Published Online: January 10, 2014

Today's Lesson

Self-directed learning ... for teachers

Feeling frustrated by the lack of professional innovation around him, Nicholas Provenzano made a life-altering decision in January 2010: He started a blog and signed up for a Twitter account.

“I’m a 30-year-old English teacher who is currently working on my master’s degree in educational technology,” Provenzano wrote in the first post on his blog, The Nerdy Teacher. “I spend tons of time helping other teachers in my building to incorporate technology into their teaching and thought it would be nice to share these new concepts with the world out there. . . . If you have any thoughts or ideas you would like to share, please feel free to email me or post a comment. Let’s see where this thing takes us” (Provenzano, 2010).

Three years later, “this thing” has taken Provenzano to the pinnacle of his profession. He is a thought leader with nearly 30,000 followers on Twitter—a number that leaves him humbled every day. He is a critical friend of educational technology companies. He is an author and a consultant providing guidance to districts rethinking what today’s classrooms should look like. This year, the International Society for Technology in Education named him its Outstanding Teacher of the Year, an honor given to a practitioner who has “demonstrated outstanding achievement in and understanding of educational technology implementation.”

But if you ask Provenzano, he’ll tell you that what really matters is that “this thing” has given him the opportunity to develop relationships with like-minded peers. He sees himself as an average guy lucky enough to stumble onto the power of networked learning earlier than many of his colleagues. He describes his closest digital friends as family. “Social spaces aren’t about followers,” he says. “They are about connections—and my connections make me a better teacher and a better person every day” (Provenzano, 2012).

Networked learning has also pushed Provenzano’s practice in ways that traditional professional development couldn’t. Time spent sharing on his blog, learning from others on Twitter, and participating in nontraditional education conferences called Edcamps have left him constantly exposed to new thinking. By making connections with teachers around the world and seeking professional development specific to him, Provenzano has been able to grow in the areas he needed, not the areas his district decided the majority needed. Personalization has left Provenzano better prepared to help every student in his classroom.

For example, Provenzano devised a project for his students at Grosse Pointe South High School in Michigan that connected students across time zones with Van Meter High School in Iowa to explore and discuss Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in a new and exciting way. By using his connections on Twitter, Provenzano was able to find another teacher who shared his passion for English language arts and also was looking for a new approach to the classic play.

Their students rewrote the play and filmed their own version that was webcast across the globe during a joint world premiere. Throughout the project, members of Provenzano’s network provided conceptual guidance and technical support, giving him the courage and skill necessary to create a new learning opportunity for his students.

The ‘Adjacent Possible’

Provenzano’s growth in response to the intellectual challenge provided by peers in new learning spaces mirrors the slow, steady innovation that happens in the natural world. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman calls this evolutionary progress responding to the “adjacent possible.” Detailing the adjacent possible in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson says the adjacent possible tells us:

[T]hat at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries . . .

Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors, and eventually you’ll have built a palace (John-son, 2010, pp. 363, 372).

Provenzano and thousands of teachers just like him are exploring the boundaries of their practice together on Twitter, in blogs, and at seminars, and they represent a new generation of educators who are actively redefining how innovation occurs in the schoolhouse.

Starting With Twitter

For many of these educators, exposure to adjacent possibilities—the first step toward innovation—starts in the strangest of places: Twitter. The frequently misunderstood service that enables users to post short public messages to the web is often seen as nothing more than a digital home for attention-starved celebrities and political egomaniacs.

But ask around the next faculty meeting, and you’ll find practitioners who swear that the service has become the cornerstone of their professional learning. As John T. Spencer (@edrethink), a 6th-grade teacher in Arizona and Kappan’s Teacher columnist, explains, “Twitter is where I go when I want to talk to teacher friends who are also trying to do project-based learning in environments that are test-obsessed. . . . It’s also a place where people challenge my groupthink and push me to rethink my practice” (Spencer, 2012).

At the most basic level, Twitter allows users to curate content for one another. Drawing from a collection of over 500 education specific hashtags, thou-sands of practitioners are posting links, blog entries, and lesson plans at any given time. Want to learn more about project-based learning? Visit Twitter and search for #pblchat. Care about school leader-ship? Try #cpchat or #edleaders. Teach elementary school? Your digital colleagues are using #elemchat to organize.

Twitter can become much more than a tool for simple sharing, though. Connected educators recognize that behind every profile picture is a person walking through similar professional doors. Following other teachers—a one-click commitment that makes important content easier to find by delivering updates directly to a Twitter user’s homepage—can start long-term relationships with thoughtful peers who are willing to serve as professional sounding boards whether they know you in “the real world” or not.

