Curriculum

‘Flipped’ PD Initiative Boosts Teachers’ Tech Skills

By Robin L. Flanigan — June 11, 2013 5 min read
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Anna Wilcek was comfortable instructing her students on how to interview residents of a nearby retirement community and write biographies of those people. How to integrate technology into the project was another story.

The 6th grade teacher recalls asking, “What ideas do you have for me?” during a recent face-to-face workshop with Wayne Feller and Kristin Daniels, the technology-integration specialists in the 8,500-student Stillwater Area Public Schools, in Minnesota.

The collaborative, technology-driven nature of the relationship between teachers and the technology coaches is the hallmark of what the Stillwater district calls “flipped professional development.” Known as job-embedded coaching in educational leadership circles, flipped PD offers face-to-face support and personalized online resources, such as how-to videos on using interactive-whiteboard software or the iPad’s multi-tasking bar. Teachers watch the videos to find new or better approaches and then discuss developing those approaches with the technology-integration specialists.

Under that system, Wilcek, who teaches at the 347-student Andersen Elementary School, learned how to edit student-shot movies in iMovie, export them into iBooks Author, and post the finished products on her website for downloading.

“I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or time to pull all of that together,” she says. “It’s such a gift to have the specialists sit right next to you. They give me the confidence to move forward because I know I can have support whenever I want it.”

Stillwater started flipped PD in 2011-12. Here’s how it works: Feller and Daniels meet with 200 classroom teachers and specialists in small groups each month for structured, two-hour coaching/training and workshop sessions that focus on individual projects, then offer additional guidance by request. So far, the model is used in all nine of the district’s elementary schools, with 93 percent of classroom teachers participating.

Coaching support is essential if teachers are to use technology effectively in the classroom, according to a 2011 white paper released by the International Society for Technology in Education, a Washington-based membership association that promotes innovative uses of educational technology. To support that idea, ISTE now has benchmarks for technology coaches seeking to give effective guidance and support to teachers in a digital age.

Attitude Shifts

Unlike in traditional professional development, context plays a critical role in flipped PD. Content area, grade level, technological expertise, and the interests of each teacher and specialist affect the type of online training offered.

“We don’t come in dictating what they’re here to learn and work on,” Daniels says. “When they realize they’re being given time to think about what they want to be doing, and to grow at their own pace, they’re absolutely relieved. And there’s been a remarkable shift in attitude toward personal growth because of that.”

Stillwater embraced flipped PD because “it had the largest impact and really was the highest return on investment,” says Michael Dronen, the coordinator of educational innovation and technology in the district.

The district was inspired by research from the 1980s, still cited today, that showed only 10 percent to 15 percent of teachers added a new classroom practice to their repertoire when given professional development but no follow-up support. That figure jumped to 90 percent, however, with sustained support.

Bruce Joyce, who helped conduct the research, reinforces that statistic in a book he co-wrote, Realizing the Promise of 21st-Century Education: An Owner’s Manual, which was published in 2012.

Stillwater’s personalized professional development is “extraordinarily ambitious, and worth everybody taking a look at,” says Joyce, the director of Booksend Laboratories, based in St. Simons, Ga., which partners with school districts on projects for long-term staff development and improvement.

The district produces four types of videos. “Proactive” videos are typically tutorials covering the basics of Stillwater’s most-used technology tools. “Reactive” videos are created in response to a specific request; one teacher, for example, learned how to create a video about online bullying after an incident the day before. “Spontaneous capture” videos document best practices, project ideas, and success stories.

And “individual backpack” videos are raw, unedited snippets created on the fly to answer specific questions.

‘Try Something New’

Although teachers are still warming up to the idea of watching videos to learn, the technology-integration specialists have noticed an appreciation among them for being able to determine the direction of their own professional development.

Lessons Learned

As with any new initiative, there are lessons to be learned from one year to the next. The Stillwater school system in Minnesota, in its second year of using a professional-development model called “flipped PD,” learned several lessons:

Include principals, not just teachers. In the first year, conversations with principals in schools that used flipped PD often shifted from how it was helping teachers to the way technology could help school leaders be more efficient and manage personnel more effectively.

Strengthen the use of online resources. A collection of such resources is useful, but teachers and specialists would learn even more if those resources were available through an online course.

Allow teachers to self-reflect. It took until the second year to realize a self-reflection process would be invaluable for teachers and specialists. Now they’re asked to write in online journals throughout the school year about their flipped-PD experiences.

Realize the potential for continuous growth. Michael Dronen, Stillwater’s technology director, says that had the district understood earlier how much of an impact flipped PD would have on continuous growth, it would have accelerated the rate of adoption.

Source: Education Week

As a nod to that role, Feller, who is writing a book that identifies promising classroom practices created in Stillwater through flipped PD, uses the term “teacher client” when referring to teachers.

Substitute teachers rotate classrooms on formal training days to allow small groups of teachers and specialists to learn side by side.

“When we bring them together, there’s a real dynamic synergy that happens,” says Daniels. “They can go right back to their classroom and try something new later that day.”

To increase collaboration and transparency, the technology specialists guide teachers through the use of Google Docs to set goals for the year, link to videos and other resources, and chronicle their progress.

Feller points to a dramatic increase in innovative, multimedia projects over the past two years as evidence that flipped PD is working.

In the first year, three teachers began helping students publish their own books using text and images. That number jumped to nearly two dozen this school year. Meanwhile, students are collaborating more, some are blogging, and their tech-related vocabulary is expanding, says Feller.

“A fifth grade student was talking to a group of adults, and in a matter-of-fact way referenced the idea of creating and sharing a document with his teacher and classmates,” he says. “He was referring to Google Docs. He had this new way of expressing a concept that was nonexistent a few years ago.”

Like technology itself, flipped PD continues to evolve.

A complete overhaul of the way in which instruction is planned and delivered takes time and is laden with risks, Dronen acknowledges.

“It’s not unlike asking someone without any training to walk out on a tightrope,” he says. “But once you’re on the rope and have those basic skills, it’s a really thrilling place to be. And it allows for deep reformational changes.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Flipped PD: Building Blocks to Success

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