How do we help schools move away from the one-size-fits-all factory PD model?

This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. 

A lodestone is a magnetite rock on a string, a rough compass that helped pioneers navigate their bearings. The lodestone for 21st century learners is student-centered education. When kids are empowered through such an effective model, they become intrinsically motivated. However, each time I go to a sit-and-get professional-development session for teachers I ask myself: If we know students don’t learn through sit-and-get, why do we keep expecting adult learners to do so?

We’ve all been there, groaning when we get an email for another meeting. A hastily planned learning experience by a well-meaning but overburdened administrator, or an eager teacher sharing how the latest program will work for everyone else in the district. The intent is golden, but it is just not that easy. If it were, we could watch a TEDTalk or read the latest education best-seller and become fast experts. Unfortunately, that’s not how learning works.

Realistically, we know each teacher is unique in his or her content expertise, background knowledge, and experiences. And professional learning communities, while useful for solving problems, are just not enough for the myriad needs of individual educators.

Schools are traditionally comfortable using a one-size-fits-all factory PD model, ignoring disengaged teachers checking Facebook or papers. That raises an important question:What else is possible for professional development?

Game On

Many teacher-powered PD models have evolved that promote personalization opportunities. One is individually paced, gamified professional development (e.g., From Bettendorf High School, developed by Chris Like and LeAnne Wagner). Using specific district goals and targeting a distinct focus can create lots of learner voice and choice. Popular options like this are mushrooming across the country.

  • Advantage: Locally developed individual PD is customizable for schools that have available staff time and the technical ability to develop resources to target local needs.
  • Disadvantage: Lots of time and resources being devoted to PD development may tax a staff’s abilities.

Building Communities

A second way to approach personalized learning is to let teachers work and document participation as individuals or members of a virtual community. The decentralized nature of the internet is actually an advantage here, as it can lead us into new pedagogy customized into a content or skill focus. Password-protected platforms such as the virtual communities at the CTQ Collaboratory, the NSTA Learning CenterTeaching Channel Video PDBloomboard, and a host of others can go beyond what some other social media opportunities can offer.

Astute readers may push back on that idea. What, specifically, do the options listed above offer that a Twitter chat, Pinterest board, or educational news site do not contain? The answer is in depth of drill-down. We’ve all bookmarked ideas or favorite tweets and then forgotten to revisit them. Serendipity, coupled with good hashtagging, can narrow the field, but it does not do the hard work of activating prior knowledge, engaging with new material, encountering cognitive dissonance, and reflecting to build new knowledge in long-term memory. To put it another way, watching The Martian or a Chris Hadfield video does not make us a trained astronaut. It may pique our interest, but it is not likely to restructure our educational understanding. Hard work and time are necessary for that.

  • Advantage: Password-protected virtual communities offer a safe space for teachers to discuss selected topics, question old assumptions, and work on new learnings.
  • Disadvantage: Administrators who don’t believe that work will occur in these venues without supervision will want to micromanage the process. Trust is a critical assumption for this type of learning.

Gauging Competency

Finally, we all learn every day as part of our individual journey on this spinning globe, whether it’s mastering a transferable tech skill or absorbing lyrics to a popular song. Each one of us knows that feeling of confidence a great new teaching tool can bring. Unfortunately, while that’s awesome for individuals, it’s a tough sell for administrators who need more than personal testimony to document robust professional learning. Credit courses, workshops, and online options can meet licensure requirements, but at prices ranging from $350 to $500 per credit hour, it’s expensive evidence.

Bridging that divide has been a conversation for years in the ed-tech environments, with some experts advocating for learning and documenting digital skills. Mozilla’s Open Badging project is maturing, building a cohesive system among the talents, badges, and certificates that abound on the web. And if we can develop these for students, why not educators? Digital Promise and CoSN are just two of the many organizations working to make badges a type of competency-based approach to individual professional development.

And once we move to competencies, everything changes. The learning becomes about what we know and can do, regardless if we are self-taught, university-schooled, classified as a newbie, or a veteran teacher. It’s about evidence, and criteria for success, proving I can walk the walk to meet student needs. It allows us to work with our students to improve their learning and our teaching.

These badges, or micro-credentials, are keyed in on specific skills and that is exciting to me. Think of it as a miniature version of National Board certification or PAEMST, complete with indicators, rubrics, and an evaluation of real work.

  • Advantage: Badges hone in on evidence-based pedagogy and utilize rubrics and student samples on a wide variety of topics, ranging from virtual community organizing to learner motivation. Because they are based on evidence, they provide a documented trail of informal learning for districts that can be personalized to each individual.
  • Disadvantage: Badging is a relatively new concept, which can be difficult for those who want to wait for the surety of paved roads and easy journeys. Are we ready for something new?

Sit-and-get professional development as a strategy led by administrators and outside authorities needs to sunset. Instead, shift autonomy and authority to teacher leaders and district leadership teams. Teachers across the country are ready to take out that compass, align their learning lodestone, and hike and travel to new destinations. Who better to know and share with colleagues what skills students need than the individuals who work with our students across the nation each day?

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