Situating professional development

In my recent post, Six Degrees of Professional Development, I grouped PD: Academic coursework, Workshops/sessions, Formal research, Informal, Classroom embedded, Action research. One of the reasons I grouped the 6 types in this particular way is that it situates the professional development.

To me, one of the most powerful ideas in learning is the theory of situated learning. This term was first used by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. I first read this book in grad school, and it has colored everything I’ve learned since. Situated learning happens in Communities of Practice, defined by Wenger on his site as, “… groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Community of practice is a term often used when we talk about teacher professional development. But in fact, I think often it is confused with community of interest. Community of practice is where you DO something. Community of interest doesn’t have to be. When we chat with friends and Twitter buddies about teaching and how to do it better, or what tools to use, that’s a community of interest, not a community of practice.

The primary community of practice for most teachers is within the confines of their own classroom. The participants are the teacher and students. Sometimes other people visit, but these visits are few and short. While teachers may participate in other communities in a professional capacity, for most, the classroom is the only setting for their professional practice.

Traditional forms of professional development remove the teacher from their classroom and attempt to create a community of practice made up of teachers and technology experts. This community exists only for the purpose of imparting information from the experts to the teachers. While there is certainly a place for collegial discussion and access to professional improvement, it is not unreasonable that teachers often reject transparent efforts to force them into participation.

Wenger, in discussing designs for learning inside communities of practice, makes the point that they, “…cannot be based on a division of labor between learners and nonlearners, between those who organize learning and those who realize it, or between those who create meaning and those who execute.”

Common recommendations for technology professional development include that teachers be given more time for independent practice without fear of embarrassment, to watch expert practitioners, go to conferences and workshops, or participate in online learning communities.

The problem is, these attempts to fix technology professional development only serve to reinforce the separation between the teacher learning new skills and real change in classroom practice. In a book chapter called Teacher professional development, technology, and communities of practice: Are we putting the cart before the horse? Mark Schlager and Judith Fusco look at the use of Tappped-In, an online teacher community, for professional development. They say it “… tends to pull professionals away from their practice, focusing on information about a practice rather than on how to put that knowledge into practice.” Mark Schlager is director of Tapped In, so this is not just someone who doesn’t like newfangled online PD.

In short, mere discussion about practice does not create a community of practice.

Even if a great workshop excite teachers about new possibilities and tools, the teachers are removed from the successful context and sent back to the classroom to fend for themselves. They are expected to use their new skills without colleagues or experts present. One-on-one coaching that provides in-class mentors is expensive and rarely available. The technology specialist is not always there, and the “teacher-down-the-hall” that many schools depend on for technology help has their own class to teach. Online teacher communities can only take place outside of classroom time, too late for any intervention or advice to be useful. Maybe you can Twitter out a call for help, but that’s too unreliable to count on in crunch time.

So as teachers struggle alone in their classroom with questions, issues, and problems, valuable teachable moments are missed.

In an interview discussing what changes need to take place in classrooms to allow project-based learning, Seymour Papert says, “What we need is kinds of activity in the classroom where the teacher is learning at the same time as the kids and with the kids. Unless you do that, you’ll never get out of the bind of what the teachers can do is limited by what they were taught to do when they went to school.” (Interview on Edutopia site – Seymour Papert: Project-based learning)

So you know where I’m going with this. You have to look at the whole classroom and maximize the chance that teachers will learn alongside students. It has to be the norm, not the exception. By looking to students as co-learners in the effort to use technology, teachers end up learning more themselves. It takes a willingness to take risks in front of students and to model an attitude of openness to new ideas. I think seeing learning with technology happen through the eyes, hands, and screen of their students is the only way teachers will really understand the potential.

Situating professional development in the classroom is, I believe, the only way that technology will really be integrated into every classroom.


3 Replies to “Situating professional development”

  1. My friend, Chris Hambly from the UK calls this sense of teachers learning alongside students as the “Guide on the Side” model. I think it’s really important, as well as to be able to admit when we, the ‘adults’ make mistakes or simply don’t know. We can show kids that they need not have every answer at their fingertips, but certainly can learn how to go find out what they want to know- isn’t that what education should be all about?

    More importantly, how can be get teachers away from the concept of being Gatekeepers to Knowledge but instead Knowledge Evangelists?

  2. What a refreshing conclusion you bring: that the best PD happens in the classroom when the classroom activities are “in session.”

    We have begun this model in the US in the state of Virginia with a model for “instructional technology resource teachers.” I work in a small district with only 5 schools, and while I sometimes do this, we really only have one dedicated person.

    I’ll be honest, it’s sometimes hard to get her into a classroom, but when teachers do place their trust in her, they are overwhelmingly happy with the results–“that isn’t so bad, at all.” She can model, support, and eventually step away when comfort by the teacher is achieved.

    That’s how it’s supposed to work, and when it does, I’ll echo three cheers. I only wish we had more “ITRTs” to go around.

  3. Ms. Martinez, thanks for referring me to your post here in response to my previous post to your YES blog. I appreciate the framework you have presented here. I coordinated and lead faculty and staff development programs in a community college. I couldn’t agree with you more that the experience of taking the teacher out of his/her environment to learn something then expect him/her to implement ideas later is challenging. Two models we are experimenting with are faculty learning communities and hybrid learning experiences. Our faculty learning communities are loosely based on Tinto’s extensive research on student learning communities. Faculty come together to collaboratively plan for team teaching and work with not only a partner but other academic professionals and support personnel. By making connections among courses and with academic services we can try to provide “wrap around” services for students. From our Teaching and Learning Center we’re trying the same approach working with faculty leaders, content specialists and technologists. In the hybrid experience we pair hands-on learning in a safe environment with time in between sessions to implement ideas while sharing successes and lessons learned in a virtual environment.

    I will certainly check into the sources you note in this post! Thanks again for the referral and best wishes for continued success!! –Patrice H., Illinois State University doc student

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