Archive for the ‘Professional Development’ Category

Today I presented at the Technology-Enabled Teaching and Learning (#) conference in Toronto alongside my math department head and my Vice-Principal Jeff Crowell.

Our presentation including links and notes.

Our student voice refection video on technology use in math education (my apologies for the audio.)

I was thinking about the role of Administrators in the world where education research, strategies and technologies change at a rapid pace.  I assume many Administrators feel they need to try and get ahead of the curve on edtech.  But they also feel they need to be experts on problem based learning, project based learning, differentiated instruction, assessment as learning, and the list stretches to infinity.  Well actually they don’t.  Not even close.

I was thinking about as a teacher, what I find most valuable from them.  I want you know to know of education technology and “new” teaching practices.  But I don’t want you to try and be an expert on any of them, or pretend to be.  The teachers need to be experts – or at least be trying to take the first step.  They are the ones that when it comes time to try something new in the classroom have to deal with the repercussions, whatever they may be.  They are the ones gaining the practical  experience from implementing new technology and teaching strategies – they’re the boots on the ground.  I think Admins that try to be an expert on say, teaching with an iPad are doomed to fail – since, in most cases, they’ve never taught with iPad.  Pretending your an expert is a bad idea. – the same goes for a teacher in the classroom.

But I do want them to at least know what a Chromebook is, and in general what it can do (and can’t.) I want you to know the difference in P(roject)BL and P(roblem)BL, but not necessarily even how to get started with either.  So the first thing I want is an Administrator of all trades and a master of none.  I want them to be able to have a conversation with me and at least understand the issue I might be having implementing something new.  But in no real way do I really expect the offer of a solution.  What I do want is my second desire, for Admin to, in as much as is possible, to really know what is going on in the building (and as mega bonus points – some other schools in the board.)  So when I say I’m trying to figure out how to use phones as student response systems (SRS), the only suggestion I want, is who else in the building has tried to do this.  Connect me with the person who has already gone (or is going) through the same thing.  They’re the person I want to talk with. They teach French and I teach Math, so maybe we don’t connect so often – but we’ll have common ground to discuss the SRS.  Getting connected to that person is invaluable.  The Interwebs and Twitterverse are great, but some face to face time is important.

I’m not suggesting that it is easy for an Administrator to really know what teachers are doing in their classrooms.  But it is mainly your teachers that are trying new things that you need to pay attention to.  Touch base with them.  Have a talk that in no way feels evaluative, but have them tell you what they’re trying.  Know your staff.  Know who might be willing to try something new but isn’t.  Maybe they’re looking at a challenge and not sure how to face it.  If a teacher mentions that they’re thinking of trying to create a class website, put them in touch with a teacher who is doing the same right now, or who is an expert.  If a teacher says that they aren’t sure how to increase student collaboration, send them to the science teacher doing inquiry based research assignments, or the math teacher using problem based learning.

An Administrator needs to develop that trust with their staff to have those conversations.  If you’re staff isn’t willing to have those conversations with you, then maybe there is some room to build more trust.  Once they start talking, keep those short conversations going.  Keep track of what they say.  Use a spreadsheet if necessary.  Build a file on your staff of what they say they have tried – be as specific as possible.  That way you are ready to go when the situation presents itself.  Once you have demonstrated to teacher A that you trust them enough to send teacher B for advice, they’ll keep you in the loop.

Know your staff better than you know your “stuff.”

I attended a PD session today focusing on assessment for learning and assessment as learning.  It was in a format where our secondary teachers were split across two locations.  I have my own views of professional development, but I’m very thankful for our staff work to provide PD opportunities.  I know first hand how much time it takes, and also how challenging it can be to put forward a day that is helpful to as many people as possible.  It is a daunting task, and I am extremely grateful to have colleagues that continue to put in that effort.

I wanted to bring up a couple points.  The first is that in my opinion, large venues continue to be a problem for professional development days.  There are people who are critical of, and resistant  to the efforts and ideas expressed during the day.  John Maxwell writes about how 30% of a staff will resist efforts to initiate change.  Unfortunately, these people may not just resist changing themselves of their practice, but they actively (intentional or not,) detract others from making the most of the time during talk, session, or workshop.  I think a large venue, where voices carry,  exasperates this problem.  It was a shame today, when we were discussing formative assessment, that has been shown to double the speed of student learning.  I know the format of the day may not appeal to everyone, but how can you not try to improve your understanding of a research proven strategy to double the speed of student learning?  My message to myself is, “if you’re not doing this, you may be half as effective as other teachers.”  I’m glad to have been surrounded by others today that were eager to discuss these ideas and strategies to implement them.

