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Moving Beyond the Sit ‘n Git Model of Professional Development

This post was originally written for the Canadian Education Association in 2015. I believe it is still relevant and important today. 

I often wonder if what we see as teaching at professional learning events would be acceptable in a high school classroom. If the purpose of professional development (Pro-D) is professional learning, then what is our evidence that learning does, in fact, occur? Are we using effective teaching practices in Pro-D?

Although Pro-D is evolving, the “Sit‘n’Git” way of learning seems to still be alive and well in many conferences and workshops throughout Canada and the U.S. In the past five years, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in a large conference room for a number of hours with hundreds of other dedicated educators and not been provided with the opportunity to even talk to the person beside me. People are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to attend these events to listen to a series of lengthy lectures without the opportunity to network and wrestle with the presented ideas. I’m not opposed to a keynote address to start off the day with some inspiring, thought-provoking ideas; however, if there is no opportunity to take these ideas and move deeper, many of the thoughts that are initiated in the keynote get lost as I move on to the next session or listen to the next presenter. It’s no secret that in order for deeper learning to occur, we must DO something with a new concept; we must apply new learning to take it from an idea to implementation. Our current typical model of Pro-D makes deeper learning a challenge and often only leaves participants with a few ideas that are unfortunately left on the shelf with the many glossy white binders from workshops of years past. At some point we need to stand up and say that a high volume of “Sit‘n’Git” style of Pro-D is no longer acceptable and is an insult to those who have spent money, time, and effort to attend. While doing this, we also need to rethink the conference model and professional learning so that it better aligns with what we want to see in classrooms.

There are many articles written about rethinking professional learning (for example – http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/20/is-the-pd-day-broken/ and http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea_fone_teacherpd.pdf) For me, the experience needs to be relevant, continual, and collaborative. As educators, we need time to take an idea, wrestle with it, discuss it, and then plan for implementation. Ideally, there should also be time for follow up with reflective dialogue either as a staff or as a group.

In B.C., the current learning model for teachers is five to six separate (often not aligned, surface level) PD days, monthly staff meetings, and (optional) after school workshops. Is this the best we can do? We know the importance of professional autonomy, so how do we offer this and also ensure that professional learning moves beyond surface level workshops or lectures that give participants the chance to mentally opt out? What is our collective responsibility as schools and districts to create the conditions for deeper learning that affects positive change?

It will likely be some time before we completely rethink Pro-D, so how do we make the best use of our current model?

One of the most effective ways to create change is to focus on the bright spots and build from there. There is a powerful movement of professional learning opportunities that have moved away from the “Sit’n’Git” model to one that taps into the strengths of participants and creates more opportunities for networking. All of these require TIME and it is important for us to change the question from “CAN we provide time for Pro-D?” to “HOW CAN we provide more time for effective, ongoing professional learning?”. 

Here are eight ideas to move us beyond the “Sit’n’Git”:

1. NETWORKING/COLLABORATION TIME AT CONFERENCES – We don’t have to blow up our system; we can start small and ensure that there is important “blank” space in between workshops or following keynotes for teams or groups of people to move the learning deeper. Within workshops, always provide time for participants to DO something with their learning; move from the “sit’n’git” to the “make’n’take”. We can use models that encourage inspiring ideas (keynote, workshop) as well as the time to take the WHY of ideas and move to the WHAT and HOW. I am excited to present in Red Deer next week at the Central Alberta Teachers Convention and they have the Thursday planned for presentations and workshops and the Friday planned for networking – a great way to take the new ideas and dive deeper the following day. 

2. TEACHER ACTION RESEARCH – B.C. teacher, Jennifer Delvecchio, shared a grassroots concept of a“growing learners/pedagogy from within” group of teachers that used some of the allocated Pro-D days – along with school supported time (and some of their own time) – to take a concept and spiral deeper over time. Teachers looked at published research and then reflected on their own practices to question and implement change to benefit student learning. By continually analyzing practice in their own classrooms and making the time to meet a priority, they were able to use the published research in a way that actually created positive change in their classrooms. By tapping into teachers’ curiosity and providing small bits of time for reflective dialogue based on gathered evidence of student learning, we can drive powerful professional learning forward. I have seen the power of this in the past 2 schools in which I have served as principal. Teachers (and staff) have used professional development days, after school workshops, and collaboration time (in addition to their own time) to continually meet with a partner or small group and spiral deeper in their learning. This has a significant impact on student learning and the learning conditions in the classroom (see #3).

