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7 Ways to Improve Professional Learning in the 21st Century

By Guest Blogger — February 23, 2016 4 min read
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Note: This week, contributers to the Smarter Schools Project will be guest-blogging. Today, our guest-blogger is Paula Dillon, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Barrington, R.I.

For some schools and teachers, technology is changing the way we think about education—most importantly, it’s improving the way we deliver education. But for others, technology has merely been the chance to replace pen and paper with a tablet or swap an original textbook for an online version. These schools and educators have failed to unleash the full power of technology and more often than not, it’s a lack of quality professional development to blame.

Research and reports such as the National Education Technology Plan (2016) and the Organisation for Economic Development’s Youth Skills Outlook report (2015) show that technology alone is not sufficient to transform teaching and learning into the 21st century powerhouse that it should be. It is high time for a professional development makeover. Here are seven ways educators can jump-start their professional learning program to get more teachers effectively using technology:


  1. Sandbox environments. When we think of a sandbox, we often think of a play area for children. But a sandbox environment in education is like a test lab, allowing teachers the opportunity to see, feel, and try various technological tools in a safe, judgment-free environment. If you have access to tech-savvy students, you can include their support and knowledge in the process, thereby demonstrating to teachers what works for the students in real-life and real-time.
  2. Model classrooms. In every school, there are at least a few educators leading the way on new technology. Identifying their classrooms as “model classrooms” encourages educators to open their rooms to their peers and share best practices to help make 21st learning more accessible and approachable. When you have several different model classrooms in the building, the school also becomes a center of leading and learning for teachers, not just students.
  3. Walkthroughs. Teaching can be an isolating profession. It is easy for these sentinels of instruction to lose sight of what is occurring outside of their localized orbit, as they focus primarily on their own students. Walkthroughs take model classrooms one step forward by making all classrooms wide-open spaces for sharing and learning. After walkthroughs, teachers can reach out to their peers for a skills demonstration on particular learning models they observed during the walkthrough. This practice supports a commonality of purpose and focus of direction. Pro-tip: there are several tools available to guide the “look fors,” such as this one from the Teaching of Robust Understanding Framework.
  4. Lunch and learns/Drop-in sessions. Lunch and learns and drop-in sessions allow educators to lead the learning. After visiting a model classroom or going on a walkthrough, teachers may have more specific questions. An impromptu workshop where teachers can try a tool, practice a skill, or ask questions helps efficiently move the learning forward.
  5. Unconferences/EdCamps. Unconferences and EdCamps are unstructured sessions where teachers gather with educators of similar interests and engage in peer-to-peer learning and sharing. Typically, teachers will identify areas where they can teach their peers as well as areas they are looking for professional growth. Various organizations nationwide offer Unconferences and EdCamps for leaders to attend and learn how to host their own at their school campus. The first time leaders host an Unconference can be daunting because of the lack of a true plan and schedule; however, they are one of the most powerful and succinct delivery models for professional development. Just as technology can be personalized for students, the day becomes personalized for everyone.
  6. Coaching. Job embedded professional development is key to supporting teachers who are uncomfortable or uncertain about implementing new instructional strategies. Coaches collaborate on and plan lessons, model those lessons, and push in to support and guide teachers in becoming more confident in their delivery. To ensure continuous improvement in our classrooms, critical feedback and dialog is key.
  7. Micro-credentialing/Badges. As teachers begin to develop confidence with 21st century teaching and learning, the need to personalize becomes even more important. Through micro-credentialing and badging, teachers will pursue learning to support their instructional needs at their own pace. This learning can occur via online professional learning portals, opportunities offered by the school, or off-campus settings. As teachers layer their skills, they are provided with a badge that illustrates their expertise. This badge helps their peers recognize who is available in the building and who can support their needs.

As a leader it is not required to adopt each one of these innovative models; however, it is essential to move away from the passive delivery format of professional development to better transform instruction and learning in the school. Additionally, the budget process begins in the spring, there are practical benefits to this transition. The majority of the above solutions is either no or low-cost, as compared to a $6,000 a day “expert” who generally has leaders asking, “Where is the return on investment?” I believe we must accept the challenge to create a cost-effective, active and personalized learning environment with and for teachers that redefines professional growth for this millennium. Responding to the needs of educators answers the needs of students.

--Paula Dillon

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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