By Tim Gard, TDSB Educator & MSL Report Contributing Writer
The old model of Professional Development (PD) that expects serious teacher development is dead. Gone. Finito! That model where everyone crowds into a room and listens to someone drone on for an hour and then deliver some hand-outs that you’ll never look at or use in your lifetime simply doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work very well. To make matters worse people who incorporate multi-media into this same type of presentation think that this will have an even more powerful impact and the ‘bells and whistles’ will make up for something symbiotic that can only come from a more involved, engaging collaborative professional development session. Sorry. Simply not true.
I’m not saying that standing in front of a cadre of teachers to deliver knowledge-level information isn’t necessary because in some contexts you can’t get around it, and in other contexts this knowledge-level learning is the only type of PD needed. I am saying that if you wish to move beyond knowledge-level learning to professional development where teachers take what they’ve learned and incorporate that learning into their classroom practices you’ve got to do something different. Let me list five considerations before you plan your next professional development session(s). These five items should help you to develop a more effective model for professional development. And in the spirit of the times – it is summer, you know! – I’ll keep this short and sweet!
Before you begin your professional development session, do a little backward planning. What do you expect your audience to take away from your session? How will you get there and what type of delivery is going to help you get to where you hope to be by the end of your session(s). Are you expecting that your audience will take away knowledge only? Are you hoping that they’ll take away knowledge along with a plan to implement so that this knowledge turns into something that affects practice? Are you hoping that your attendees will take away transformational information that leads to the beginning of philosophy change, and serious commitment to this kind of change in their practice?
Each of the above requires a completely different model of delivery and implementation. This will include the amount of time and duration of the plan as well. A knowledge-level, informative PD session will not require a great deal of time however you can increase this knowledge-level gain by including opportunity for teachers to reflect and interact during your session. Good questions that cause the teachers to reflect on the information that you’re delivering will help them retain the information you’re delivering.
A more transformational model requires more complex and involved planning and a longer delivery model. This model will need to be collaborative, reflective, and include many opportunities for teachers to ‘test-drive’ their understanding. This will mean that you will need to give them opportunities to be challenge their own understanding of their current model of understanding as well as opportunities to share their experiences in a non-judgmental atmosphere. This is quite difficult to achieve. Only the very experienced and mature facilitators can get to this level, but it requires time and quite often a different context for learning – retreats facilitate this type of learning more easily.
Make the PD Collaborative!
Collaborative learning is MUCH more powerful than learning in a vacuum. I don’t know about you but when I’m confronted with new information, or ideas that stimulate my prior understanding of a topic, I want to talk! I want to bounce my ideas off of another individual and then start a discussion about how and what my plan might look like in the ‘real world’.
If you plan for a PD session that’s collaborative model it after the 3-part lesson format: Minds-on, Practice and then Solidification or Debrief.
Get their attention about your topic, have them explore the topic in a real-world and worthwhile way and then have them discuss their findings and understanding in a small group or with a partner. Make sure you give clear directions and focused work or you’ll find that many will be off-task. Make sure you debrief so that all of the good ideas are presented in a context where further discussion ensues.
Infuse Inquiry Into the Model.
Inquiry learning is a powerful way to engage your target audience with deep and critical thinking about your topic. Deliver an engaging presentation for a short period of time and then have your audience develop questions about your topic. Have the members do some quick research based on information you’ve provided, or via their ever-present Smartphones. This active type of learning also allows your audience to develop an understanding of the role of the learner in an inquiry model. If you can’t do it yourself, then it’s difficult to model to your students. This inquiry-type of PD doesn’t have to be as deep or longitudinal as a typical inquiry project. It simply incorporates a model of delivery that gets your audience more engaged and will in turn have a more powerful impact on their understanding of your topic.
Don’t plan to ‘change the world’ in one or two sessions of professional development. If your PD is meant to inform only then you can only hope to deliver your information clearly and effectively so that your audience has the information that they need in order to make certain decisions, depending on your topic. Don’t make the mistake of overwhelming your audience with too much information. Information over-load means that teachers will focus on the ‘too much information’ fact rather then on the point you wanted to make in the first place.
A more involved PD would need to include a long-term plan that’s aligned with a school or district’s initiatives. In fact, all PD should be directly related to the overall plan of a school and district’s foci, and hopefully there aren’t too many! Even a more long-term PD plan should include a realistic end result. And back to point number one: what is it that you hope to achieve by the end of it all?
PD is Life-Long! Plan Accordingly.
Professional Development is not a one-off – it’s a career-long struggle to become the best that you can be! If you expect that you’re going to change an attitude or make a ‘course correction’ or implement an effective pedagogical transition in your school or district it WILL NOT happen over night. Depending on what you hope to accomplish it may take a couple of years or more of focused, sustained effort to get where you want to be.
Bonus: Reward Your Teachers!
No PD will make the necessary impact you want it to make if you don’t develop some form of reward into accomplishment. When you ‘backward plan’ include a celebration of some sort so that teachers know that they’ve accomplished something significant. Everyone wants to know that they’re making progress and progress should be rewarded regardless of how small it might seem.