Today, John Ryall from the Ontario Ministry of Education discussed how he could wish he could apologize to the students he taught during the first five years of his practice.  I know exactly how he feels and have expressed the same sentiment myself.  I found it affirming to know he feels this way as well.  I also think it demonstrates a willingness to be reflective and critical of one’s own growth.  I think that attitude may be vital to make the most of any PD opportunity.  It is a growth mindset that helps a person improve, rather than believe that a degree in education was all the experience needed to be a great teacher.



The Long View

A while back I posted some critiques about the way boards and districts purchase education technology.  This is part of a larger critique I have about how teacher professional development often takes place.  More often than not, it is led by an “expert” who explains a methodology, framework, device, etc.  Session ends, teachers walk away, and not much else happens.  To me, this has a host of problems.  From an educational perspective, it is a passive try to “absorb some knowledge” type of experience.  From an organizational  perspective, it is top down; being driven by the goals of Administration which may or may not be clearly communicated.  From a business perspective, this type of PD is focused on short term goals.  The goal to increase skill A, for next year, stop.  Finally, in maybe a psychological meta-perspective, this type of “learning” creates disengaged participants who do not see value in the session, feel trivialized by organizers, and see the session as a necessary task to just get through.

I think the best way to change a professional development system is to have a long view.  But in order to do that, I think we need to accept a few things.  First, professional development in the manner I describe (and often experience) will only be effective for those teachers who really work to improve their practice.  These teachers will actively work during the session to get the most out of it.  In my experience, these are often new teachers, eager to learn.  Often this eagerness wanes, as the PD they receive doesn’t stick and they see PD days as less than effective.  Nevertheless, there is a group in an PD session that will make the most of it, no matter how good or bad.  (Edit: There is another group.  Teachers that are seeking to move to an admin role.  They need to either learn from the session, or appear to learn from the session.)

The second thing that needs to be accepted is that teachers are professionals.  I am aware that there are different levels of teachers.  All have different strengths.  But at the end of the day, treating teachers like they are professionals might mean that a few bad apples slip through the cracks.  However, treating teachers like they are not professionals belittles the vast majority and misses the opportunity to help them excel.  All PD structures should be based around a belief that teachers are professionals, and as professionals want the opportunity to improve their practice.

If we accept that the only teachers who really benefit from “PD sessions” are those that will likely benefit from any PD implementation, and that teachers are professionals who want to improve, then we can switch to a longer view of teacher professional development.  Let’s create teachers who are comfortable with being independent learners.  Give them the tools to collaborate with teachers from around the world, and give them the support to try new things.  If that culture of networked individuals who have a strong personal learning network is in place, we can further cultivate collaborative learning among teachers with common goals.

Networked Capacity Building

The first thing that needs to be done is to provide teachers the tools to network with each other and with teachers around the world.  Whether the tools are Twitter, of Google+, or something else, only a small part is really about the software.  Teachers do need to learn about how to use the tools.  They need to learn the appropriate way to use these tools and remain professional online.  They need to know how to find teacher and other professionals to follow, and how to organize their contacts.  But they also need to learn how to interact online.  How to progress from a passive consumer of all the good bits out there, to a contributor to a dialogue.  But we can’t simply demonstrate these tools.  We need to have teachers sit down at a computer (tablet, smartphone, etc.) and test drive these tools.  We need to periodically touch base with teachers who are struggling, and we need to make networked communication part of our school level communication.  This way teachers can become comfortable with the tools with people they know before branching out.  So we accomplish two short term goals: familiarize teachers with online networking tools, and foster a culture of communication at the school level.  But the trade off is that we stop PD sessions on other areas.  Some days are mandated topics.  But everything we can change to focus on developing a PLN – we do.  Those days that are (state, province) mandated, we make sure to include online networking portions by using shared online documents and discussions.  So while our PD in areas of assessment and instruction may come to a halt, we are taking a long term view of professional development.

