We haven’t seen this big a change in education in 500 years. Every learner with an Internet connection can build a personalized, global network of people and information. It’s a shift that Robert Darnton, a Harvard University history professor, compares to watershed moments like the invention of the printing press. To stay current, every educator needs to dive into these networks ASAP. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.”
But the truth is that most of us are just treading water, and that’s because traditional professional development isn’t changing our entrenched patterns of learning. Sure, we’ve joined Facebook and LinkedIn, but we still think of learning as “the classroom”—structured, linear, static and standardized—and we find it hard to grapple with an online learning environment that is daily, continuous, personalized and just-in-time. It’s the difference between attending a management class to learn skills for the future and improving your leadership daily by engaging in a real-time exchange of insights with a global network of leaders.
Let’s face it: When we’re talking about a shift this big, a few classes on Twitter just aren’t going to cut it.
Enhancing Classic PD
How can we shift our view of learning in a more meaningful way? A good place to start is to enhance five standbys of classic professional development with five brand new ingredients.
Skills and roles. Most technology professional development focuses on new skills, but when discussing the rise of learning networks, we need to add new roles to the discussion. Start your next PD session with this essential question: What’s the role of the teacher in the classroom when every student can access millions of textbooks and teachers online? As you teach people how to build their own networks, ask them to return to this question time and again.
Minds and hearts. Much of our current PD engages people at an intellectual level (“Technology can do important things in the classroom”), but try also to engage people on an emotional level (“How does it feel to change the way you learn?”) If you want to read a terrific book on the importance of the rational and the emotional sides of change, pick up Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.
Participation and commitment. Often, the requirement for PD is that people participate—not show evidence of progress. But people who don’t make a commitment to changing their learning will quickly revert to old habits. On your PD days, have people create a long-range plan for how their learning will look different after a week, a month, and so on. Structure ways for them to compare progress in building the school’s online community. Teachers and parents. Professional development currently targets teachers, but this conversation is too big to stop there. We need to educate parents about this shift, so they can understand that learning looks different from the time they attended school. I just worked with a school where the superintendent was holding evening book chats to discuss Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. Parents were fascinated and energized. Talk and action. As leaders, sometimes we feel like there’s not enough time to put into practice the technology skills that we learn. But in a networked learning world, practice is only a mouse-click away. Start a blog. Tweet to parents. Have a LinkedIn discussion. You’ll inspire everyone and raise your credibility.
The Shift Is Now
No one expects 500 years of habits to change in a week, but remember that these global networks will be celebrating their 20th birthday soon, so there’s no time to waste. It will take time before shifts in our own learning begin to manifest themselves in the classroom. In the meantime, the waters are rising.
Rob Mancabelli is a speaker, writer and education consultant. He is the co-author of Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (Solution Tree Press, 2011).