Teachers who use Twitter to build professional networks often want to learn more about and from the people they interact with online. Doing so means embracing RSS feed readers, which educational leadership expert Scott McLeod (@mcleod) calls the most important tool you probably don’t know (McLeod, 2011). Like DVRs, RSS feed readers are free web-based tools that automatically retrieve new posts from frequently updated blogs for users, making it possible to explore the thinking of other practitioners from one online home. Filling feed readers with the blogs of peers that they follow in other social spaces allows connected educators to think deeply with one another—something that isn’t always possible in an ever-changing Twitter stream.

Symbiotic Relationships

The relationship that develops between blog writers and their regular readers is symbiotic. Writers publish thinking designed to challenge their peers, and peers push back in the comment sections of posts, helping writers refine their initial positions. Over time, this intellectual give-and-take strengthens the understandings and professional relation-ships between authors and their audiences.

Once practitioners discover that social spaces can make customized learning possible and that informal relationships developed online can be powerful, their view of what education conferences should look like changes. Instead of accepting that conferences have to be expensive corporate-sponsored events, connected educators have started holding their own reimagined teaching conferences called Edcamps. Proudly touted as “unconferences,” Edcamps are almost always hosted on school campuses, planned by teams of teachers who have grown to know one another online, and free to attend.

Unlike traditional conferences that can inadvertently stifle innovation by lining up predetermined slates of sessions months in advance, Ed-camps start with blank agendas. While participants arrive, practitioners use sticky notes to suggest ideas for sessions. Once strands of interest start to take shape, popular topics are identified, meeting rooms are assigned, and facilitators volunteer to lead individual sessions. After the agenda has been filled, teachers select the topics they want to learn more about. Edcamps are different be-cause presentations are openly discouraged. In-stead, sessions are designed to be conversations between like-minded peers. “Attendees are called participants because sessions are expected to be interactive, not simply one person standing at the front of the room lecturing while the audience passively listens and struggles to stay awake,” explained instructional technologist Jennifer Scheffer (@jlscheffer) after attending her first Edcamp in the spring of 2013 (Scheffer, 2013).

In a sense, unconferences are physical representations of the self-directed, evolutionary learning that takes place in social spaces like Twitter. Highly motivated participants give up personal time to connect over topics that are relevant to them. Edcamp Cincy organizer M.E. Steele-Pierce (@steelepierce), a re-tired Ohio educator, says the personal, social, and voluntary nature of the learning at Edcamps mirrors the changing nature of learning in today’s connected world. “Unconferences matter,” she writes, “because they harness the power of authentic learning” (Steele-Pierce, 2011).

Unconferences are also physical opportunities for educators to meet digital peers for the first time. Relationships that start online are cemented in per-son, and relationships cemented in person continue in digital networks long after unconferences end. “One of the most powerful aspects . . . was online community turned real community—that in 140 characters on Twitter, bit by bit, you create connections with other educators,” said Carolyn Foote (@technolibrary), a librarian in Texas, as she reflected on nontraditional teaching conferences. “When you meet them, it’s like you are just picking up the conversation where you left off, not like meeting them for the first time” (Foote, 2008).

Harness the Power of Connections

Educators who have embraced new learning spaces often display a passionate commitment to the tools, the process, and their peers. Some have said they learn more in shorter time periods in their Twitter stream or at Edcamps than hours in professional development sessions. So what is it that makes social spaces and unconferences powerful forums for spreading innovation?

The answer is that innovation happens when minds come together to share ideas. Traditionally, that sharing required people to be in the same place at the same time. Today, sharing ideas can happen anytime, anywhere. Whether they are poking through Twitter streams on smartphones before the morning bell rings, reading blog entries on iPads while sitting in waiting rooms, or extending conversations started at unconferences on laptops while unwinding after a long day of work, digitally connected teachers are tapping into what Clay Shirky and Dan Pink call “the great spare time revolution.” As Shirky explains:

Somehow, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen in the developed world. But once we stop thinking of all that time as individual minutes to be whiled away and start thinking of it as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population—maybe a trillion hours per year—is a new resource. It’s what I refer to as the cognitive surplus (Wired, 2010).

New learning spaces are also personalized. Instead of sitting in staff development sessions designed to deliver one message to entire faculties, practitioners learning in new social spaces are exploring their own professional boundaries, customizing their learning in a way impossible to replicate in traditional settings.

Finally, new learning spaces provide teachers with instant answers to questions and instant access to up-to-date information curated by practitioners with expertise. Teachers with a strong network of digital colleagues—or a spare Saturday morning to spend at an Edcamp—can get support for any challenge. Instead of signing up for staff development sessions scheduled weeks in advance, advice in social spaces is literally a Tweet, a blog post, or an unconference away.

Challenges of Being Connected

As powerful as the changing nature of innovation has been, practitioners who embrace new learning spaces need to be aware of the following pitfalls. Balance: The greatest challenge for teachers drawn to social spaces or unconferences is recognizing that personalization—customizing streams of information that resonate with our own vision for what teaching and learning should look like—can leave us with professional blind spots.