Voluntary Community

This is perhaps the biggest departure from the current model.  We try to foster the development of communities of teachers with common learning goals.  With some PLN capacity building in place after the initial year, we seek out teachers with common learning goals to meet face to face.  The idea is to create professional learning communities (PLC’s) from teachers of different schools.  The face to face time is spent defining their goals for the year.  It may be curriculum based, technology based, or based on cross curricular instructional or assessment strategies.  The critical component is that these teachers will participate voluntarily (not volun-told.)  After an initial face to face to establish parameters, teachers continue online in whatever manner they choose.  Curriculum consultants and itinerants are free to interact with the PLC’s, however, they should not drive the PLCs in direction.  The goal is really to get a core group of teachers to experience collaborative professional learning rather than a group of teachers being instructed online by a consultant.  While other teachers continue with more directed PD sessions extending from year one, this new group of teachers are free to meet on PD days to enhance the collaboration that has taken place online between meetings.  Teachers in this group are encouraged to share what they are learning to the teachers at their own schools through their developing school PLN’s.

Voluntary Leaders

After 1-2 years of teachers being involved in voluntary PLC’s, we seek out individuals that now have experience in collaborative learning, to lead PLC’s at their own school.  The idea is that these leaders were the early adopters, and they will now on-board some of the more hesitant teachers at their own schools.  While the early adopters from the year before were more comfortable working with colleagues from other schools, this second group would benefit from starting with colleagues at their own school.  These PLC’s share their activities at their school PD days.  The goal is to continue fostering the culture of collaboration within the school while also continuing to familiarize teachers with collaborative learning,

Moving Forward

This three stage model has a distinct focus: to develop collaborative yet self directed educators.  We would always need to continue support teachers in the tools of online collaboration.  But the tools are the smallest amount of transformation.  Using Twitter is good, but opening up your own teaching practice and collaborating with others is truly transformational.  At this stage we are ready to think about how we move forward with PD.  We can create PLCs around specific goals (ex. implementing differentiated instruction in math.)  Wherever a district decides to go from here, we now have a critical mass of teachers that accelerate their learning through active collaboration.  We can develop administrators and consultants who learn with their teachers rather than speak to them of practices all to often they themselves have never implemented (or have seen) in a classroom.  If there are still resistant teachers to this new model, then they are likely teachers that would be resistant to any type of PD.  But we shouldn’t let a small group of feet-draggers hold back the growth of the majority professionals.

I have a friend who went to to a car dealership. The dealer showed him a new car, he spoke really fast and showed all the new features: Bluetooth, an HD rear-view camera, and a great warranty. The dealer then drove the car around a track showing my friend how great it handled, accelerated, etc. Then the dealer exclaimed “And there’s even more you’ll be able to do with it!” My friend asked about other cars. The dealer scoffed “Oh, yeah I guess you could get a different car. But it’s really not as good.” My friend asked how so. “Hey look, this car has a leather wrapped steering wheel!”

If my fictional friend buys this car without looking at other cars, without reading reviews on other cars, without reading reviews on that car, I would think him foolish. But the thing is, teachers and administrators do this every day with educational technology.

Buying a New Car, Errrr… Device

I think professional development is is often lacking when it comes to backing technology. I am a strong advocate for ensuring that teachers are prepared to make the most of the technology before we spend the money on the devices. I don’t think it makes much sense to buy 1000 of device X which do not transform teaching, when we could have bought 50 devices and ensured that we transform the practice of several teachers. Whatever the reduction in device cost necessary for teacher development is; it is worth it.

That said, plenty of professional development time that is technology focused is often professional advertising. Whether the ad is for Google, iPads, Chromebooks, Twitter, Smartboards, often the time is spent in a show-and-tell environment. I think there is a small place for this. It is a good way to have teachers see what is available, and maybe spark their imagination. The more of these I attend, the more I watch the reactions in the crowd, the more I have concerns.


It used to only be Apple advocates to earn this title. The individual that would think it necessary to promote Apple at every opportunity. In their minds, Apple never made mistakes. To that fact I think Apple has been a great marketer. Now that technology is embraced by the masses, it isn’t just Apple that marches with a battalion of Fanboys, but now Google and Android and others as well. I’d like to say that anyone that thinks their device or brand is infallible, is a Fanboy. I am using Fanboy as opposed to Fanpeople, because this is the historical term. Fanboyness doesn’t discriminate by gender.

