Sunday, October 06, 2013

Professional Development has changed

Professional Development (PD) has changed in the last 15 years. For those of you who taught in the 80s and 90s, think back to a time before pervasive email, a comprehensive internet, and widespread social media. PD happened in trickles throughout the year and with singular emphasis on designated days — these were one of the few times when teachers “received” PD in the form of a workshop, presentation, or group conversation. They tended to be high-stakes in the sense that there were few other formal opportunities for teachers to orient themselves to the new ideas that circulated in the education world. My first few years of teaching was like this: hit-and-miss presenters, and random professional conversations around shared subject areas. The boundary between that and the outside world was pretty narrow and virtually unexplored. Other colleagues tell me this was a "golden age" --lots of organized PD (in the form of guest presenters) and he rest was quiet and unassuming. Now, for better or worse, we are saturated in educational ideas, competing paradigms, "must-read" professional articles, layers of jargon (each one "scaffolding" the next), intriguing links, and cures for what ails us in education — professional learning materials, ideas, and networks are available 24/7. In short, we are connected.

Much of the "ubiquitous PD" buzz has been facilitated by technology and the mobile devices that few of us are far from. For example, a brief foray into educational hashtags on Twitter reveals a river of PD that teachers can draw from sparingly or jump into with both feet. More than one teacher-tweeter has referred to twitter as a "firehose of PD." Thousands of BC educators contribute daily; it is hard not to be humbled by the sheer volume of earnest inquiry.

The buzz extends past social media. In many of our schools we have built in collaborative time or similar structures and release grants to continue the learning that used to take place in hallways between class. The last few years has also seen the rise of EdCamps, Open Space, and Unconferencing — all of which are recognition that teachers want to compare notes and challenge or support each other far more than they want to be passive recipients of expert conclusions, no matter how brilliant. These trends also speak to the power of informal learning. This is accompanied by a growing reluctance to spend our PD time alone — we get enough isolation from adults in our daily teaching, and social media leaves us craving something more embodied.

As we adjust to the ubiquitous nature of PD, it becomes more important that official PD days offer these opportunities to unpack or take stock of recent learning, to mull over and reflect on what this means for coming months, and to fuse or synthesize the ideas in the room into something useful or inspirational for ourselves and our students. For many, professional learning is a life-long habit, particularly for those who have made the digital PD leap and are rarely unconnected from other educators. Among the "connected" there is an awareness that formal PD time isn't about taking in new information or having PD “done to you.” Whether our handful of PD days each school year are spent as individual teacher inquiry or a co-creative process among colleagues, the customs are undergoing a significant shift and our administrative leaders, teacher leaders and associations need to change the way we frame, organize, and seek accountability for our PD time. Meetings of any kind — PD, staff, committee, boards — need to realize that assembling simply to hear information is no longer necessary (even offensive in some ways). Just as we're learning to shift our classrooms from content delivery to more dynamic, interactive practice, so to our meetings need to shift to acknowledge that solid communication is more than just passing on information; it requires conversation.

I have been very fortunate to have spent much of my PD time in the last few years with members of my personal learning network — they have challenged me to examine the ultimate implications of my actions on the social and intellectual development of my students, and we have kept each other accountable for high standards as educators. Most of this is done face-to-face, but we've left some space in our collective inquiry for social media — subtle, ongoing infusion of new ideas into our own conversations, all of us richer for the experience. We have come as close as we can to a common understanding that PD days are the teachers' assessment time for the professional learning that happens all year — a chance to unpack, to mull, and to fuse.

How do you spend your PD time?


JustGolda said...

I just ran into your pages and am thoroughly impressed! I am an educator in China, teaching in a BC certified offshore school. I teach the BC Social Studies program to Chinese students. The comprehensive blogs, posts, assignments and philosophies are an inspiration. Keep up the good work!

Thielmann said...

Thanks. I've always wondered what the BC offshore schools are like. A few teachers there have used my stuff, quite an honour, but bizarre to think about a BC- and somtimes Prince George-specific curriculum being carried across the ocean. Do the students learn all their lessons in English? How do they respond to the "white" curriculum, particularly the parts that remain Eurocentric or focused so exclusively on Canadian Identity? Do they have opportunities to make comparisons and delve deeper into Chinese and local history/geography?