Maybe the Key to Teacher Professional Development is Not Professional Development

How can it be that professional development is not the key to teacher professional development? What I mean is that the common understanding of professional development as training events is not what actually results in teachers growing professionally.  If we focus upon the events and activities, we may miss out on what actually helps educators refine their knowledge, skill and ability to help students learn. If it doesn’t come from in-services, conferences, workshops, and courses, then what does help?

To be fair, these can help, but other factors come first.  These are the conditions that allow those other professional development activities to have a significant impact upon teachers.

1) A Culture of High Standards and Expectations

This does not mean that I champion some sort of merciless, top-down drill-sergeant leadership. It does mean that a culture of high expectations impacts us.  It is not a coincidence that history is full of innovators, authors and change-agents who spent time with each other.  They challenged each other toward greatness.  When I was a child, someone once claimed, “Show me your friend’s and I’ll show you your future.”  There is much that I didn’t like about that statement and I still don’t.  At the same time, there is a proverbial truth to it. The culture and standards of those around us can inspire, encourage, and challenge in positive ways.  A culture of low standards, minimal expectations for teachers, and one where teacher’s don’t except one another to be their best for the students will have an adverse impact on teacher growth and development. I’m one of the last people to argue for rigid and legalistic standards for teachers, but in all of my visits to schools over the years, it is hard to deny that high expectations among teachers make a difference.

2) A Culture of Formative Feedback 

We get better with specific feedback on how we are doing.  This is why many emphasize the importance of reflective practice for teachers.  That is essentially a form of formative self-feedback, and it helps us think about how things went, what we want to keep doing, what we need to change, and how we can better meet the needs of different learners.  At the same time, self-feedback is often not enough.  Feedback from students, parents, other teachers, and coaches also helps. Each gives insight on something of value.  Students help us to see things from their perspective and they might offer us with an insight about what they need that we are unable to se from a teacher or parent perspective. Fellow teachers give us good and important feedback based upon their own knowledge of teaching and learning.  In addition, a gifted teaching and learning coach, trained to focus upon that which has the greatest impact, can be a powerful resource for personal and professional growth.  However, all of this is largely ineffective without a person (and even a teacher culture) that values, accepts and embraces formative feedback, and sees it as something than can help one grow as an effective educator.

3) A Growth Mindset and a Culture of Trust

This requires teachers having a growth mindset (confidence that they can get better) and for there to be a community of trust, one where teachers are not fearful of letting some of their limitations and challenges be seen by others. For the growth mindset, that means letting go of this idea that teaching is nothing more than a gift that you have or you don’t, that it is somehow a genetic trait. Anyone can become a better teacher, and it is important for each teacher to believe this. Once that is in place, then the trust becomes important. Not only do we need to believe that we can get better, we need to be able to be vulnerable and trust others to help us grow.  This vulnerability can be difficult for any of us, but as we develop a culture of trust and openness, we also help build a culture that embraces the power of formative feedback.

4) A Culture of Teaching and Learning

Already a decade ago, the idea of professional learning communities started to gain attention in schools.  Not long after that, we found countless schools hosting “professional learning teams” that rarely discussed student learning, strategies to improve student learning, and how to make adjustment to help students learn.  Instead, I found many groups of teachers gathering to discuss how to address behavior in the hallway or any number of secondary issues.  At the same time, when I visited schools that were known for high levels of student growth and learning, I heard teachers, students and administrators talking with each other about teaching and learning. Their focus was upon what students were learning, how they were progressing, how they could make adjustments to help with the learning, how to remove barriers to learning, and how to further support and empower students.  These conversations were often specific, practical, and quickly turned into action. If we want to see teachers thrive in helping foster high-impact learning communities of students, then that requires having a community that truly places learning as a core value.

5) A Student Learning First Mindset

This seems obvious, but if we watch the policies, rules and practices in learning organizations of all levels, we quickly see things set in place based upon teacher need, interest or preference. Usually, this is easily seen in scheduling of classes, the structure of classes, grading plans in courses, and many classroom rules and procedures.  In fact, we’ve become so used to this that we sometimes don’t notice such things even when they are brought to our attention.  Consider, for example, what day of the week certain assignments are due. What about policies on “late work”? While the reason given might sound like they are about the students (to teach them timelines, for example), that is not always the full story. There is a need to be realistic with this fifth point.  This is not about letting students do everything they want or about teachers burning themselves out. This is simply about re-evaluating our practices and polices in view of what will best help students learn, even when it requires teachers to change.

As we have these five elements in growing measure, then we are likely to see professional development having a greater benefit for teachers.  They will seek out and learn from these other PD activities in a way that helps them genuinely grow as effective educators.