While being a Fanboy in your personal life is ok, it has no place in education. Choosing devices is about what is the best device for the job (currently, or in the future.) When photocopiers were introduced I’m sure that there were teachers complaining about them being more complicated (maybe the phrase “new-fangled” was used) than their current mimeo machine. But I doubt that anyone defended the purple colour and alcohol smell of the mimeo because they identified themselves with the machine that an attack on the machine was an attack on themselves. And that is what we now face every day. People identify themselves with a brand.  When someone points out that it would be nice if my Chromebook had a camera on the lid, I agree. That’s the appropriate response. Fanboys will deny any deficiencies exist, claim that the feature isn’t necessary, or attack your device. All of this will a healthy dose of snark. This closes dialogue and prevents teachers from coming together to share ideas that go beyond the device and have the potential to improve learning. People, let’s leave the badges at the door – you are more than your device.

Snake Oil

There are two types of EdTech Snake Oil Salespeople: the amateur and the professional. The amateur will show you something cool and shiny on the web that you could do in the classroom. They will try and dazzle you with an app that will replace your current classroom activity. Not enhance, improve, or transform, but replace. They will show you as many apps and features as possible. They will switch screens quickly and talk even quicker. The better ones will throw in some jokes that subtly attack their competitors. Their EdTech linaments will cure all your ailments, for a reasonable cost of $15,000 for your class. But can you really put a price on learning? The key to their pitch is to overwhelm your senses and not allow you to form a deep thought or question. They also like to present to groups. If everyone else is nodding and smiling, you’re not about to question the ingredients are you?

The professional salesperson is an evolved animal. He knows there are some in the crowd that have their doubts. She knows that at least some in the crowd will question the app or device. Someone in the audience will say it’s about pedagogy, and the device needs to support it. The best ones will even claim that the device doesn’t matter. They need you to believe that education is at the top of their list. Make no mistake, your students are at the top of your list, sales are at the top of theirs. By telling you that the device doesn’t matter, they are trying to gain your trust. I once had a mechanic tell me “Yeah, if you want, you can wait and get it fixed somewhere else.” He was put off when I did just that. He was trying to put himself on my team, we’re looking after what is best for me and my car, if he profits from it, it is a pleasant side effect. Once the salesperson has you believing that you both have the same interests and that the device doesn’t matter, the pitch of the device is that much more believable. She is after all, a trusted advisor that gains nothing right?

The truth is, more and more corporate reps present at PD events. This makes sense. They get to set up a salesperson who showcases a device for a living. It is their job to make using the device look easy to use. They know all the bells and whistles. They (now) are also well read on education so they can throw around some education buzzwords. More often, they are often former teachers. So now your salesperson has some street cred. Think all former teachers have only your students’ interest at heart? Ask former teacher turned Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Our school boards continue to bring these people in for a few reasons. First, they are good salesperson. Not just of a device, but they sell the idea of being an innovative teacher. They get people excited – get some butts out of the seats. Second, they are free. They are paid by the manufacturer/corporation not the school board. Third, they are readily available. There is no need to ask a teacher to take on the extra work of presenting to staff. I think those reasons are not good enough; I think this creates…


I often think about the enormous responsibility we have to ensure our students think critically about the world around them.  It is far too easy to present a one sided argument so that students pick up your world view.  But students need to learn to think for themselves, and promoting one viewpoint to students is contrary to this idea.  But this is what happens in school boards all the time.  Someone brings in a representative from their company of choice to talk to teachers new to EdTech.  These teachers, newly exposed to the technology, see this company as their saviour.  Far too often these teachers consume what a salesperson says as perfect honesty, that will cure their teaching maladies.  School board staff has the responsibility of  properly researching options before they buy, and certainly before they promote a device or technology to their staff.  Unfortunately, too many teachers are sheeple.  They will blindly follow a certain tech mantra without questioning if their are better options.  Researching options can be a daunting task for a teacher, that’s why they rely on school board staff that is supposed to specialize in this area.  But if these staff are Fanboys that are buying Snake Oil, sheeple arise.

