7 February 2017

Reflecting on Professional Learning

A reflection on my thoughts around staff development and training comes along nicely on the coattails of a piece of research I conducted last year into the role technology professionals have in the school environment today, and where I see that role going in the future (see my post, Teacher Geeks). My research unequivocally states that “it is essential that educators remain current in content, pedagogy and technology practices and theory”, as we move towards empowering ALL teachers to be skilled in the effective use of technology in their classrooms, and away from discrete roles for tech coaches. For an inclusive community model cultivating “teaching geeks” (Guerin, 2016) to be a reality, constant training in relevant content, pedagogy and technology is essential, and schools (and educators) must be committed to providing time and space for effective professional learning opportunities.

Too often, I have learned what not to do when it comes to effective professional learning (PL) and training as an educator. Indeed, I find the majority of sessions classed as PL as misnomer. In one school I worked in, we were mandated to attend weekly ‘PL’ sessions after school. When I first saw these sessions, the learning junkie in me delighted at the thought of having an hour a week dedicated to my professional growth. It soon became apparent however, that these were thinly disguised meetings, where information - and little of it pertinent to actual teaching and learning - was to be disseminated AT us, with little offered in way of actual growth or learning. I am not sure if this was due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of what constitutes real PL or was simply in place as a tickbox exercise to suggest PL was taking place; whatever the reason, no PL, no growth, and no culture of learning was ever fostered. As a result, I found this school, and the majority of the long-serving members of staff, stagnant and very ‘behind the times’, manifestations of what Stanford University’s Professor of Education, Lee S Shulman, sees as the condition of “nostalgia”, where, held tightly onto, is the firm belief that:
whatever the educational problem, the way to combat it is by reinstating the ways through which [teachers] had been taught when they were the same age as their students (Shulman, 1999).
I find these teachers the most challenging and it is this resistance to change and inability or lack of desire to move forward as an educator that I want to learn to address in this module. As a sponge who soaks up every possible opportunity to learn and to grow, I find it very difficult when I come across educators who are ‘happy’ to teach the same topic, the same way, year in, year out. I cannot fathom how people who work in education, in a profession dedicated to learning, are so resistant to continual growth themselves. If the “first influence of new learning is not what teachers do pedagogically but the learning that’s already inside the learner” (Shulman, 1999), how do I reach those who think they do not need to go beyond what is already inside them?

Some of the most successful and fruitful PL I have attended, the sessions where I have come out buzzing with excitement and ideas, the ones where my status quo has been challenged, have been at conferences such as Google Summits and EdCamps. These events are hosted and presented by enthusiastic, passionate educators who want to share their experiences with others, and the energy at these events is evidence that truly learning is most “powerful when it becomes public and communal” (Shulman, 1999). A crucial factor could be that these events are generally ones where the educator chooses to attend - and I think this is at the heart of what makes any PL effective: personal choice. The biggest problem with PL is that is tends to be ‘blanket’ solutions; often school initiative-led, where we are given information and offered little in the way of psychological engagement. I accept that PL must be beneficial at school-level but choice should still be possible within the remit of institutional visions and authenticity is crucial for all involved.

To be successful, PL must be pertinent, relevant and engaging. One reason why I think Google Summits work so well, other than that people have opted to attend, is that there are multiple sessions offered synchronously and people are free to chose their own paths dependent on their own needs. I also believe that because the sessions are delivered by educators, they are examples of real world, ‘non-experts’ (teacher geeks) offering what they think they know as “community property” (Shulman, 1999). My most effective approach to training teachers has indeed been to show rather than to tell; Roosevelt’s adage that ‘no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care’ is never truer with hard-working, time-poor educators. ‘Unconferences’ allow educators to engage with actual teachers who have applied “old understandings to new experiences and ideas”, and who can, as a community wrestle with new ideas on the ‘outside’, before bringing them back inside and making them our own. Managing this in a school setting is more challenging but an area I would also like to explore in this unit, as many times, the staff room aside or corridor conversation can be then most meaningful opportunities; those little tidbits we often think are not important enough to make into a training session, or something we too often take for granted as it is embedded into our practice but maybe revolutionary for another. One way we are addressing this in my current school is to adopt the EdCamp unconference style, were a few of us agree to meet for an hour once a month and share tips, tricks and strategies. I want to be able to develop this into a forum that is non-threatening and an all-inclusive way to let teachers talk and question and experiment, without fear and without boundaries. I would also like to foster a culture of sharing, and most importantly reflecting.

One of the most successful PL programmes I have seen adopted in a school was one where there was personalised choice for topics; professional learning circles of like-minded educators were encouraged but meetings were determined by the group, not by the administration, and could be asynchronous. Evidence was through lesson study, action research, and reflections on blogs. Risk taking and experimentation was encouraged but the sharing of outcomes - positive or disastrous - was crucial. This is an area I would also like to work on and develop; I would like to listen to and evaluate the needs of the educators and the school to try to find a way to bridge the gap between the mission and vision of the school and the skills of the staff. I want to learn how to deal with those who are resistant, and cultivate a community where experimentation into new tools and ways of delivering teaching and learning is embraced in order to create a dynamic and constantly-evolving learning environment. I want to work towards developing a culture of risk taking, and life-long learning so that the ‘few’ become the ‘many’ with the goal that all educators in the school become teacher geeks

Guerin cited in "Facebook." Edutopia - 🙌 | Facebook. Web. 28 June 2016. .

Shulman, Lee S. "“Taking Learning Seriously”