3. COLLABORATIVE TIME AND INQUIRY – For the past 2 years in the Langley School District, time that was previously allocated into two learning days in the year has been spread out over the year in the form of six collaboration mornings (80 minutes each). This model is more organic and teacher-driven than the typical professional learning community (PLC) model as educators are encouraged to choose an inquiry question with a small group of colleagues and then take the time to spiral deeper into their inquiry (see Spirals of Inquiry by Halbert and Kaser).  Another example of providing small bits of collaboration time at a school level (based on the passions and curiosities of staff) can be read here.

4. IGNITE EVENTS – Ignite sessions can feel kind of like an “underground” professional learning experience where a number of people meet and listen to others share a story, an idea, or an experience through a short series of slides (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide). There is some sit’n’git but the best part about the events is the networking that occurs before, during, and after the series of five-minute presentations that plant seeds of conversations.

5. EDCAMPS – More and more districts and even some schools are offering Edcamps as a way to tap into the strengths and knowledge of participants. With no formal set agenda and no formal lectures, participants bring their topics to the day and help facilitate conversation on participants’ areas of interest. The challenge with Edcamp, along with many of these participant-driven events, is keeping the passionate dialogue going beyond the event.

6. RETHINKING STAFF MEETINGS – Many schools are making professional learning the focus of staff and department meetings. If information can be sent out in a memo/email, leave it off the agenda and free up time for engaging discussions and reflections on student learning. Something as simple as “what have you tried since the last workshop/conference/collaboration that has had an impact (small or large) on student learning?” should be discussed at staff meetings. Cale Birk is doing some great work on Learner-Centered Design (LCD) that shows the power on redesigning the time we spend together learning as a staff.

7. INSTRUCTIONAL ROUNDS – The Kamloops School District has been exploring the use of Instructional Rounds (based on the work out of Harvard as a way to provide ongoing dialogue and reflections based on non-judgmental observations of educators by educators). The challenge is providing release time for rounds to take place but if a district is willing to consider HOW money is spent on professional learning, instructional rounds should be on the table.

8. SOCIAL MEDIA – There are many different platforms (Twitter, blogging, etc.) that can continue conversations past the event (and also help with the sharing of good ideas). Social media can help to connect people in areas of passion or curiosity who can have conversation that can lead to deeper dialogue in other platforms. Dean Shareski challenges us to connect with one person at an event and keep the conversation going beyond that event.

The Sit’n’Git, single event idea of Pro-D does not align with what we know about teaching, nor about professional learning. We need a sense of urgency to create change in this area. Start small. Build on what is working. Let’s work together to making professional learning more relevant and continual so it leads to deeper change in education.

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Creating Time for Teachers to Tinker With Ideas #RSCON4

Finding out what we are curious about.

Finding out what we are curious about.

We often hear criticisms about the lack of innovation and creativity from administrators and staff in schools.  I understand these concerns; however, my response is, “if innovation and creativity are important, why do we provide educators almost no time in the schedule to explore and play with questions and ideas?”

UPDATE:  The YouTube Video as well as the slides from the RSCON4 session are at the bottom of this post.

A couple years ago, I offered to cover 8 classes (spread out over a few weeks) prep-free so a teacher could tinker with an idea.  I called it the “Fed-Ex Prep: Time for Innovation” (based on the idea shared by Daniel Pink in Drive – you can read my reflection here) as I was providing time for teachers to explore… with the idea they would have to deliver something back to the staff. Although this was successful, it only provided time for one teacher at a time and relied solely on me to cover.  It was a good idea but not something that changed the structure or culture at our school.

In our school, like many others, we see pockets of innovation and brilliance but I think we need to work to create the conditions for staff to connect, share, and collaborate on ideas.  I wanted to build on the Fed-Ex Prep to encourage more time for innovation and I also wanted to create more time for teachers/staff to meet during the day so I spent much of last year reflecting and trying to determine ways to implement collaborative time into our school schedule.  I already knew the WHY so my how/what questions were:

  1. How can we create time for teachers and staff to collaborate without any additional cost?
  2. What will we focus on during this time?

I spoke with many people and toyed with many ideas around shifting the school schedule (that is tied to the bus schedule that impacts most of our students) but this was going to take at least a year to gather input and support from parents, community members, and educators… and after those discussions, we still may have had hurdles to clear.