I’m all for devices of different shapes and sizes – let’s question what we want to do, and critically assess our options.


If you are against BYOD, you are either someone in the Gary Stager camp with real concerns, or you are a device salespersons.  The Gary’s have real arguments that may or may not be true in how you plan on using those devices.  If you are a device salesperson, your argument is that it’s so hard to manage all those devices.  The reality is that your pedagogy and your content should be device independent.  Otherwise, you will probably find yourself in a cycle of redoing things for a new platform.  If I use web based apps, they work with an iPad, laptop, Chromebook, desktop and I don’t care which one I use.  Apple would try and tell me that a student made iBook  is revolutionary.  “Look! Text, images, video all together!”  Yes, it’s like a website.  Except you have to package it as a file to share it (and until recently) Apple kind of owned your content, and it’s not collaborative, and is more limited in the content you can bring into it.  But it has a page turn animation – game changing.  Every company, including Google and Microsoft have their own rhetoric.  But let’s try to cut through all that.

This book review is a long time coming.  The book took me some time to completely finish, for an ironical reason.  The book helped me professionally so much, that I found myself being asked to be involved with various tech-related committees and groups withing my school board.  I could have said no of course, but I found the experience thrilling as I was involved in some wonderful discussions surrounding technology, professional development for teachers, and the future direction of our Board and education as a whole.  This came at the expense of my reading time.

The Connected Educator is written by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach) and Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall).  I heard about the book right around its release date in October.  Sheryl was co-delivering the keynote address at the ECOO Conference in North York Ontario.  The address was far and away anything but a “speech.”  It was an interactive and thought provoking session.  This was someone who’s views on education I was definitely interested in.  So I started reading the book (and later following them on Twitter and Facebook.)

The book wastes no time jumping into ideas and concepts immediately useful to a teacher or administrator.  I have read my share of edu-books that touch on studies with very little practical use to a classroom teacher.  The Connected Educator masters a blend of ideas, activities, and supporting research to get a teacher “connected.”  I have always been a tech savvy person, but the book had me trying new things and expanding my Personal Learning Network (PLN) before I finished the first chapter.  It certainly opened my eyes to the benefiets of being connected.  I had always scoured the web for teaching resources, but this was more.

Sheryl and Lani got me thinking about things in a new way.  I found myself becoming connected to teachers, authors, researchers and others who challenged my own views.  I became much more of a participant in a conversation about education, and what is best for our kids.  I was no longer just sitting on the sidelines of the discussion.  I think the best thing I can say about this book is that it was a catalyst for my own professional development.   Once I followed some of the activities in the book, it wasn’t long before I was learning and discovering resources and ideas more beneficial to my classroom practice than most (all?) of my previous traditional PD.  This took place within the first couple chapters.  I did not have to wait to complete the book to see the value in reading.

Beyond being connected, Sheryl and Lani discuss direct ways change your teaching practice.  Rather than just a “how-to” on being connected, they discuss the importance of helping students create their own learning networks.  They bring up many resources available to be introduced into the lives of your students to not only enhance their learning of curriculum, but to develop them as lifelong learners (and not just as a buzz word.)

The later chapters really speak to not only teachers, but administrators as well.  I think it is a must-read for teachers; it is probably that much more important for school and board administrators to read as well.  We need to question where are resources are directed when we support teacher’s professional development.  The book speaks to implementing a connected learning community among staff.  It is one of the gems in the book.  If the book is a catalyst for my own development, than any teacher I “bring into the fold” certainly owes thanks to the authors.  I think connecting teachers together and to the wider community should be a mandate of administrators.  It is the way to ensure continual and meaningful professional development for educators.

As I mentioned, once I started this book I really had the vocabulary to have meaningful discussions with other teachers and administrators.  I was asked to be part of my board’s professional development planning committee, planning for our board-wide PD day next year.  While I might not be able to overthrow the PD system, I’m certainly trying to embed some elements of teacher development I have taken away from this book.  I certainly feel more knowledgeable about the future of teacher development, and confident to share those ideas.

Finally, the book simply reads well.  It gets you to think critically without being overpowering.  The only reason to put it down is to get online and start putting into practice the activities shared throughout.  If you think you don’t have time to read a book right now, do yourself a favour and purchase it for the summer.