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.
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.
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,
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.