Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Extreme Makeover: Professional Learning Edition

Extreme Makeover: 
Professional Learning Edition

Sandy Cameli (EdD), Educational Specialist
Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) ~ Hawaii Dept. of Education

Teachers are familiar with differentiating programming and practices for student learners on a regular basis - it's an intuitive process which enables effective instructors to support and guide students toward their highest potential and optimal success. Yet, why does antiquated professional development still exist for adult learners? The status quo of a stand-and-deliver or sage-on-the-stage presentation is not only outdated, it can be insulting to proactive, self-directed professionals.

Educators value the whats and whys of content presented, especially when the ultimate goal is to support learners in the classroom. However, the how information is delivered often leaves many educators with a less-than-satisfied perspective of the experience. In Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In1, the author references an analogy of ladder vs. jungle gym structures for professional growth in the corporate world. The metaphor often includes a ladder as the most common how for achieving success; whereas, the jungle gym option tends to allow various routes to reach one's identified destination, and appeal to individuals' needs vs. the one-way-fits-all standard. As Sandberg points out, "[A] jungle gym provides great views for many people.... on a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above"! (Sandberg, 2013, p. 53)

Whether referred to as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), Professional Learning Networks (PLNs), or simply trainings, workshops and inservices, the importance of collaborative learning has never been in question. Learners seek their own paths of understanding, regardless of longevity in a system or competence level of skills. A jungle gym structure is more user-friendly for participants, and easily applied to collaborative learning opportunities. In order to ensure effective and efficient benefits for those involved, suggested strategies and frameworks are provided to boost educational professional learning experiences - from the jungle gym perspective:

  • Book Club Reboot 2.0:  As beneficial as shared readings and discussions can be, many times the mention of a book club can add anxiety, rather than professional growth to a situation. Instead of assigning readings from the same published piece, invite participants to contribute new knowledge to a professional conversation through multiple sources.  If the focused topic is data-driven instruction, teachers can share a TED talk recently viewed, a website of various sources, an article from a peer-reviewed journal, a reflection composed by a peer, takeaways from a recent conference or musings during a think-tank discussion.  The overall goal is for participants to contribute to the topic at hand by offering varying resources and perspectives, without the mandate or expectation that everyone do the same thing, the same way at the same time!
  • 4S Process: Successes, Strategies, Struggles & (next) Steps:  In many schools, adoption of curriculum programming can be overwhelming, frustrating and intimidating - especially for new staff members. Additionally, educators who are proficient in one area, but seek ideas in another, may lose interest if a presentation is too redundant or irrelevant to their professional needs. By setting up a 4-corner meeting structure - which focuses on successes, strategies, struggles and (next) steps of the identified program - participants contribute to the area they possess the most knowledge or seek better understanding about, and then rotate between stations to engage in dialog and discussions about the school's goals. All contributions are valued, while take-aways are based on the needs of each individual.
  • Focus Groups:  Generally, educators collaborate with colleagues teaching similar content, grade level or group of students; however, cross-curricular and vertical alignment conversations are equally important.  Focused topics can be pre-determined then choice offered to participants for grouping purposes. Ideally, Focus Groups should include peers with a range of experience in the profession or school; spectrum of subject matter background or grade levels; and variety of resource expertise (ex: technology integration, interdisciplinary practices, alternative assessments, data-driven instruction). Additionally, Focus Groups can reconfigure monthly, quarterly or semesterly based on the needs of participants.
  • Professional Peer Visits:  Like-minds generally share like-ideas, like-strategies and like-goals. When educators are encouraged to observe, co-teach, collaborate or peer-coach with colleagues - who align professional goals, philosophy and practices - often professional growth is enhanced. Professional Peer Visits can occur internally (same school) or externally (feeder schools or other district campuses) based on partnerships developed. And reciprocal visits are encouraged, as coaching partners often emerge from this type of co-learning.
  • Musical Staff Meetings:  Educators know connections and commonalities build relationships for personal and professional levels. And, understanding a colleagues rituals & routines, strategies & successes, and collaboration & communication tips can often be absorbed through a simple visit to a peer's classroom/learning environment. By establishing a rotation schedule of room use for staff meetings, peers are able to gain insights and ideas via the host's sharing (or osmosis of surroundings) in order to develop collegial support/understanding of each other's roles. 
  • Un-Session Staff Meetings:  Based on open-space and un-conference models, pre-generated topics provided by departments, grade levels, teams or whole faculty determine the direction of a meeting. Conversations, brainstorming and think-tank discussions evolve organically, and engagement runs high due to the investment/buy-in factor established by participants' voices. Various formats can range from whole group pre- and debriefing of sessions, to shared electronic forms which keep conversations going and growing throughout the school year for all involved.
Lifelong learners become the hallmark of a school or educational environment when leaders cater to the needs of professional learning; and, peer collaboration is most beneficial when choice, ownership and time are incorporated into its structure. Ladders may be effective for transporting individuals from point A to point B; however, when a smorgasbord of choices from A-Z are available and encouraged, so are the limits of professional growth for Educators.

1 Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Knopf Publishing, New York.