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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Professional Learning in the 21st Century

Thursday was a good day.  I was invited to attend a day of sharing and reflection with teachers who had participated in some action research on 21st Century Teaching and Learning.  I got to listen to and take part in some terrific conversations that included more questions than they did answers.  I find that exciting.  I hope the teachers who attended felt the same way that I did.

More so than ever, I've been trying hard to pay attention to the impact Professional Development opportunities have on professional learning. I still have a hard time understanding the difference between "Professional Development" and "Professional Learning." I get the feeling that "Professional Development" is something that is done to you and it may or may not result in Professional Learning.  I see "Professional Learning" more as something you actively participate in and take ownership for.

The issue I'm concerned about is that many educators often complain about Professional Development (with good reason).  It takes them away from their class and students, often makes them feel incompetent suggesting that they could and should be doing most things differently and better, and can seem irrelevant to what they believe their students need to be successful learners, i.e. they don't buy in. It is not life-giving and it does not often result in positive changes in student learning.

I've tried hard this year to move away from providing "Professional Development" but rather support teachers in their professional learning. With some schools and with some teachers, I think this has worked out very well. There are many teachers who truly have a learning stance and they welcome opportunities to learn together.  But I've also encountered teachers who feel overwhelmed when it is suggested they learn something new, who feel there is no time, no support, and no follow-up.

We have adopted the ISTE standards for students in our board. We want to help our students develop into collaborative and creative problem solvers who use technology in innovative ways to make the world a better place, and who can successfully communicate their ideas with others. It is not enough for them to be consumers of information, we want them to be knowledge creators. But what about our teachers? There are ISTE standards for teachers too. As teachers in the 21st Century, we need to facilitate and inspire students' creativity and learning. We need to be comfortable with trying out new technologies that enhance student learning and empower our students to be drivers of their own education. We need to use formative assessment practices to evaluate the impact of our teaching and make adjustments accordingly. We need to teach our students to be metacognitive and set their own goals for learning. To do all of this, we need to engage in continuous professional learning and reflection.

But so much of the Professional Development we provide for educators uses archaic structures and methodologies. The Power Point presentation just doesn't cut it anymore. If we believe in 21st Century teaching and learning, then those of us providing professional learning opportunities for educators must model what we know are effective teaching and learning practices. If it works for students, I believe it will work for adult learners as well.

How do we "light a fire" in tired, over-whelmed teachers who are often just trying to keep their heads above water?  How do we empower them to be leaders and changers in education? Making the shift to student-driven education can be a huge learning curve, but somehow, if we can convince teachers that the effort up-front will lead not only to improvements in learning for their students but also increased engagement for teachers themselves, perhaps they will buy in and be open to making that shift.

But the shift is a huge one, and the learning curve, especially for some teachers, can be steep. No, it is not all about the technology, but digital fluency is a big part of helping students become collaborative problem-solvers who communicate beyond the classroom walls. Teachers need to become digitally fluent if they are going to support their students in becoming 21st Century learners. This can be a huge challenge for many teachers, and they need to know that they will be supported in their efforts and that their efforts will be worth while.

In order to support teachers with this shift, our Professional Development needs to be teacher-driven. We should differentiate the support we provide based on teacher need. It is important to encourage our teachers to be metacognitive, asking them, what do YOU need to learn about in order to be effective in moving toward technology-enabled student-driven eduction? Formative assessment practices, particularly self-assessment practices, are necessary for teachers as well as for students. Teachers need to have a voice in what the professional learning they are engaging in will look like. As leaders, we have to ask, "what is working for you; what isn't working? What do you need me to do differently so that you can be successful?"

Then we need to model and support teachers in becoming networked learners and provide on-going, "guided" support as they learn. 21st Century teachers are knowledge-builders, establishing parameters for our professional practice, leaders who support and learn from one another.

It stands to reason that taking a blended learning approach to professional learning is a logical next step for Professional Development and one that I hope to develop next year.

What would your ideal Professional Learning opportunity look like?

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