There are certainly examples of excellent teachers who cling to these five values even when they are not present in their school as a whole, and these teachers often continue to have a large and lasting impact.  Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and exciting thing to see an entire learning organization that holds to these five values.  It can made for a pleasant, challenging, inspiriting learning community where students and teachers are growing and learning together in often impressive and unexpected ways.

Helping Students Develop Personal Learning Networks

I had a great time this week connecting with people around the world at the Global Education Conference. This free and open online conference is one of best that I’ve seen, including participants and presenters from seemingly every continent.  As part of the event, I had a chance to present on a couple of topics: one about global perspectives on grading and assessment and a second on helping students development personal learning networks. This post is a chance to recap and reflect further on that second topic.

Personal Learning Networks have been around for some time.  The idea of a PLN is simply a network of people and resources through which you learn and grow.  Books like Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education and The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age both give a helpful introduction to this concept and what it means for educators.

However, there is a smaller and potentially even more significant conversation about personal learning networks that is taking place. That consists of a growing number of us who are looking at the idea of a personal learning network, combining it with the promise and possibility of self-directed learning and starting to think more about how we might empower and encourage students to cultivate their own personal learning networks.

What if learning communities and organizations made student personal learning networks an integral part of the learning experience? As students progress through their schooling years, what if they cultivated a deeper and more substantive global personal learning network? Informed by the idea of connectivism, a student personal learning network is one that helps learners not only learn about a given topic, but also grow in their understanding of how to cultivate and make use of knowledge networks. It is one thing to study world geography out of a textbook. It an entirely different experience to connect with people around the world, learning from each, comparing and contrasting geography in different parts of the world, and building meaningful and sometimes persistent connections with people around the world.

A Little Learning Theory Background 

If we look at some of the trends in education over the past century, we can see them as extensions of four learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism. Behaviorism is where we get things like measurable learning objectives in education. This is the body of work that focused upon observable behavior, reward, punishments, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Behaviorism is often associated with names like Watson, Skinner and Thorndike.

The influence of behaviorism in education can be traced to the early part of the 20th century, but it continues to inform thought and practice today. We see it informing the work of many scholars and educators over the last century, and it can also be seen as a significant influence in the push toward the use of observable and measurable learning objectives. Teachers in the 1960s and 1970s started to be introduced to this idea through books like Robert Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, but by the 1980s use of such objectives became common practice in schools around the United States. If you can’t see it, measure it and document it, then it loses significance from a behaviorist perspective.

Alongside the influence of behaviorism we saw the development of cognitivism.  One of the more well-known educational influences of this movement relates to the idea of developmental psychology, when we discovered that the brain develops in certain stages and we can start to plan learning experiences based upon where people are in these developmental stages.  Where behaviorism focused upon external observable behavior, cognitivism invited attention to the inner workings of brain.

Constructivism emerged amid these two perspectives on learning, adding yet another strand to the conversation.  As the name might suggest, constructivism focused upon the idea that knowledge is not simply something that one person transfers to another, but knowledge is constructed within an individual through experience. For many educators, John Dewey is likely the first name that comes to mind when thinking about such ideas. You may also think of people like Vygotsky, Kolb, and Montessori.

While I represent these three as if they came in a nice and neat chronology, the reality is that they often crossed paths with another. We see amply evidence of them intermingling, especially when we look at educational models and practices over the last century.  Today it is common to find a educators who describe their educational philosophy and practice in a way that seems to relate to all three of these in one way or another.

More recently, even into the 21st century, we find yet another perceptive added to the conversation. George Siemens and Stephen Downes introduced connectivism, which seems to suggest that knowledge is not simply something that exists in our brains.  Instead, knowledge exists in our connections with other people, resources and communities.  This resonates with the experience of many in this digital and information age, as we often find that our connections with others is what enables us to work and flourish.  Medical professionals rely upon complex data systems and other professionals for certain tasks.  Even historians, sometimes thought of as solitary scholars, now share rich data sets on the web and collaborate with one another to carry out research goals and tasks (See the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database as an example).

Self-directed Learning

Now allow me to turn our attention to the topic of self-directed learning for a moment.  As I look at learning organizations today, I see two major approaches to teaching and learning.  I will use a fishing analogy for this example. Some schools are set up as fish distribution centers. They are like fish markets where a person is given a fish and can then prepare it and eat it.  Other learning organizations function more like places of fishing lessons.  They don’t just give out the fish.  They teach the people how to fish for themselves.  The first is the school that seems content with distribution as the goal, leaving the learners dependent upon a teacher to grow and learn. The second focuses upon equipping learners with the ability to learn for themselves, allowing them to develop the skills necessary to thrive as a learner for life. From this perspective, the goal of a learning organization is to help students progress toward independence.

