Sunday, July 17, 2016

Re-Imagining In-House PD

     When my career began, I can vividly remember the anguish I felt going into in-house professional development (PD). As the day approached, I would begin to get sick to my stomach, and I think this is a feeling that many of us have shared. So, what exactly caused these in-house PD sessions to be so ineffective? I believe it was the model we used. A one size fits all, sit and get type of PD in which I struggled to find more than one or two items of value. So, how do we move away from the arduous system and begin inspiring participants while distributing leadership among teachers? The answer, hack the status quo of the in-house PD model, give teachers autonomy of instructional learning, grow and distribute instructional leadership among staff, and only bring back the best.
     I love the term hack. Authors and educators all over are hacking leadership, instruction, technology, and now it is our turn, we are hacking professional development. For a brief definition, hacking is when you disrupt a traditional model with innovation. Our hack involves PD that moves away from the one size fits all speaker, presenter model, to a differentiated approach where teachers pick and choose sessions tailored to their particular need for improvement.
     Is it possible to hack traditional school site PD and still maintain a direction or focus? The short answer is yes. For our hack, we will be focused on integrating instructional technology; and as you may already know, there are a ton of instructional technologies on the market. The same could be said if you were implementing more writing, reading, or intervention strategies. Whatever your school needs, there is a hack for that. What is best about our hack, teachers will have their choice between nine different instructional technologies and an opportunity to learn three.
     So, how does this model look? And, how exactly does it give autonomy to teachers? Unlike my early days, I am an absolute PD junky (or nerd according to our secondary curriculum director). So far in 2016 I have attended five conferences, and every (not every other one) conference uses the same model. You listen to a keynote who gives the audience a vision; then you break out into a session of your choice. I love this design! As I get to pick, my engagement grows. Finally, after one of the conferences (EdTech’s Google for Education Summit) the vision came to us. On the car ride back, we asked the question, why can’t our PD look like that? Why can’t we empower our teachers and give them a choice over their learning?
     Our model is very simple; provide the learner with choice, use short segments of intense learning, minimize session attendance for presenter comfort, and GROW INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS. We will have our district technology specialist deliver a keynote on infusing technology in the classroom and implement Google for Education; then, we will break out into three session segments with six choices during each session segment. The presenters, for example, will teach two of the three sessions, which gives them an opportunity to be a learner to; and, the participants will attend all three.      Each session segment is set for 45 minutes with a 15-minute break in between each session.
Another major benefit of our model is that it empowers the teachers! First, through autonomy of professional learning, the participants get a say what technology they wish to study. I love, love, love this idea. As administrators, we ask our teachers to give students choice and ownership over their learning, and now we can model what we preach. Also empowering is the idea that the participants will be able to learn different technologies as opposed to just one.
     Secondly, our sessions are taught by our teachers, maybe my favorite part! For once our teachers will become the co-instructional leaders on our campus and have a vested interest in the implementation process. This distributed leadership model will allow our teachers to be the experts and the primary source of ongoing training in these areas. As an added element of personalization, each presenter will have data collected from the session sign up process and session attendance recorded at the conclusion of each training. Presenters will have information like the level of participant experience with technology, what the participant hope to gain from the session, and as the session concludes what the participants biggest learning takeaway was.
     Last, and maybe the best quality of this model, our teachers will be bringing back only the “Best of Summer” ideas from various PD. Have you ever sat through a PD that was incredible and wished more had heard that same thing? These inspirational moments will now be brought back to our teachers. Or, look at it this way, every PD has highs and lows. When we assemble teachers from various PDs, and they only bring back the best material, and effectively our staff gets the opportunity hear the best.
     As an administrative staff, we look forward to this hack. I sincerely hope our team becomes more engaged in the learning process; our presenters become instructional leaders, and this model of PD generates a buzz across the district and more.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

How Can We Create Authentic 21st-Century Learning?

Is it possible that we learn more from failure than success? Are your students only motivated by grades? To provide you with the hard truth, you simply have a class culture problem. How many real world problems do you solve on the first try? And would you agree that successful people are not the ones that get it right the first time, they are the individuals who remain diligent in the face of their first mistakes? You see, our classrooms have got to shift from seeking answers, to asking the right questions. When this happens then ‘fail’ becomes the “First Attempt in Learning” and students use a productive struggle model to solve real world problems. When this happens, we grow curiosity and end the arduous cycle of content coverage that culminates in a chapter test. What should education do? It must empower learners, develop critical thinking, facilitate teamwork and communication, problem solve, analyze, and interpret. Learning in this sense must prepare minds to think creatively, not fill minds with standardized answers and facts.

Binge Learning. Recently my wife and I started a television series of Netflix. We would lay our son down for a nap (he’s only 19 months, it would be a separate problem if he were 19 years o) and race upstairs to watch the next episode. As soon as it finished, we would wait restlessly for the next episode. What if this was our students? What if we inspired curiosity to the point, where, like binge-watching a television show, our students always wanted to know more and look forward to the next day. This can only occur when learning starts with failure. When the teacher values the productive struggle over the numerical grade. To state one more way, in movies the end is the end. You may watch it one more time (in this case you really need to get a hobby) but for the most part, the end is the end. Now in the event of a television series, they always conclude with a teaser; and in this case, the wait for the next season is unbearable. Grades work in a much different way. When a grade or end is shown, the learning STOPS. But, when you reach a progress check, as at the end of one season's TV series, you understand you place in learning and look forward to the next step.

To view learning from another angle think about this old saying, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. But is that true of our students? It has been my experience, personally or professionally, that education is seen as a system to disseminate knowledge. The end. This outdated model simply uses teachers as the gatekeepers of knowledge. They unscrew student heads, pour in the new knowledge, then wait for it to overflow. But is this what education should be about? I believe we must aspire to something different.

Recently our other assistant principal broke down the word ‘educate’ in an email to staff. The word ‘educate,’ broken down to its origins, means to lead forth. The message was clear; education should be about the process or the journey more than the outcome or the learning of isolated rogue facts. In fact, I would argue that when a lesson only pursues an outcome we reduce a student’s curiosity and alienate any and all 21st-century skills students must learn to be successful.

Let me introduce an instructional idea, then philosophy shift. Years ago I listened to Jimmy V, a legendary basketball coach, give a speech in the wake of announcing he was suffering from terminal cancer. He said, “Everyday, we should do three things: laugh, cry, and think.” His speech was inspirational, and it made me think about today’s classrooms. What if every day our classrooms did four things: read, write, think, and talk (RCU, 2016)? Sounds simple, right? You would be surprised how many classes still sit in rows and wait for the teacher to disseminate knowledge.

If we prescribe to the read, write, think, and talk model then learners begin to enjoy the journey, become curious and form new questions, and develop critical 21st-century skills. When a student performs the “Big Four”, then they access new skills like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, reasoning, disagreeing appropriate, developing leadership, and the list goes on. Most importantly, students take ownership of learning and can use these critical 21st-century skills to face the real world.