“By rights, the Internet should be doing more than anything else to open our eyes to new perspectives and experiences,” said technology writer Allan Martin. Instead, he adds, “We’re moving away from that: As the web becomes increasingly tailored to the individual, we’re more likely than ever to be served personalized content that makes us happy and keeps us clicking. That happy content is seldom anything that challenges our viewpoint, and there’s a risk that this distorts our view of the wider world outside our browser” (Martin, 2013).

Avoiding these self-created intellectual echo chambers depends on educators who intentionally seek out dissenting voices to learn with. The primary goal of social spaces should be to challenge, instead of to simply confirm, what we already know and believe.

Accuracy: While the Internet has given every-one the power to publish, no one is actively policing content created for the web. As a result, ideas that are poorly researched or advanced by individuals with agendas can spread quickly in today’s connected learning ecology. That means teachers must become critical consumers of the information that they come across in any learning space.

Recognition: Teachers also must note that most educators don’t view learning in social spaces or at unconferences as valid forms of professional development. If connected educators want this to change, they must systematically document the effect that nontraditional learning opportunities are having on their practice. Archiving individual Twitter messages or blog posts that led to meaningful changes in instruction can provide the tangible evidence that districts need in order to officially recognize time spent in networked spaces as formal learning.

And if school leaders want this to change, they must understand that professional development isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Districts that fear their chosen professional development path will be undermined by new learning spaces are missing the bigger picture. Instead of squaring off against Twitter, blogs, and unconferences, districts should be partnering with the leaders of new learning spaces to create additional opportunities for their faculties to be exposed to innovative ideas.

Paying It Forward

Nicholas Provenzano had a simple goal when he started Tweeting and blogging: He wanted to share what he knew about his classroom with the world. In return, the world has shared what it knows with him. Nontraditional learning spaces have allowed him to connect to individuals, ideas, and opportunities that have improved his practice. Provenzano is convinced that his new skills would not have developed within the traditional model of schoolhouse innovation, where his growth plan would have been determined by someone else, his learning time would have been scheduled months in advance, and his access to ideas would have been limited to the expertise of people he was learning with in person. Blogs, Twitter, and unconferences have let Provenzano regain his intellectual agency and take ownership over his professional growth.

There has never been a better time for educators to take ownership of their learning. Too often, educators are treated like students, argues educational consultant Dean Shareski (@shareski). “If we want students to take ownership of their learning,” he writes, “shouldn’t we want the same for teachers?” (Shareski, 2013). Preparing an ever-changing student population for an ever-changing world requires a highly skilled workforce. No teacher can single-handedly meet the demands of today’s classroom. Instead, teachers must rely on the expertise of others to improve their craft. And no school system can single-handedly meet the developmental needs of every teacher it employs. With shrinking budgets and more time dedicated to testing, districts should instead support practitioners who use new tools and spaces to find sources for intellectual challenge. Organizational capacity increases when control over learning is handed to motivated learners.

References

Foote, C. (2008, January 28). Picking up the conversation where we left off. Not So Distant Future. http://futura.edublogs.org/2008/01/28/picking-up-the-conversation-where-we-left-off/

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Martin, A. (2013, May 1). The web’s “echo chamber” leaves us none the wiser. Wired UK. www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-05/1/online-stubbornness

McLeod, S. (2011, September). The most important tool you probably don’t know. The School Administrator, 68 (8), 8.

Provenzano, N. (2010, January 2). The nerdy teacher. The Nerdy Teacher. www.thenerdyteacher.com/2010/01/nerdy-teacher.html

Provenzano, N. (2012, May 28). Where I am and how I got here. The Nerdy Teacher. www.thenerdyteacher.com/2012/05/where-i-am-and-how-i-got-here.html

Scheffer, J. (2013, May 6). Thoughts from an Edcamp rookie: Educators connecting and making progress. The Future of Educational Leadership.  http://jennscheffer.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/thoughts-from-an-edcamp-rookie-educators-connecting-and-making-progress/

Shareski, D. (2013, June 21). Professional development is not that complicated. Ideas and Thoughts. http://ideasandthoughts.org/2013/06/21/professional-development-is-not-that-complicated/

Spencer, J. (2012, November 21). Twitter isn’t a tool. Education Rethink. www.educationrethink.com/2012/11/twitter-isnt-tool.html

Steele-Pierce, M.E. (2011, March 7). Unconference: Revolutionary professional learning. Powerful Learning Practice. http://plpnetwork.com/2011/03/07/unconference-revolutionary-professional-learning/

Wired . (2010, May 24). Cognitive surplus: The great spare-time revolution. Wired. www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_pink_shirky/

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