In reality, few learning organization are one or the other of these two. They are most often at some point in a spectrum between the two.  Some focus upon content distribution with some opportunity for self-directed learning, while others are heavy on self-directed learning with occasional content distribution. An easy way to think about this is to consider the spectrum of a school based upon four questions (as seen below). One the one side we have a more teacher-directed approach. On the right side, we have a more self-directed approach.  Usually we find schools that vary on the spectrum for the four questions.  Whatever the case, my argument is that our goal is for all learners to eventually be empowered and able to function on the far right side of this chart.










Self-blended Learning

Allow me to add one more piece to this puzzle before drawing our attention to the final picture of a student personal learning network.  This last piece relates to the concept of self-blended learning.  Blended learning is the mixing of face-to-face and online learning.  Some talk about self-blended learning as a situation where a learner takes online courses and some face-to-face courses.  I suggest that this is too limiting of a definition. Instead, I use self-blended learning to mean any situation where a learner self-blends a learning experience, combining connections in the online and face-to-face world to learn and grow. If this interests you, I provided some examples here. From this perspective, self-blended learning is self-directed learning plus informed blended learning.

Pulling it All Together

This finally brings us back to idea of a student personal learning network, which is a mix of connectivism, self-directed learning and self-blended learning.  As defined at Wikipedia, “A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…” When I ask people to describe their personal learning network, they sometimes start by describing the technologies that they use, tools like Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and Google Hangouts.  That is understandable because these are the tools that allow them to connect with their network. However, I argue that the network is largely the people, communities and resources; not the technologies themselves.  If I showed you a picture of a large public swimming pool full of people and asked you to describe what you saw, you would likely not describe the technology of a swimming pool.  You would instead talk about the people, what they were doing and how they are behaving.  Similarly, a personal learning network is first about our relationships and connections with people and resources. We use the tools to strengthen, lengthen, and make such connections.

A Student Personal Learning Network

A student personal learning network is, therefore, a rich and ever-growing series of connections with people, resources, and communities around the world…connections that allow us to grow in knowledge, skill, ability and perspective. What if we spent more time thinking about the networks that students are building as they go through their schooling years?  What are the tools and technologies that they use and how are they using them?  One of many connections in this network will likely be one or more teachers. It will also include classmates, family members, community members, and others who whom they learn and interact in the physical world.  As it expands, it will also include people far beyond the walls of the home, school and community.

What if we made the building of such a network a central part of the curriculum, inviting students to keep a log or journal of their growing network, and how this network is empowering them to learn, how it is expanding their knowledge and perspective? How are they building a meaningful network? This would genuinely turn schools into places of fishing lessons. Students can interview people around the world, tutor and be tutored, take part in formal and informal learning communities, take part in Twitter chats and Hangouts, learn from and engage in the blogosphere, experience the power of working on a meaningful project in a distributed/virtual team, participate in a massive open online course (or design and teach one), share resources through social bookmarking and other technologies, host and take part in webinars, and build new online and blended learning communities around topics of personal value, need, and interest.

Over time, the students may not only build a personal learning network, but also venture into starting their own personal teaching networks, being agents of change and positive influence in the digital world and beyond.

Practical First Steps

Does this interest you? If so, here are a few simple ways to get started.

1) Introduce students to the idea of a personal learning network and have them create a map of that network using their favorite mind mapping tool. If you have one, share your PLN as an example. Be sure to spend time on the “why” of a PLN.  Then invite students to add to and refine this network over the year.

2) Set aside time for PLN Show and Tell – This is simply a time where students display the visual of their network to others, explaining how they use it and how it helps them.  On occasion, have students explain what is new in their network, how it was added and how it helps them.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.

3) Create simple challenges where learners find a problem, try to solve it and periodically report back to the group. They will build and leverage their network to solve the problem.  Along the way, they will not only find potential solutions, but they will experience the power of connected learning.

4) If you are working with younger students, consider building a class PLN, where you map it out on the wall, and you collectively add to it throughout the year through Skype sessions, Google Hangouts and other connections with people and groups around the world. When you face a new challenge as a class, ask the students, “Is there anything in our PLN that could help us with this? Do we need to expend or expand our PLN in some way?”

5) Revisit the chart above that contrasts teacher-directed and self-directed learning.  Find places in your course(s) where you can edge one or more activities a bit closer to the self-directed learning side of things. Invite students to use their personal learning networks to find and achieve learning goals.

These are enough to get you started.  As you have interest, try one or more of them and let me know how they work?  Also, feel free to add more suggestions in the comment area.

If you are interested, below is a recording of the full session.

10 Uses of MOOCs for High School Students

There is a growing possibility that the institutional use of MOOCs will reach the mainstream on the high school level before the college campus. News about Massive Open Online Courses continues to make the headlines as groups experiment with different uses and serving distinct audiences. Among these experiments is a growing interest in using open online courses to serve middle and high school students.  Here are ten such uses.

