Professional Development Opinion

Unlearning: The Key Dimension of Professional Development for Technology-Enhanced Transformation

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 26, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of any educational model depends on the knowledge and skills of the people involved. That educators are the most important contributors to quality is true even for disruptive, technology-enhanced innovations in learning and instruction that use media intensively to empower dramatic shifts in practice. Professional development for transformative change is very challenging because participants not only must learn new skills, but also must “unlearn” almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions, practices, and values about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling. In this situation, too often teachers are provided learning experiences that are purely cognitive, but professional development that requires unlearning necessitates high levels of emotional/social support in addition to intellectual and technical guidance.

To be powerful for teachers and students, innovations cannot focus on media substituting for people as the means of instructional delivery; even modern computers are far less able to understand human behaviors than a skilled person. Rather than artificial intelligence (AI), substituting computers for humans, we should use devices and apps to provide intelligence amplification for people (IA). Digital media are best used for classroom learning that empowers the experiences learners have and teachers guide.

In other words, learning technologies are not like fire: one does not get a benefit simply by standing next to them. Instead, learning technologies are catalysts that can transform conventional instruction to enable deeper content, more active forms of learning, more authentic forms of assessment, and better links between classrooms and life. Technology-enhanced innovations based on some combination of these are transformative when:

  • Experiences are the heart of learning, rather than pre-digested information.
  • Knowledge is situated in a context and distributed across a community (as is true in life), rather than decontextualized, abstract, and based solely on an individual’s insights (as in traditional stand-and-deliver classrooms).
  • Experiences, accomplishments, and reputation in the learning community are primary measures of quality, rather than tests or papers, which capture only a small fraction of the important knowledge and skills gained.

Transforming from presentational/assimilative instruction to this form of pedagogy requires from teachers substantial unlearning of mental models and emotional investments in them. These mental models have been developed through decades of being students themselves, receiving traditional instruction, and further years of building skills in conventional instruction.

How important is emotional and social support for this shift? In losing weight (which also involves changing deeply rooted behaviors), affective reinforcement is extremely important--and purely cognitive supports often fail. In effective tutoring, about half the prompts a mentor provides are encouragement rather than intellectual advice. For students being asked to tackle a new type of activity, self-efficacy and tenacity are vital attitudes, and these are built in part through emotional and social interventions. Parallel to these examples of comparable situations, substantial affective/communal support is vital to the success of professional development that requires unlearning.

A range of objectives for educational improvement underlies transformative teacher professional development, such as introducing new curricula, altering teachers’ beliefs and instructional and assessment practices, changing school organization and culture, and enhancing relationships between school and community. The need for professional learning that is tailored to teachers’ busy schedules, that draws on valuable resources not available locally, and that provides work-embedded support has stimulated the creation of online and blended teacher professional development programs. Generally, these programs are available to teachers at their convenience and provide just-in-time assistance. In addition, they often give schools access to experts and archival resources that fiscal and logistical constraints would otherwise limit.

The ideal strategy for professional development on technology-enhanced innovations is online or blended learning communities, so that the learning process is consistent with the knowledge and culture to be acquired. In other words, teachers should together experience the form of technology-enhanced learning desired for their students as the medium of their professional development as well as its message. Teachers teach as they themselves were taught, and insights from peers are often more valued and useful than those from people who don’t have a detailed knowledge of the constraints of classrooms and the intricacies of how today’s students learn.

That said, one puzzle about online communities is the high proportion of “lurkers,” participants who occasionally view what is happening in the community, but who do not contribute. Lurking happens in any group activity, face-to-face or online. However, in contrast to face-to-face settings, it is difficult to determine the proportion of lurkers in an online community or to judge how engaged or disengaged they are--unless one has access to personally identifiable back-end data (which is typically not the case). Studies of online professional development have typically focused on active participants and imply that in a healthy online or blended community the vast majority of participants are contributing. However attractive this vision, pragmatically lurkers are the much larger part of the “iceberg,” submerged and invisible, so research on understanding what benefits the community provides for them--and on designs and structures that create this value-- is much needed.

Understanding how to provide benefits for lurkers is particularly important given the importance of unlearning in transformational professional development. One can get some intellectual benefit from reading posts, but what are the emotional and social impacts of being a voyeur in a community rather than an active member? In a gaming environment, the affective value of watching others tackle difficult tasks and succeed is apparent, as is viewing the community recognition accorded players who post to game forums insights on how to succeed. However, in online professional development, one has less opportunity to derive emotional or social benefits by watching others, unless online videos or other rich artifacts of teaching are shared. Understanding the design approaches by which we could help lurkers feel empowered to unlearn is an important frontier for transformative professional development.

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