At the same time I was exploring ways to create time, I was also reading/researching the idea of a Professional Learning Community (the DuFour model).  Many people were helpful in this research (big shout out to my friends Bill Ferriter and Cale Birk) and I began to try to engage our staff in moving toward a PLC model and creating time in the schedule.  I had an idea for time in the schedule and staff were on board for this time to collaborate; however as we started to move into the PLC model, I felt it was not fitting the culture of our school – I felt I was following a slightly top-down recipe rather than meeting our staff where they are and growing from there.  (This is not a criticism of the PLC model… more of a criticism of how I was trying to implement it. I learned a ton from the reading and conversations that shifted my thinking.)  After a few meetings with staff around this, it didn’t feel right so I threw a tweet out there that asked for Canadian educators’ experience (as our system is quite different than the US) with implementing a PLC model in an elementary school.  One response caused a significant shift in my thinking – Delta principal Dr. Janet Lauman said she had done her dissertation (a must read) on learning communities in BC schools and she had seen successes and failures.  She encouraged a “Living Systems” model she was using in her school that created time for staff to collaborate but was way more grass roots and free for innovation.  After a few phone calls, coffee at Tim Horton’s, and dinner with a few of our teachers, Janet and I came up with a plan of what it was to look like at our school.

This was not going to be a PLC model nor would it be focused on specific school goals (although the majority of our staff meeting time is professional learning based on our school goals).  This would be time for teachers to meet and tinker with ideas.  Here is a summary of the simplicity and how it works for our school:

  • In the final months of school, we created a new vision and mission statement for Kent School.  We also discussed the WHY of collaboration time.
  • In the summer, we decided that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, during the period before lunch, we would have our teacher-librarian, our music teacher, and me available to cover classes so teachers can meet (2-4 teachers/staff – our special ed teacher is also able to cover for special education assistants so they can meet with teachers).
  • In the summer, we also went through the details of the scheduling and then asked the question, “what are you curious about? If you were given prep-free time during the schedule, what would you explore?”  We then posted all the questions and ideas on a board and put them into themes (ex. Technology, writing, self-regulation, outdoor education, and fine arts were some themes that stood out).
  • Once the year started, I would create the schedule a week in advance and either staff would come to me with a need or question or I would go to them with encouragement to explore one of their questions.  The time could not be used for a typical prep.

The simplicity of this model concerned me.  Would this really have any impact on our students?  Would staff use the time effectively?

We are one month into our experience of being a living systems learning community and the impact thus far has been significant.  We have had a teacher and special education assistant completely redesign their room so it supports more students in their self-regulation needs.  We have had our intermediate teachers meet to discuss cross-classroom art themes to explore and teach.  Our music teacher worked with me to create a website that will help to better the communication with parents and share the musical learning happening in our school.  We have had teachers (classroom and spec ed) meet with our child care counsellor to develop ideas on how to more consistently work as a team to teach the needed social skills of some of our students who struggle with behaviours. Our teacher-librarian met with a few teachers to discuss inquiry-based learning and implementing a different reading framework. The best part of all this is the simplicity.  Our grade 6 teachers met with our First Nation Support Worker to discuss ways to embed learning around Residential Schools into many parts of the curriculum.  The time we have created is basically “seed” time.  The conversations do not end after 45 minutes; they continue through lunch as well as after school (in person and online).  The time gets the ideas growing and more and more staff are asking for more time to meet to continue to grow these ideas.

We have had a challenging September with a number of new students coming to our school that require significant support (that we do not always have).  The stress level is very high but in spite of all this, there is a culture of learning and positivity in the air.  Staff are excited to learn and grow with each other.

Although we have not provided Google’s 20% time and we have not provided time for every teacher each week, the seed time we have created has encouraged teachers to set aside their busy schedules, meet with another staff member and simply tinker with an idea. There is never enough time… but this model has provided a window in to the impact that just a little bit of time can have for teachers to create positive change by meeting and tinkering with ideas.  This model is messy and I do not know where this time together will lead us; however, it is also grassroots, strength-based, organic and all about meaningful, relevant, personalized professional learning. I am truly excited to see where our staff takes these ideas in the coming months.

This post will be one of a few stories shared to initiate dialogue during my presentation, “Educational Leadership: Creating the Conditions For Passion and Innovation”, at the FREE Reform Symposium Worldwide  E-Conference that happens October 11-13.  My session will occur at noon Pacific on Saturday, October 11.  Hope you can join us and share some ways we can create the conditions for more innovation and passion in our schools and learning environments.

#RSCON4

#RSCON4

Thank you so much to Janet Lauman for her insights and leadership.

Here is the YouTube Video as well as the slides from the RSCON4 session: