Previously I addressed the issue of Personal Learning Networks and some limitations that this robust and growing form of professional development may have for schools (as opposed to teachers). Several commenters had some concerns, but I promise to bring this all to a happy ending.
My first PLN, although the term hadn’t yet come into use, was the ISED listserv, a venerable resource for independent school educators into which I stumbled probably about 15 years ago, but maybe a bit less, just as I had become the designated “change agent” at my school. Along with lots of people asking technical questions, ISED members included many academic leaders and administrators who were excitedly thinking about ways to incorporate the many new ideas that were flying around in the first age of Ted Sizer’s Horace books, multiple-intelligence theory, Grant Wiggins, Peggy McIntosh and the like — people in exactly the same position I was. In those days before the bursting of the Dot Com bubble and 9/11, the ISED list was solace, companionship, and the only way we could find to share ideas and concerns as we figured out how to make some of these ideas work in our own schools.
In time many of us could have called ourselves “idea miners,” and the best parts of our work often involved the reading, surfing, conference-hopping, and e-mailing that exposed us to exciting ideas and gave us strategies for making our schools (we hoped and believed) better, all the while knowing that — although the work we were doing was then uncommon in independent schools — we had one another’s experience and wisdom to fall back on. It was a social network as much as a professional one, and we all knew with whom we could commiserate when things got hard. I even wound up doing a long-distance collaboration on a major conference presentation with an ISED pal from Tennessee.
A decade and more later, most independent schools are at last busily engaged in this same work, which turns out to be harder the more of it you do, and many schools have one or more “idea miners” whose curiosity and enthusiasm is now sanctified not only by Sir Ken Robinson but by the NAIS apparat and whose efforts are about choosing from seemingly infinite resources. The contemporary model of interlaced, synchronicity- and serendipity-driven PLNs that only the ISED had offered to us old-timers is of enormous value — probably the central resource — for administrators and other educational explorers who are currently either leading innovation efforts or who are simply determined to bring new ideas to their own schools, by hook or by crook.
In my earlier post I should perhaps have been more clear that I was thinking more of the rank-and-file teacher than of, say, many of the readers here, whose position and labors (and PLNs) are described in the paragraph above. The challenge, and the crux of my thesis, is that there is a critical need at the institutional — i.e., administrative — level to accomplish three enormous tasks before the PLN model can achieve its full efficacy as a powerful tool of institutional change.
The first task is simply to identify the kinds of professional development and pedagogical resources that can be of greatest value as the school works toward specific, identified goals. This means, of course, that the school must designate and really support its idea miners, the people charged with thinking about and finding ideas and resources that can be of instrumental value — on all levels, from guiding principles to basic tools — to the school in its work. In an ideal world, the idea miners would be part of any and all discussions in the school relating to program, professional development, and strategic goals. This is already quite likely to be the case, I suspect, among readers here.
The second task is to catalogue and make accessible the specific resources that would be of value to school staff at all levels — leadership and implementation ideas for administrators and supervisors, pedagogical tools for classroom teachers, and professional resources and readings that relate to both day to day work and the big ideas that are guiding the school; part of this, of course, should be advice and guidance on establishing individual PLNs. Some schools have found that Nings and wikis are great tools for accomplishing this, but the ongoing challenge is both to continually refresh the array of resources and to ensure that whatever “catalogue” has been chosen is interesting and engaging to use; all staff should be encouraged to contribute. Here again, in an ideal world school leaders and teacher supervisors would have the time and the knowledge base as well as the responsibility to help individual staff find specific resources to support identified growth needs and targeted training in the incorporation of school-wide initiatives into classroom practice.
The final task is to stitch together the “in an ideal world” suggestions above in order to make certain that the work — from the idea mining and the establishment of PLNs among administrators and leaders to the creation of the school resource bank or catalogue — is consistent with (but emphatically not limited by) the school’s needs and goals. As an important corollary, if the school is to obtain the maximum benefit from these efforts, the application of these ideas and resources must be built into the school’s accountability structures at all levels, from teacher evaluation to board-level progress reports.
I want to stress that there are no limits on the value of the PLN model of professional development. What is key, however, is to be sure that where there are institutional needs, the mechanisms are in place to harness the power of PLNs to meet these needs. It is incumbent upon schools to help staff at all levels not only develop Personal Learning Networks but also to help teachers (and administrators) make the most effective use of their potential.