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Professional Learning in Action: An Inquiry Approach for Teachers of Literacy

reviewed by Jennifer Tuten & Mallory Locke - June 12, 2017

coverTitle: Professional Learning in Action: An Inquiry Approach for Teachers of Literacy
Author(s): Victoria J. Risko & MaryEllen Vogt
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757020, Pages: 176, Year: 2016
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In Professional Learning in Action: An Inquiry Approach for Teachers of Literacy, Victoria Risko and MaryEllen Vogt stipulate that “being thoughtful and deliberate in our decision-making requires a shift in how our professional learning occurs, moving away from being told what to do as educators, and moving toward taking agency for directing our own professional learning” (p. 1). The profile of the contemporary K-12 student is increasingly complex, and the demands of the 21st century classroom frequently vary due to a changing learning standards landscape. Given these factors, the authors argue that the best way to support teachers in meeting the needs of learners with disparate learning styles, motivations, levels of readiness, and prior knowledge reservoirs is for educators to shift expectations from participation in passive professional development to engagement in active professional learning. Through research-based recommendations for structures that guide the generation of questions centered on problems of practice, this text provides and advocates for a theoretical framework for addressing the needs of adult learners through a systematized approach to inquiry-based professional learning.

The text’s first chapter situates the need for inquiry-based professional learning through a detailed review of the instructional shifts required of teachers following adoption of the Common Core Learning Standards. Data compiled by the National Center for Literacy Education identified teacher concerns regarding standards-based instruction, which Risko and Vogt address through a compilation of decades of research organized in response to common myths and misconceptions about adult learning. The chapter culminates with a strong description of five different shifts in mindset required to support the six key principles of an inquiry model for professional learning: that it is dynamic, intense, situated, substantive, collaborative, and personal (p. 16-19). The second chapter further contextualizes the principles within the needs of adult learners, detailing the threats to teachers’ self-efficacy, such as Reeves’ “initiative fatigue” (p. 31), or a lack of connection between professional development and classroom practice, as well as the importance of considering teachers’ stages of knowledge relative to their experience in the classroom. The authors present a clear overview of each stage of teacher development and offer practical suggestions for professional learning differentiation according to the articulated teacher experience continuum. However, given the disparity between teachers’ years of experience common to many schools, we would have appreciated more practical recommendations for supporting differing needs. While the authors recognize, as current research posits, that “one size fits all” professional learning initiatives rarely are effective, differentiating professional learning experiences continues to be a challenge.

As school-based literacy coach in a K-8 public school and a university-based literacy specialist who works in partnership with school districts to develop literacy initiatives, we both design learning opportunities for teachers with varying levels of experience and readiness and work closely with staff to support implementation and reflection. These experiences have focused our attention on the tension between a desire for sustainable school wide structures and a need for authentic processes that teachers own and trust. Particularly for coaches and school leaders working within a K-8 school, supporting teacher-led inquiry can be challenging. Data sources often differ drastically between early childhood and testing grades, or between middle school content area specialists and self-contained classrooms at the elementary level. Risko and Vogt identify several recommendations for using assessment to guide inquiry in the third chapter, such as collaboratively identifying problems of practice, forming a literacy instructional team, and collecting data at the school level from students, teachers, and parents. Our experiences have shown us, however, that analyzing data is a process that requires objective protocols and structured reflection at the individual, grade team, and school level. Such specificity ensures equity, clarity of focus, and intentional next steps. Though the connections between the text’s inquiry-driven framework and its assessment recommendations were evident at the theoretical level, exemplars of actionable protocols or practical models for data analysis would have better supported actionable effectuation.


Chapters Four and Five provide suggestions for professional learning decision-making and goal setting, as well as activities and mentoring opportunities to put learning into action. The authors offer the acronym “PROSPER” (p. 73) as the foundational tenets of actionable professional learning and advise readers to enact learning through book studies (p. 77), lesson demonstrations (p. 81), teacher research (p. 91), family literacy groups (p. 94), and lesson studies (p. 98). Risko and Vogt also propose mentored relationships, such as peer coaches (p. 101) and literacy coaches (p. 104) as supports for implementation of learning. Though each activity is described in terms of purpose and general steps for application, samples of tools that enable immediate execution, such as agendas, reflection templates, or common annotation systems, were not provided. For teacher leaders and coaches seeking such tools, we recommend Ippolito and Bean’s Cultivating Coaching Mindsets, Boles and Troen’s The Power of Teacher Teams, or DuFour and Fullan’s Cultures Built to Last: Systemic PLCs at Work.

Chapter Six underscores the role of reflection in successful inquiry models for professional learning, which Risko and Vogt advise capturing through “authentic artifacts,” such as reflective journals, peer observations, portfolios, and discussion (p. 127-128). Furthermore, the importance of returning to data to assess the impact of teacher learning on student progress is highlighted through a helpful list of both qualitative and quantitative indicators of student achievement (p. 133).

We would like to add that to sustain an inquiry-based professional learning model, distributive leadership is a necessity. Differentiated activities require knowledgeable facilitators to lead each structure with clarity, transparency, efficiency, and enthusiasm. Risko and Vogt’s work, therefore, serves as a comprehensive theoretical framework that can be employed as a catalyst for change when read not only by teacher leaders and coaches, but by administration as well. In order for schools to successfully uphold “dynamic,” “intense,” “situated,” “substantive,” “collaborative,” and “personal” professional learning opportunities, school wide structures must support a collaborative culture driven by inquiry about authentic problems teachers face in their classrooms each day. Time, resources, and foremost administrative reinforcement form the cornerstone of the lasting professional learning proposed in this text.


DuFour, R., & Fullan, M. (2013). Cultures built to last: Systemic plcs at work tm. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Ippolito, J. & Bean, R. (2016). Cultivating coaching mindsets: An action guide for literacy leaders. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Troen, V., & Boles, K. (2012). The power of teacher teams: With cases, analyses, and strategies for success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 12, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22036, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 3:51:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Tuten
    Hunter College
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER TUTEN, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Literacy Education at Hunter College. Her teaching and scholarship is practitioner-focused, closely aligned with the challenges and opportunities facing teachers as they strive to meet the needs of literacy learners in urban schools. She is co-author of Teaching and Learning in the (dis)Comfort Zone and Successful Reading Assessments and Interventions for Struggling Readers. Most recently she leads READ East Harlem/Hunter College, a literacy-focused professional development initiative supporting K-2 teachers in East Harlem.
  • Mallory Locke
    Hunter College
    E-mail Author
    MALLORY LOCKE taught middle school humanities in the South Bronx before pursuing a Master's in Adolescent Literacy at Hunter College. Currently, she is a literacy coach at a K-8 public school in East Harlem and an adjunct professor within the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hunter College. As a doctoral student in Hunter College's Instructional Leadership program, her areas of interest include differentiated professional learning structures that promote student-centered and culturally-responsive practices.
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