated, and that was very energizing.

--Veteran Elementary Teacher

It was great to learn in a relaxed atmosphere where we could really pursue things with other teachers and the consultants. The opportunity to interact with colleagues in depth, away from school and home, was very beneficial. I made many good friends (and had fun, too).

--High School English Teacher

Teacher institutes are intensive learning experiences that typically serve the purposes of substantive content and professional renewal. They may present new ways of thinking about school subjects or alternate methods of engaging students in learning. Whatever the emphasis, it is the intensity of study that most characterizes the institute as a professional development option. They offer focused, continuous investigation of topics or themes that cannot be explored in occasional workshops. Frequently, institutes run from one week to three weeks, providing time for reflection and assimilation of information in a setting conducive to collegial learning. Institutes feature time, space, and support for teachers who want to explore new frameworks for thinking about their jobs and are willing to dedicate the time and effort required to change.

Underlying Assumptions

Learning (or unlearning) complex teaching behavior requires extended time and intensity of effort.

Organizers of institutes understand that learning new approaches to teaching requires fairly extensive time to break old habits and assumptions and make room for new concepts and behaviors. It is difficult to find time to consider alternatives, try them on for size, and evaluate their usefulness within the normal context of the school day or year. Teachers have little time for planning within the school day, and almost no occasion to run ideas past colleagues in the school setting. Most teachers work on their toes, responding to pressing demands of students and trying to cover curriculum objectives that loom before them. Finding time to "dance" with topics, making sure the presentation is rich and the response rewarding, is a rare experience for most teachers.

Teachers need time away from teaching responsibilities to consider complex changes in attitude or behavior. This concentrated time is what most institutes offer.

For teachers to take on substantive change in beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors, they must be given a modified context where they can be learners first, teachers second.

For the teacher to put his or her learning ahead of students' learning requires freedom from the ordinary context for teaching. In order to focus on oneself as thinker, adapter, creative individual, there needs to be space to open up one's sense of self and what one knows or wants to know. This space may be in a school, but not in a setting where the teacher is accommodating students one hour and trying to develop a sense of personal potential the next. Teachers usually do not question their own tactics or motives; most find a comfortable set of goals and strategies that work in the classroom, and they go about the business of educating smoothly and predictably. When an individual or a district challenges their assumptions, teachers need to escape the rituals and experiment with new formats, new positions in the classroom. A fresh context helps people play with alternatives. Institutes try to accommodate this need for a new perspective on the role of teaching.

A powerful way of refining or stretching a teacher's capacity is to join that person with a community of learners who are also striving for improvement or new energy in their work.

Teaching can be an isolated art, but when one wants to refine or stretch beyond one's own vision of what's possible, collegial support is key. Institutes join participants in learning tasks and celebrations. They build on the adult learning need to discuss and reflect on change with respected peers. They also allow time to practice in a laboratory setting and receive feedback from peers who are also striving to adopt new practices. Sometimes, the institute becomes a community of learners, residing together, working twelve-hour days, and feeling the reward of continuous pursuit of knowledge. It is not uncommon for this community to extend beyond the initial event into formal or informal follow-up sessions among participants. The bonds established in institutes can be so strong that individuals have only to see another participant later in the year and the thoughts and convictions of the institute return.

Intensive learning experiences can have a transforming effect on the learners, serving to significantly revitalize intellectual inquiry and commitment to one's work.

The example of the Community of Learners Humanities Program (below) illustrates how an entire staff was revitalized through a challenging set of inquiry experiences.

What They Look Like in Practice

The Community of Learners Humanities Program, Portland, Maine
This program, funded by grants from the Maine Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, was designed by teachers in Portland's Public Schools and professors teaching the humanities at the University of Southern Maine. The program is based on the beliefs that teaching improves as teachers stretch their horizons and that all high school teachers would benefit from extended study and discussion of important texts in the humanities, arts, and sciences. High school students will then benefit directly as they are taught by classroom teachers who have developed a strengthened understanding of the humanities and a deeper commitment to the disciplines within them.

The project resulted from Portland high school teacher recommendations on ways to strengthen the teaching of humanities. Evolving from discussion about the development of such a humanities program was a consensus that in addition to the scholarly learning there would be other benefits. Teachers would profit from sharing ideas with other faculty members; discussion and implementation of more work across disciplines alleviation of the feeling of isolation that pervades schools where very demanding schedules preclude teachers meeting on common discussion grounds; and opportunity to see one's own discipline in a larger context.

All of Portland's 152 high school teachers participated in this shared learning experience. Following an introductory meeting, each teacher selected one of six study groups. These study groups of 25 to 30 teachers spent four half-days with university mentors and guest lecturer discussing texts, works of art, films, or music centering on one of six topics. Each seminar section was led by a university mentor and a high school mentor who shared responsibility for their group during the half days and throughout the school year.

