Friday, May 3, 2013

5 Traits of High Quality Professional Development

For the past seven years a large part of my job has been focused on providing professional development for K-12 educators.  Specifically, professional development centered around technology in education.  Over the years I have paid close attention to things I felt could help me improve my teaching of teachers.  Here is what I have learned:
  1. Professional Development needs to have a clear focus and purpose. (just like when teachers teach students)
  2. Professional Development needs to have obtainable goals.  (just like when teachers teach students)
  3. Professional Development needs to be relevant to the learner.  (just like when teachers teach students)
  4. Professional Development needs to be interactive and engaging. (just like when teachers teach students)
  5. Professional Development needs to use a variety of strategies to convey information and to gather information. (just like when teachers teach students)
In my experience, when I share these thoughts with administrators I get a hugh round of agreement.  Most educators and administrators understand that standing in front of a group of teachers and talking at them (yes, I mean at them) for an hour or two is not the best way to approach professional development for educators (especially when it is about technology).  Yet, we do it all the time.  We attend staff meetings to learn something new by having someone stand and talk or show us a lovely PowerPoint presentation.  We go to conferences where we sit and listen to people for hours on end while trying to write down the most important stuff to remember (most of which we forget).  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Here are some of my guesses:
  1. Many people find it easier to sit and listen than to actively participate in a training.  Not participating also means that we take not responsibility for our learning.  
  2. It's cheaper to hire someone to talk to 100 people at one time for two hours than to hire someone to work with those same people over a course of time where they can get interactive and relevant training in smaller groups.
  3. It's easier to schedule everyone in a school to do the same thing at the same time than to have to schedule smaller groups for more interactive learning experiences.
  4. It takes less time to organize an individual to give a lecture than to organize an individual to come into the school and work with groups of teachers at different times on different schedules.
  5. It's cheaper to hire someone to talk to 100 people at one time for two hours than to hire someone to work with those same people over a course of time where they can get interactive and relevant training in smaller groups. (yes, I know I said this one before, but it's such a big one that it merits repeating)
So what do we do? How do we help educators learn new things and new technologies?  In short, that's a tricky question. The best way is to have an expert come into your school and work directly with the educators in their space with their equipment.  (p.s. choose someone who has classroom experience, not  just someone who knows the technologies being used) (p.s.s. shameless plug - I offer these services, so feel free to contact me about your needs).  This way is not always feasible for some schools due to scheduling or finances.

Another option is to send some staff members to a conference or training and have them teach the others in the school.  Not the most effective way, but it's a decent option for some schools.  The difficulty with this option is that the teacher who does go to the training or conference will forget a lot of what they learned before they ever train the rest of the educators or staff.  The remaining educators or staff will in turn, forget a lot of what they were taught by their colleague.  In the end this can lead to little gain if not handled carefully and the appropriate time is not given to allow everyone to work with the given tool or concept.  Enough time to work with the tool or concept is very important.

Online professional development is a great option for some.  Those that don't feel the need to interact with an instructor or leader can use recorded or self-guided online tutorials and training for a wide variety of things.  Note.  I said "those that don't feel the need to interact with an instructor..."  NOT "everyone likes doing online classes" OR "everyone is comfortable with online learning".   Many people are perfectly fine learning some things this way.  Usually more concrete concepts such as how to turn on your iPad or how to set margins in MS Word.  I don't think many people will go to sefl-guided online sources to learn the finer points of particle physics.

Online courses that span an extended amount of time can be a great way to learn new things.  These usually have instructors who are there to help and answer questions (not usually live though) and can even set virtual (online) office hours for live conversations.  I've attend many wonderful online courses through different universities.  There are also options like Peer 2 Peer University where people volunteer to teach a free online class for anyone to take.  I haven't taken any of these (who has the time?) but I've heard good things.

Webinars are a good way to learn a lot of the little things.  These are usually 1 hour online lectures or conversations people can attend in order to learn about a product or concept.  It is more conversational in tone and many are free (many are not).  Many educators attend a webinar without any reservations and many educators are not comfortable learning online.  This is where my idea comes in.  Why not lengthen the time of the webinar and make it more interactive?  I don't mean interactive as in  people get to talk.  I mean interactive as in  participants are asked to pick up their iPad and combine apps to make folders or to connect their Google Drive app to their account.  I mean interactive as in asking participants to start a new Google Site based on a template you provide while you (the instructor) stay at your screen and microphone ready to help anyone who needs it.  The first time I tried this,, my co-teachers were shocked and asked if I was afraid of loosing control of the class.  I responded "I never had control of the class.  I'm the guide that is here to help them learn.  They decided whether they will actually learn or not."

So here's my second and final shameless plug.  With this online learning concept in mind, I developed a series of two-hour live-online technology classes for educators (or administrators), currently focused on iPad, Google Apps (including Google Sites, Picasa Web, Youtube etc...) and Flipped Classroom Tools for Teachers. If you are interested in learning more about these classes or would like to register for one (I make them nice and cheap for schools and individuals) you can find what you need here.

For those that like to see what the research has to say about professional development in this modern world, here are some resources.  If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me through my website.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Reconstructing Teacher Education

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