Bringing learning to the Rubes. . .

Hayes Mizell has been one of my professional heroes since the day that I churned through his book Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform in about 6 hours.  Hayes always seems to find the insights that I overlook and shares them in a way that makes me think.

I just found a new blog that Hayes has started for the NSDC and was blown away by the first entry that I read.  In it, Hayes talks about a flaw that I’ve fought against in teacher professional development over the course of my career.  He writes:

Verbs are powerful. They not only describe an action, they also suggest the intent that drives the action. When educators talk about professional development, they frequently use the verbs “provide” or “deliver” (some foreign English-language newspapers use “imparted”). This usage suggests one person possesses professional development and gives it to another person, like a package or a tool.

But professional development is not a commodity (though some vendors market it that way). No educator develops as a professional because someone “delivers” learning to them. Professionals grow by actively seeking new knowledge and skills, by reflecting on their experiences and learning from the experiences of others, and by practice.

 

Hayes couldn’t be more accurate when describing the general attitude around teacher professional development.  A false—and incredibly frustrating—belief that teachers must sit in sessions delivered by “experts” in order to grow as professionals still exists in education no matter how much smoke we blow about professional learning communities or communities of practice.  While we talk a good talk about the ability of teams of teachers to learn together, little real value is placed on any kind of professional growth that teachers pursue on their own.

Need proof?  Then consider these two events from my own career:

Almost 7 years ago, our state required that all teachers earn at least 2 continuing education credits (the equivalent of 20 hours worth of study) in technology.  The thinking was solid:  Our world is changing, yet our classrooms are not.  In order to ensure that teachers are growing as digital educators, there should be some expectation that the study of technology play a part of their ongoing learning.

The problem was that for guys like me who are on the cutting edge of technology—and have been for years—-the kinds of technology classes being offered at the school and district level were woefully inadequate.  I can remember looking over the course catalog and being shocked by classes titled “Email and You: A New Way to Communicate,” “Getting to Know Your Computer,” and “Getting to Know the Internet,” because all would be a waste of 20 hours of my time.  Not only would such classes leave me bored and frustrated, they would give me absolutely nothing to take back to my classroom.

Wanting to be a team player, I decided to suck it up and take a class being offered by the technology specialist at our school on Hyperstudio—a Powerpoint-ish program that was popular at the time and that I’d started to experiment with.  When she handed out materials that I’d developed for a professional development session delivered to the faculty of a different school months before, I realized that there was no way that I could hope to learn anything new.

So I called the professional development contact at our state’s Department of Public Instruction in an attempt to get approval for an independent study on digital moviemaking in the classroom.  That may sound routine today, but 7 years ago, digital moviemaking was in its infancy and I wanted to find a way to incorporate it into my instruction.  I’d purchased several hundred dollars worth of my own equipment and promised to document the lessons that I learned so that there was an artifact to evaluate before I was awarded continuing education credit.

The conversation went something like this:

BF: “Hi. I’ve got a question to ask.  I’m in need of twenty hours worth of technology credits, but I can’t find anything offered by the school, district or state that will challenge me.  I know that I’m a bit different because I’ve been working with technology for a long while—so I understand that the classes you’re offering are probably appropriate for the majority of teachers—-but I was hoping to get approval for an independent study on digital moviemaking in the classroom.  It’s something I’m starting to explore because I think it’s got great potential to motivate kids.”

SD: “Mr. Ferriter, I find it hard to believe that there is nothing that we’re offering that you couldn’t learn from.  Have you seen the course titled Getting to Know the Internet?  It’s been very well received and it’s being delivered by one of our top experts.”

BF:  “Yes, I saw that one.  The only thing is I’ve been using websites to communicate with my parents and students for something like 2 years now, so I worry that the content covered in Getting to Know the Internet might be a step or two behind where I am developmentally.  Besides, the digital moviemaking that I’m doing is directly tied to what I’m teaching.  I’m planning on having students in my Language Arts class create short commercials showing elements of bias, which is a part of our curriculum.”

SD: “No, Mr. Ferriter.  This won’t be allowed.  You must take a course from our approved list and from a proven expert.  Otherwise, we can’t be sure that you’ll really be better prepared to serve the students in your class.”

BF:  “But what I’m telling you is that you’re not offering any classes that will ‘better prepare’ me.  I’m already using the Internet, I understand how to use email, and the people delivering classes are using my materials in their sessions.  If you make me take these courses, I’ll be following your rules but I won’t be learning anything.  How does that help either me or my students?  What’s more, how is that a good use of our state’s professional development dollars?”

SD: “Thank you for your concerns, Mr. Ferriter.  Now sign up for a course on the approved list.”

BF: “You realize that I won’t learn anything.”

SD:  “Yes, Mr. Ferriter.  Now sign up for a course on the approved list.”

This kind of struggle goes on for me even today.  Most recently, I’m working to get reading renewal credits for the extensive professional reading and writing that I’ve done.  After all, in the past 2 years, I’ve published 258 blog entries, 7 articles in journals like Education Leadership and the Journal for Staff Development, 2 chapters for 2 different books on assessment for Solution Tree and a 280-page manuscript for my first full-length book, which will be released by Solution Tree this summer.

My argument is that by reading and writing on the highest levels, I am learning skills that I can translate into my teaching with students.  I know what it means to make sense of text and have a solid understanding of the ways that authors influence readers and organize information.  Public articulation—a skill that I’m required to teach my students—is something I’ve invested thousands of hours into.  While I haven’t sat and listened to “approved experts” explain the reading process to me, I’ve read something like 100 books and then churned what I’ve learned from those texts into new knowledge.

The first response in a conversation that hasn’t ended yet was anything but promising: “While your writing is impressive, Mr. Ferriter, it doesn’t make you better prepared to teach young readers and writers.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that I don’t take professional development seriously at all.  (How’s that for a scary statement from an educator?!)  It’s become something that I do because I have to, but I generally sit in the back grading papers or writing plans instead of learning anything new.  I rack up tons of hours of “continuing education credit,” but I’d argue that those hours are misleading:  I learn far more from my professional work beyond professional development sessions than I do sitting in classes with the experts on the approved lists.

It’s funny because the greatest thinkers around education in our country are constantly preaching about returning innovation and imagination to the classroom, right?  Yet innovation and imagination are strangely absent from our thinking around teacher learning.  There, we rely on an antiquated model of “bringing learning to the rubes.”

I’d go as far as to argue—and I think that Hayes would agree—-that when we lock ourselves into the idea that there are “approved experts” and “approved lists” solely responsible for delivering knowledge to teachers, we actually limit the learning potential of our schools by holding back all teachers—but especially our top-performers.  Worse yet, we send horrible messages about what the learning in our classrooms should look like.

Can we really be surprised when teachers don’t give students independent opportunities to learn when they’re not given those same opportunities in their own learning?  Is it really a shock that the “teacher-as-expert” model of instruction still has a stranglehold on our classrooms when it remains the primary model of professional development for educators?

Does any of this resonate with you?  Do you find that teachers in your world are completing “continuing education credits” just to follow the rules?  Have the structures that your school, district or state got in place for improving the human capacity of teachers been effective or ineffective?

Why?  What changes to the professional learning of teachers would you recommend?