Seminar topics included:

  • Chariots of Fire: Sports as a Reflection of Society
  • Two Cities in Transition: Vienna and Portland, 1880-1914
  • The Romance and the Reality of War
  • 1984--George Orwell's Vision, Today's Reality, and the Future
  • New England Whaling: A Paradigm of Man and Nature, Commerce and Art
  • From Medieval to Renaissance: Key Themes in European Culture, 1300-1600

Seminars included required readings, films, slides, lectures, and discussion. Participants prepared lectures on each seminar topic and offered them to the public, thus inviting the community into this unique learning circle.

The Project for Development of Instructional Support Teams
This project uses a three-week summer institute at the University of Southern Maine to develop instructional support teams of four teachers and administrators from participating schools/districts. In Maine, as in other states undergoing reform, standards for certifying and renewing teachers are being upgraded. One vehicle supporting teacher induction and renewal is the local instructional support team. This group of advising teachers and administrators helps new teachers and experienced teachers refine their performance. The instructional support team is a relatively new structure in schools, requiring new roles and skills in demonstrating teaching approaches and observing and coaching colleagues. The Project for the Development of Instructional Support Teams offers experience in these areas.

The first week of the institute focuses on Models of Teaching (Joyce & Weil, 1986). Participants learn about various models of teaching and practice using them with their teammates.

The second week of the institute presents ways of observing and coaching to the instructional support teams. This strand helps participants coach each other through the Models of Teaching they are learning and gives tips about observation that can be applied to any improvement effort.

The third week of the institute connects participants by teaching model rather than by district and allows them the time to develop presentations for others on the model they have learned.

Follow-up typically occurs in two day-long sessions scheduled during the school year. At this time, experts in Models of Teaching and coaching programs are brought in and participants get a chance to refine and enhance what they have learned. Since institute participants come in local teams, when they leave they have their own built-in support structure. They are a community of learners, committed to carrying out the instructional support roles assigned them by their districts.

The National Writing Project
The National Writing Project has spawned affiliate projects in most parts of the country dedicated to examining a process approach to teaching writing. A common feature of all Writing Project models is the three-week summer institute. These institutes involve participants in research, teaching strategies, and demonstrations of lessons connected with phases of writing development--prewriting, writing, revising, and publishing. Because they challenge teachers to investigate, apply, and validate the effectiveness of writing strategies, the involvement is extensive. Participants take on a research project, develop two publishable pieces of writing, and design a demonstration lesson for other teachers during the three weeks. The days are divided among research-into-practice sessions and reading-writing groups for the development of the finished pieces of writing. Participants assume both teaching and learning roles, building from a research base and an experience base with writing. For many, this is the first time they have had to write and produce in the same manner as their students. Teachers learn what hard work writing is and what rewards can be gained from having a peer group that responds to and helps develop one's work.

Institutes are usually held on university campuses and involve presentations by experts in the field of writing. Days typically run from 8:00 to 4:00, but the research, writing, and demonstration work extends well into the night for most. Some participants take up residence during these institutes; the others must block their personal time at home so they can accomplish the multiple demands of the institute. While the goals of the institute are intense, so is the satisfaction of delving into content and methodology for teachers. This total immersion in development yields changes in teacher attitudes and beliefs not normally experienced in staff development activities.

Summer institute participants are encouraged to return to their school and demonstrate their learnings to colleagues. If participants attend in teams they often continue a reading-writing group back home. Most teachers find their own experiences with writing to be a powerful determinant of what will work with students. They want to continue writing to see what other mysteries unfold in the process. Also many participants discover that the writing they've done all their lives has not been very meaningful and embark on nonexpository forms to express thoughts and feelings never "published" before.

Between demonstrating writing lessons, participating in reading-writing groups, and continuing research that begins in an institute, follow-up occurs fairly naturally. In addition to these individual pursuits most institute organizers schedule formal follow-up events ranging from lectures to reunion parties. People attending these events have a kind of religious enthusiasm for the experiences they've shared in their institutes. The proof is in the satisfaction and continuing commitment to learning and sharing that comes from the participants. These are strong communities of learners who have struggled and usually achieved something that transforms them as teachers.

State-Sponsored Institutes for Teaching and Learning
Several states organize inservice institutes that are frameworks for developing staff in priority areas specified by federal, state, or local mandates. The state education agency usually approves programs, helps support training costs and serves as a coordinator for a series of training events. As in other institute examples, these training sessions last one to two weeks and have follow-up sessions or requirements for implementation during the school year. The difference in a state-run institute is in the scope of offerings; they may revolve around a limited number of general concerns such as teacher effectiveness research or basic skills instruction, but can offer as many as one hundred sessions to participants. Individuals typically participate in one or two courses for continuing education credit and may or may not come in teams from their home school districts.

The advantage to the state agency is that hundreds of teachers are engaging in learning activities on priority areas in education. The collective wisdom gained in these institutes can generate considerable reflection and influence on teaching in schools.

