Rethinking teacher professional development

(This bit is cross posted over at Simple K12)

If you were to ask any of the thousands of teachers who attended one of the 26 edcamps that have been held in the past two years to describe the most important characteristics of effective professional development for educators, you might be surprised by one of their first answers:

A blank bulletin board and a bunch of empty classrooms.

You see, edcamps—free learning conferences organized by educators and for educators—all begin with participants joining together in a central meeting place deciding on topics worth studying and creating an ad hoc schedule of sessions for the day.

Anyone can volunteer to lead a conversation on a topic that they are interested in at an edcamp.  Passionate about the role that social media can play in teaching and learning?

Add it to an open slot on the scheduling board.

Motivated to learn more about teaching science to middle grades students?

Add it to an open slot on the scheduling board.

Deeply interested in finding ways to integrate arts into classrooms across the curricula?

Add it to an open slot on the scheduling board.

“It surprises me every time,” says Dan Callahan—one of the founders of the edcamp movement and a digital friend of mine. “You walk in and that schedule board is empty and by the end of an hour it is full of more stuff than you can get to.”

From there, participants design their own learning plan for the day.

 

They pick sessions that pique their interests or meet their professional needs—and more importantly, they join together with other educators who share the same interests or who are tackling the same professional needs.

By the end of the day, participants walk away energized—and empowered by a collection of new ideas and individuals to learn from.

That’s crazy-talk, isn’t it?

Teachers—who have a bad reputation for groaning every time that they’re asked to be learners in the traditional PD sessions planned and delivered by districts—are willingly joining together to  spend their weekends engaged in powerful conversations about teaching and learning?

This dichotomy between the reaction teachers have towards traditional professional development and the experiences they have at edcamps shouldn’t be surprising at all argues West Clermont Schools district superintendent M.E. Steele-Pierce in this piece for the Washington Post.

She writes:

“Unconferences matter because they harness the power of authentic learning.

Here’s what I know:

• The learning revolution is about moving from expert-driven learning to self-authorized learning.

• The expert voices are already among us.

• Differentiation is as important for adults as it is for students.

• Powerful, adult learning occurs when it is personal, social and voluntary.”

Makes a heck of a lot of sense, doesn’t it?  Essentially, edcamp proponents like Steele-Pierce understand that teachers aren’t resistant to learning.

Instead, they are resistant to the forced marches through topics unconnected to their personal interests or needs that pass for professional development in most schools and districts.

So how can you make sure that the adult learning in your school and/or district becomes more personal, social and voluntary?

Consider these five suggestions:

Begin releasing control over professional development choices.

Let me make something perfectly clear:  I understand just how scary it must be for school leaders—who are held directly accountable for the performance of teachers—to release control over professional development choices.

Heck—if I was going to be held directly accountable for the performance of dozens of adults with a wide range of abilities, I’d probably micromanage every professional development choice, too.

I also understand that the edcamp approach to PD is messy.

It IS hard to believe that meaningful learning can start and end with a blank bulletin board—especially when you are charged with driving growth and change across entire schools and/or districts.

Tight-fisted approaches to adult learning inevitably backfire, though, because teachers—like any student—need to be invested and engaged before they can truly learn.

Integrating elements of the edcamp approach into your professional development plans sends powerful messages to your classroom teachers.

When you find ways to release control over some of the professional development choices in your schools and/or districts, you are saying, “We believe in what you know and can do when you study practice together.”

You’re also saying, “We trust that you know your personal needs and that—when given the time and space—you’ll work to improve.”

And those are exactly the type of messages that professional learners thrive on.

Use clear vision statements to guide the professional development choices of educators.

I’ve spent the better part of the past week in an intellectual cage match with a buddy of mine about the important role that vision statements—clear, precise descriptions of an ideal future state for classrooms, schools and districts—can play in school improvement.

While many educators underestimate the importance of vision statements, they can be invaluable for school leaders interested in releasing control over professional development choices, especially when they are precise and specific—like these that guide the work of the social studies department at Adlai Stevenson High School.

You see, once teachers and learning teams have a clear set of vision statements to guide their work, you can ask—even require—that their professional development choices be connected to individual statements.

That provides teachers with the freedom to pursue studies customized to their own needs and school leaders with a measure of confidence that time spent in edcamp style sessions will still move schools forward in a a somewhat systematic fashion.

Don’t limit authentic, teacher-driven learning experiences to unconferences.

One of my only worries about the edcamp movement is that it will get swallowed by the educational hierarchy.

Convinced that some level of choice in professional development programming makes sense, well-intentioned school leaders will create once-a-year district level edcamps where teachers spend eight hours sowing their “design-my-own-learning” oats.

If that happens—and I’m way convinced that it could—the edcamp movement would be a failure simply because authentic, teacher-driven learning experiences should be a part of the everyday work of every district.

For school leaders, that means finding ways to encourage ongoing, teacher-directed, collaborative learning at the building level.

And nothing encourages ongoing, teacher-directed collaborative learning at the building level better than professional learning communities.

Need proof?

Then look at how PLCs have changed my practice.

Remember that teachers will need help in learning how to learn with each other.

As confident as I am that teachers should be given more control over their own learning, I’m also realistic enough to know that there are a lot of specific skills that we will need to master in order to direct this growth in a productive and meaningful way.

We need to know more about instructional reflection skills like prioritizing our choices based on an understanding of student needs and making the results of our learning transparent to our peers.

We also need to know more about team-based collaboration skills like conducting effective conversations and coming to consensus around important issues worth studying.

We need to learn how to manipulate data to identify important trends in learning results, how to identify the relationship between instructional practices and student learning outcomes, and how to embrace team-based conflict as a tool for collective growth.

By systematically building our skills in these areas, school leaders increase the likelihood that teacher-driven professional development opportunities will be meaningful and efficient—and will yield tangible results for schools and for students.

Find ways to reward the learning that teachers do away from schools.

I’m going to tell you a frustratingly uncomfortable truth:  I learn FAR more away from school than I do in school.

By regularly interacting with other eduthinkers in my Twitterstream, my Google Reader, and my own blog, I am almost always learning something that is directly connected to the work that I am doing in my own classroom and/or school.

Just this morning, I spent about 2 hours studying iPad Apps that might be useful for my students, the characteristics of effective professional development, and the way that conversations about assessment in classrooms need to shift.

ALL of that learning is  directly connected to the work that I’m doing with students and teachers in my school, but I won’t earn ANY professional development credit for it.

That’s just nuts.

The solution is relatively simple:  School leaders must advocate for—or create on their own—policies that allow teachers to earn licensure credit for the learning that they are doing on their own.

What could it look like in action?

Here’s a tracking document that I created for my next book that could serve as a starting point for conversations on how to reward teachers for being independent learners.

 

Does any of this make sense?  Basically, what I’m arguing is that teacher choice in professional development programming is essential if schools are ever going to really see significant changes in teaching and learning.

More importantly, I’m arguing that introducing teacher choice into professional development programming doesn’t have to be a risky proposition for school leaders.

By relying on clear vision statements, helping teachers to learn more about the skills connected to collaborative learning, and designing policies that reward teachers for anytime-anywhere learning, school leaders can begin to release control over professional development programs AND ensure that school improvement efforts are systematic all at the same time.