On the Power of the Little Black Dress

I recently had a conversation with a colleague that got me to thinking.  We were discussing the current state of teacher professional development in light of what we academics call the  “topsy-turvey” state of the edu-political landscape and what it means for folks like us at ACSR.  With a few exceptions, district and school administrators seem to be falling into one of two camps these days: either they’re in wait- and- see mode (“Is Common Core going to stick? What will the test look like? What about our current scores- do they still matter? How will teacher evaluations work now?  What about the budget?”) or they’re looking to *very* customized, (often very expensive and well marketed) plug- and- play solutions that target a very specific niche and provide slick, digital resources like videos and downloadable lesson plans.

Now, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I’m going to digress into the world of fashion.  I’ve reached a stage in my life where I have the perspective of nearly half a century of trends, shopping (and discarding) behind me and the most important thing I’ve learned is this:

Never underestimate the power of the little black dress. 

I’ve purchased, worn, and discarded a lot of stuff in my life.  Mini-skirts, maxi-skirts, cigarette pants and bell bottoms.  Shaker sweaters and boucle jackets and pants suits and overalls. All have come and gone from my closet (okay, except the overalls, but I only wear those in the garden because, Hello! Pockets a-go-go!).  You know what *hasn’t* gone by the wayside?

My little black dresses.

 I have three of them.  Different seasons, different styles, but all equally wonderful and useful.  I use them in all kinds of situations and I’ve never once found a time where I was overdressed or underdressed when I had one of them on (thank you, Karl Lagerfeld for that piece of advice).  They all *work* in all kinds of situations and that’s what I think clothes should do- they should work for you.  Not the other way around.

I think the same is true of professional learning.  They should be simple and elegant and they should work over time, in different situations, no matter the crazy wrought by policy makers and budget situations.  Standards will come and go- be they the CCSS or some other variety, no matter how locally developed and individualized, even if you have your own set for your own classroom.  Assessment systems will change from large scale and high stakes to local and formative.  The pendulum will swing- we’ve all seen it.  Bell bottoms will come back and skinny jeans will disappear (dear lord let them disappear soon) and the width and length (and existence) of a well-tied tie will, too.  Trends come and go and sometimes it’s fun and interesting to play around with them. The wise shopper knows, though, to invest in the classics.  Invest it things that last and that work no matter the situation.  Invest in things that are timeless.


Critical Skills has been around for 30 years.  It’s shifted as research has emerged- particularly around neuroscience and pedagogy- and based on what teachers tell us they do and what works for their students. (Classroom teachers still do all the model revisions and 90% of the training, in fact.)  But essentially, foundationally, it hasn’t.

The basic ideas- that kids (and adults) learn best from experience that pulls together content and process skills, that we learn best in community, that we need to have clear targets for learning and assessment- those haven’t changed. They haven’t needed to because they just work whether we’re talking about Common Core or the learning goals one parent has for the kids they homeschool.

They’re the little black dress of learning for kids and adults.




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