Conditions Necessary for Success

Because of the intensity of the learning experience and the need to support extended time, concentration, and application of knowledge, institutes should be planned as much as possible with participating individuals and districts. Participants have to be able to influence the scope, expectations, and rewards of joining an institute. It is essential that they enter willingly and knowingly into the activities of the institute, adjusting and shaping outcomes appropriate to their individual learning needs. The time required of participants is too long to expect them to sit passively and let ideas wash over them.

Ideas or activities presented in an institute should be framed in an adult learning context. People need to have a rationale for the strategies or program; they need to take time to make connections to past experience, practice these new approaches in a comfortable laboratory setting, and discuss the applicability with peers. Most teachers proceed from learning skills, to practicing them with adults, to trying them with students, to deciding whether or not they are workable. If the various thresholds are not accommodated, a transformation in practice will not occur.

Another consideration is cost. Many of these institutes are grand events featuring speakers from around the country, multiple training opportunities, and alternative settings where people reside, eat, and learn together. Sometimes it is easier for a state agency or a private sponsor to subsidize an institute than it is for a school to support such costs. Despite the costs, institutes can be highly motivational for teachers and are generally worth the effort to fund them.

Because of the dramatic potential of institutes, versatile presenters are crucial. They must be able to use a variety of modes of instruction to engage participants at their own level. Lecture, small group discussion large group seminars, hands-on activity, and private time for reflection and analysis are all valuable in their own right. Over-reliance on any one strategy to the exclusion of others tends to tune out participants who need a change in approach. Also, the designers of institutes need to consider the discomfort of new learning and arrange activities so they build competency gradually and offer support to individuals along the way.

Follow-up is another critical factor making or breaking institutes. After a crowning experience during a summer institute, all other staff development activities can pale by comparison. The school or district can and should reinforce the learnings of the institute by scheduling sharing sessions or seminars on topics developed in institutes. Then individuals will see that their learning matters to and enhances the growth of their school or district. Even if institute participants come away with a strong set of questions instead of answers, they will still appreciate their ability to continue reflection and dialogue with their peers. This endorsement of the learning can serve as a powerful incentive for taking on such challenges.


The term 'institute' is sometimes used to formalize or even heighten the significance of a set of workshops. Although the meaning of institute is still in formation in the staff development arena, analysis of the most successful ones indicates they have some distinguishing characteristics: extended time, concentrated focus, supportive environment for learning, and methods for transferring and extending the learning beyond the institute. Without these features, the intensity of the learning experience is lessened, and its benefits may be lost.

A related issue is the trade-offs between institutes that take the learners far away from their teaching context and result in renewed commitment, enthusiasm, and skill--and a series of indistrict workshops that are highly context-based, requiring immediate application of learning and building in continual interactions with both colleagues and trainer. The summer institutes sponsored for teachers to learn new science curricula in the 1960s had poor track records--largely because teachers returned to their schools to face the same structural barriers to innovation. They also found expectations from administrators, parents, and colleagues about what it meant to teach and learn science that contradicted what they had learned in the institutes. New approaches and materials were difficult to implement with seats bolted to the floor, administrators expecting quiet, orderly classrooms, and parents expecting their children to learn science 'facts'. Institutes that took people away from and ignored the context to which they returned often had minimal effect on schools.

Yet it may be that we simply need to be clearer in our expectations for the outcomes of institutes. Renewed enthusiasm and commitment to teaching, with different ways of thinking about it, may be the greatest reward. Perhaps it is a mistake to look for too many concrete outcomes of an institute. Very often, the learning appears to be its own reward, and the carryover is imprecise at best. This is when one has to trust that a provocative experience for a teacher will start a change within that will manifest itself sometime, in some unpredictable way in the future. If the teacher shows renewed energy for teaching, then probably the benefit is there and development is occurring.


Readings about the approach
Joyce, B. and Weil, M. Models of Teaching (Third Edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall, 1986

Examples of the approach in action

The Community of Learners Humanities Program
Portland Public Schools, 331 Veranda St., Portland, ME 04103

The Project for Development of Instructional Support Teams
University of Southern Maine Professional Development Center
305 Bailey Hall, Gorham ME 04038
George Lyons, Director

The National Writing Project
5627 Tolman Hall
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720

The Connecticut Institute of Teaching and Learning
Connecticut State Department of Education
P.O. Box 479, Litchfield, CT 06759
Betty Sternberg, Director of Curriculum and Professional Development

The Rhode Island School Staff Institute
Rhode Island Department of Education
222 Hayes St., Providence. RI 02908

The Academy for the Advancement of Teaching and Management
New Jersey State Department of Education, 1986-87
200 McGraw Drive, Box 6446, Raritan Center, Edison NJ 08818-6446
Sybil G. Nadel, Director