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New Directions

Schools Must Help Educators Transform “PD” into Personal Discovery

A five-step process for using online learning networks.
New Directions PD column

Educators pursuing professional development can learn anytime, anywhere, using personalized global classrooms with hand picked “teachers” and “textbooks.”

You have an open Tuesday night? Take up a live chat with Australian educators about math curriculum.

What about a long commute? Listen to a podcast about classroom evaluation.

In fact, online resources are so ubiquitous and accessible that we must ask if traditional, school-based PD will go the way of the Walkman and the Laserdisc.

The answer—not anytime soon. While the future of school-based PD may be murky, the present is crystal clear. Most educators are having difficulty transitioning into online learning networks, and they could use a hand from their schools turning professional development into personal discovery. Let me be clear—what we’re talking about is not the learning in their classrooms, but their living rooms. For most of us, traditional learning paths such as conference panels and good books are so familiar that our exploration of social networks rarely gains the escape velocity needed to leave our comfortable 20th-century learning orbit.

Breaking these deeply ingrained habits of learning will require more than just a few classes on tech tools. We need a multi-step process that generates buy-in and ensures adoption. Here are four steps to transform PD.

Step 1: Explore beliefs about technology and learning. Learning in networks is hard, so participants must understand why it’s worth the effort. The first step is discussing the evolution of learning and the implications for our schools. Use examples that demonstrate that educators are not the first professionals to undergo a radical shift in practices. After all, even the best surgeons in the world needed to learn new techniques when arthroscopic surgery became popularized. Similarly, the ability of modern learners to build dynamic webs of people and information is a game-changing shift that requires action.

Step 2: Focus on educators as learners. Forget about the classroom. This is about your teachers as learners, not as teachers. You can’t learn to ride a bike and compete in the Tour de France at the same time. Give them the time and space to use networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ to explore their passions. One professional developer from California told me the secret is to “Focus first on friends, not colleagues.” In other words, have teachers build online connections around their interests with the people who share them. The transition of this learning to the classroom will follow.

Step 3: Generate concrete verbal and written commitments. The literature of organizational change is very clear about the power of commitments. Participants who return to their classroom without setting goals (and a time to review progress) are much less likely to follow through with the change process. Ask PD participants to choose and write personal milestones, and discuss them with each other. Set a time to reconvene and review. Encourage laughter at failures and set new goals when appropriate. For example, in a session on 21st century skills, a physical ed teacher laughed at her inability to click the mouse to publish an online comment. Her colleagues laughed sympathetically because they shared her struggle.

Step 4: Legitimize this form of professional development. Our systems often only recognize formal learning as a valid means of professional development. Antiquated systems of measurement reward people based on seat time in school-based PD or formal degree programs. Yet most PD over the next decade will be consumed outside of those venues. Begin to change your rules to reward educators who set goals and achieve them through any path, particularly online networks. It will encourage staff to learn every day.

Finally, start to think about the future. Once you’ve taught your teachers to learn in networks, professional learning will morph into professional sharing and professional planning.

PD will be less about formal teaching and more a time to cross-pollinate the information learned in hundreds of individual networks, discuss the implications for the school and make plans to adjust curriculum and instruction. Most importantly, your staff will take the results of collaboration and share it with the world for additional feedback. Instead of having hundreds teaching your students, you’ll have millions.