Sunday, February 27, 2011

The future of professional learning?

Learning, as we know it, is about to change. I’ve written before about the advances that are coming to education through blended learning, and as I learn more about how this might look in the classroom, I’m also finding it has the potential to change professional learning as well.

Currently, what teachers learn on the job is determined almost completely by the administration at their school. Some schools offer a full slate of opportunities to learn about new instructional practices, technological offerings, or assessment choices. But other schools may get by without offering anything. Current policies dictate that teachers will no longer be paid for new degree levels, and so the burden of continuing education for teachers falls much more heavily on the district, and therefore with the instructional coaches, in which they reside. For some teachers, however, schools offer very few opportunities to improve.

Blended learning has the potential to change that. In a recent discussion with representatives from Dell’s educational division, I was given an overview of how professional learning might look in a blended situation that includes some face-to-face meetings and some self-paced, individual learning.

After an initial face-to-face meeting to establish protocols and to ensure that everyone understands the expectations and can link up to the host site, a class might be broken up like this:

Session 1: Teachers work individually and on their own time (asynchronously) to learn about the topic at hand. The website contains links to text, videos, podcasts or other media that provide background on the topic. There might be an element of choice here, with the teachers choosing to go more deeply in some areas than into others. There’s an agreed-upon time frame to complete this session, with some sort of “deliverable” due at the end, such as a quiz or open-ended response.

Session 2: The teachers meet with a partner to analyze and discuss the content from session 1. This might involve more online activities, such as viewing videos or podcasts and responding to discussion boards, and is completed on their own time.

Session 3: The teachers meet in small groups to work on applying the concept in the classroom. At the end of sessions 2 and 3 facilitators create another “deliverable” for participants to demonstrate their understanding.

Session 4: The only other face-to-face meeting besides the initial meeting, this is the participants’ chance to “go public” with their learning and how they’ve applied it in their classrooms. The focus is on giving and receiving feedback, and discussing future applications of the topic.

Blended learning as described in this simple outline has the potential to level the playing field of professional learning between schools. No longer will it matter where you work or what your particular school offers. Instead, courses will be offered online during the year with very few face-to-face meetings required yet with expectations of application in the classroom.

This approach in no way eliminates the necessity of coaches to work side-by-side with teachers. There will always be a need for individual coaching of new assessments, interesting instructional strategies, and help with struggling students. Research shows that the most effective professional learning occurs on the job with a knowledgeable “other” as support.

But for those times when teachers want to learn new information, blended learning offers a flexible, individualized alternative to what we’ve done in the past.

What are your thoughts? Is blended professional learning a positive or negative move?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Naming What We Do

I have just returned from the weeklong Coaching Institute at New York’s Columbia University and I am energized, seeing the teaching world through clearer coaching eyes. We spent the week in a combination of breakout sessions and intensive work with students in public schools practicing both our reading instruction and our coaching strategies.

There’s so much that I learned that week, much of which I’ll attempt to share here in the coming weeks, but if there’s one big “aha” I brought back from this institute, it’s the need to name what we do. So many times, as coaches, we think what we’re doing is obvious. We assume that observers will understand why we do what we do, when in reality much of that can be missed as observers get distracted by the well-made wall charts or the classroom’s organizational structures.

Shanna, our cohort leader, told a story about her husband taking her out for Valentine’s dinner. They went to a delicious Turkish restaurant, and she came away from it thinking how delicious everything was. But she also realized that she couldn’t describe exactly what it tasted like, or why everything was delicious. She didn’t have the words for it. Her brother, however, is a famous chef in the city, and he would have been able to name what she tasted. He could have told her, for instance, that the butter and brown sugar sauté caused the chicken and onions to caramelize slightly, or that the combination of sea salt and lemon reduction is what made the vegetables pop.

The difference between her and her brother is that her brother, if he’d gone to that restaurant, would have been able to remember what he experienced. She, on the other hand, with no better words than “delicious”, will forget the details as the experience fades. Weeks from now she’ll just remember it was a fantastic Turkish restaurant and nothing else.

Think how this applies to a modeled lesson. If we don’t give teachers words for what they’re seeing, if we don’t voice over and explain exactly what they’re seeing and how we “cooked up” this precise experience, they will leave with a general impression: “It was a good lesson” but few specifics on how to replicate it. Words are what allow us to remember events. Well-chosen words name the teaching moves, the subtle adjustments that happen in response to the unpredictable in the classroom. And it’s these words that are remembered weeks, months, or even years later when a similar situation is encountered.

Words are powerful. And I learned from Shanna to be more conscious and intentional about using words to capture what happens in the classroom so it can be replicated.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book review: "Disrupting Class"

One of the best books I’ve read about initiating large-scale change in education is “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”. The authors summarize where the education field has been regarding its attempts to change, and then clearly lay out their proposal for the future.

Their argument is basically this: if we agree that students learn differently, then the monolithic, factory-based model of pushing kids through curriculum in batches we call grades is no longer acceptable. Teaching everyone the same things on the same day in the same way will not work in today’s world. Using this model, students have lost motivation and feel disconnected from school and its purpose.

Instead, education needs to become modular. Students should be allowed to assemble a learning plan that allows them to learn in a manner that fits best. The authors argue that this will increasingly involve technology that allows individualized, asynchronous learning and a teacher who no longer “stands and delivers” but instead serves as a facilitator of knowledge.

In the past, however, attempts at large-scales changes in education have always resulted in small-scale shifts because we’ve absorbed the ideas into our existing structure. NCLB, merit pay, classroom-based computers – all of these were attempted in the context of a traditional classroom setting with students expected to learn in the manner the teacher required. The authors of this book argue that in order for change to be disruptive, it must not confront the current situation head-on, but instead should begin in a separate dimension where there is little or no alternative.

For instance, if individualized, computer-based instruction were introduced in schools today the idea would most likely be seen as far-fetched, too time intensive, and threatening to teachers with little technological experience. But if the idea were introduced for alternative and home-schooled students, who currently have few options, it is much more likely to take off. Over time the program will experience success, the technology will become more sophisticated, and more traditional students, parents and even teachers will begin clamoring for it.

We’re already headed in this direction. Online classes and blended learning – a combination of face-to-face and online learning – are increasingly becoming the norm. I think we can all agree that different students learn differently. This is one way we can teach differently to reach them.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Teachers Grading Parents?

Should teachers grade parents on how well they contribute to their child’s learning? One lawmaker in Florida thinks so. Teachers in grades pre-K through third grade would assign parents S, N or U on their child’s report card based on their attendance at parent-teacher meetings, the child’s preparedness for school, and completion of homework.

Would this work? Will it change the behaviors of parents who currently are not exemplary in these areas? Would it send the message that student education is a team effort between parents, teachers, and students? Or would it alienate parents and cause resentment?