In about a month I get to be part of a group of very distinguished practitioners presenting on the virtues of social media as a professional development resource. This should be a pretty easy gig, as anyone who maintains even the most cursory contact with the blog- and tweetospheres knows that there is a great idea for about every three column inches of your Twitter feed along with an army of enthusiastic bloggers happy to share how some extremely cool and useful new website or piece of software can change your whole professional practice. And if you like these ideas, you can remain connected to them and other fans by creating your own Professional Learning Network (PLN). As Jeff Utecht suggests, adopting the PLN model has its ups and downs (see diagram), but at the final “Balance” stage your PLN becomes an individualized shopping place for finding the things you’d like to find and for sharing resources with like-minded cybercolleagues.
Having not so long ago been in charge of professional development at a school making some serious changes to its curriculum and assessment practices, I find all this extremely exciting, although frankly I’m not sure how I could keep up with it all — or sort out the really useful from the not so much — if I were primarily a classroom teacher. More to the point, though, I find myself wondering how to align the elements of this online professional development explosion — in particular, the PLN model of professional development — with an institutional perspective on improving teaching and learning.
I think it’s important to make a distinction between adding tools to a toolbox and true professional development. If my PLN gets excited about Animoto, for instance, I can learn it, but learning how to use Animoto does not automatically make me a more effective teacher, any more than word-processing my assignments did in 1985 or mastering the Ditto machine did in 1974. To improve my practice with the help of these tools there needs to be a deeper context, and sometimes in our enthusiasm for the tools, the context becomes obscured or lost.
I tend to divide professional development into two sorts. The first of these involves specific knowledge and skills that make me a better teacher in ways that are demonstrable to me and my students. One way teachers learn what they need is through effective, regular professional evaluation, where the teacher (through goal-setting) and/or some combination of peers, supervisors, and even students identifies specific areas in which I as a teacher need to grow and make improvements in my work. If I know that I need to expand and vary the kinds of work I ask students to do to assess their learning, or if I need to liven up the ways in which I present content, then learning Animoto is a specific way in which I can meet the goals and expectations for my personal professional development — Animoto can make me a better teacher.
The second kind of professional development relates to the goals and strategic directions of the school. If my school is implementing a 1:1 laptop program, then there is a faculty-wide need to ramp up the faculty’s technology competency at least to a defined baseline level; maybe Animoto is identified as a great multipurpose tool that the whole faculty can use. So, I learn Animoto, preferably in a context where I see it integrated into a variety of learning experiences that allow me and my colleagues to ask more sophisticated and compelling questions and challenge our students more deeply. In the context of this school initiative and the training I have received, my knowledge of Animoto may well make me a more effective teacher.
These two kinds of professional development, call them the personal and the institutional, may seem straightforward enough in concept, but they actually presuppose a couple of important practices and conditions in the school.
All professional development, and absolutely all professional evaluation — no matter how teacher-driven or benign the process — ought to grow out of and tie explicitly into some clearly defined standards for effective teaching at the school. If you’ve run across my work before, you know that I’m kind of a broken record on this topic, but how can you evaluate a teacher if you have no stated standards against which to do it? It’s like giving grades without defining what “A work” looks like. (Oops! This happens all the time in many schools, but this doesn’t make it good practice.) As well, good evaluation systems have built into them opportunities for the teacher to identify needs and set professional growth goals.
There also should be some institutional system for identifying those full-faculty professional growth needs that strengthen the programs of the school as a whole. While it is typical that work around diversity or child development is done using a full-faculty or perhaps divisional model, the kind of work required to bring a faculty up to speed in matters of pedagogy and curriculum requires a more sophisticated and even differentiated approach. But if it is going to happen, and be done well, it must be coordinated, and coordinated by an office or body that understands the relationship among the professional development offerings, teachers’ individual needs, and institutional goals.
I would gently suggest that the teacher-created PLN model of professional development may be a great way to discover new resources and techniques and for teachers to break out of their own autonomy, but it may not meet critical individual or school needs for real professional growth. I believe that schools will need to become much more thoughtful and deliberate in responding to the challenge of supporting teachers in the identification of professional development needs and in building effective and satisfying PLNs in the context of school needs.
I hope to explore some approaches to this challenge in future installments here.