1) College Readiness – In early 2013, news spread about the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse creating an open online course to help pre-college students prepare for the challenge of a college-level math course.  The first goal listed for the College Readiness Math MOOC is to help high school students, “assess their current readiness to pursue math courses at the post secondary level.” A similar effort is in place at Boward College’s Skills Academy, a grant-funded pilot to offer college readiness courses in reading, writing and math. There are dozens of these college readiness MOOCs available to high school students, and we can expect to see more of them.  Not only do they meet a real need but they serve as way for Universities to address retention issues by helping students better prepare for the challenges of college coursework.

2) MOOC as a the Foundation for High School Blended Learning Courses – I wrote about this quite some time ago when Amazing Grace Christian School in Seattle started using college-level MOOCs as part of their middle school STEM programming, mixing the MOOC content with face-to-face activities. This trend is expanding quickly, especially in informal ways, with individual high school teachers having groups of students sign up together for a MOOC as a resource or supplement to what they are doing in class.  In many cases, the teacher is still meeting with students each day or several times a week, using the class time to offer individual and small group help, engaging in supplemental discussions, or building upon what was taught in the MOOC, or adding new concepts and activities.

3) AP Preparation MOOCs – Consider the 1-year free trial through AmplifyMOOC, where students take a MOOC that prepares them to take the computer science AP course.  In addition, they designing a model where high schools can sign on and get more resources to supplement the online learning with some face-to-face support.

4) Career Exploration – Consider this MOOC from Brown University that ran on Exploring Engineering.  It was a short MOOC designed to give high school student a sense of what possibilities exist for careers in engineering-related fields. MOOCs offer high school students with a chance to experiment with and explore potential careers in any number of specialized areas that are typically not examined on the high school level.

5) High School Credit – More high schools are experimenting with offering students the chance to earn high school credit in courses that are not offered in a traditional format. In this article, Nancy Jackson reports of a pilot at Andover Public Schools that allowed a small group of high school students to take select courses through EdX for high school credit (but no letter grade).

6) Self-blended Learning – Even as high school teachers and administrators are exploring the possibility of using MOOCs, more students are doing so on their own. These self-motivated students are learning about the power of using MOOCs to learn something that interests them, even if it is not offered by their local high school. At the same time, there is growing use of MOOCs among homeschoolers and unschoolers. Some high school students have also discovered that they can take a MOOC version of a high school course that they are taking and using the MOOC as a sort of study or support group for the traditional course.

7) Differentiated Instruction and Meeting Needs of Individual Learners – Consider this story about a boy with autism who took two MOOCs through the University of Edinburgh. It is an interesting perspective on a role that MOOCs can play to help increase access and opportunity for different types of learners.

8) Bolstering the College Resume & ApplicationThe author of this article suggest that students can take and complete MOOCs (especially those with certificates of completion) as a way to demonstrate one’s commitment and ability to meet college expectations for a course. I’m not sure if this sways many admissions teams, but it does allow high school students to get a closer sense of what level of work might be expected in a college course.  Of course, not all MOOCs are designed to mimic the challenge of a college-level course, but there are plenty that do. We have examples like this student from Mongolia who did well in a MIT electronics MOOC and was later admitted into the school. How about this article that discusses the potential benefits of taking a MOOC as part of one’s college application, or this one about how MOOCs are helping top Universities identify global talent?

9) Shared Courses Across High Schools – I’m seeing growing conversation and interest among high schools and high school teachers about co-developing MOOCs or smaller open courses to have a shared learning experience for students in high schools around the world.  This allows teachers to collaborate around common courses/topics, and students get to experience connected learning and a more diverse student body. Imagine ten high school teachers co-creating a world history course, with each taking responsibility for a different unit, or perhaps they co-create each unit, meeting weekly in a Google Hangout to plan and prepare the blended or entirely online learning experiences for their students.  Everything is in place for this to happen with minimal costs.

10) Developing Connected Learning Competencies – Other high schools or individual high school age people recognize the rapid change taking place in contemporary education, namely that education today is larger than schooling.  Learning to learn in an increasingly connected and digital world is a 21st century skill, and MOOCs (especially the more connectivist ones) are one of many excellent ways to experience and develop such competencies. As I participated in MOOCs, I’m coming across a growing number of teenagers who are taking the courses because they want to learn and connect with others.  It is not for high school credit, to get into collect, or to remediate. It is to learn.  In doing so they are also learning any number of valuable skills, even building their own personal learning networks.

While most of the media attention about MOOCs focuses upon the impact on college, younger populations are also benefitting.  Expect to see more middle and high school MOOCs, creative uses of MOOCs as parts of the formal curriculum in middle and high schools, and a growing number of teenagers joining in the massive open online communities (and courses).

In fact, you can expect to see me offering a MOOC for this audience in the next year.