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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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What Matters in Our Learning: Student Voice on Assessment & Inquiry

The words of our students. Are we listening?

Through my participation in a few EdCamps, I have had the complete pleasure of meeting and chatting with North Surrey Secondary senior humanities teacher  Jonathan Vervaet(@jonathanvervaet).  I knew about his contagious passion for inquiry and assessment for learning; what I did not know was that I would also be completely awestruck and inspired by two of his grade 12 students.

During Edcamp43 in Coquitlam earlier this year, I attended a session on TEDxKids.  I strongly believe in the power of our students voices and the TEDxKids idea is one that needs to be shared and promoted; I went to gain more knowledge about the event.  Halfway through the session, two students spoke up about their experience in high school.  My ears perked up and my heart started to race as they made a comment about the power of inquiry as well as the movement away from grades.  I encouraged them to expand on their thoughts and during the next 5-10 minutes they shared one of the most powerful stories about pedagogy that I have ever heard.  They spoke about how moving away from grades and using inquiry as a focus made them realize they actually loved to learn.  I was so engaged that I did not take a single note or tweet.  The room was silent the entire time these boys spoke.  Two grade 12 students had completely captivated a room full of administrators, teachers and parents.  It was the first time anyone outside of their classroom had listened to them. At this EdCamp, these boys were being heard and they completely seized the moment.

I wanted to figure out how these two students, Kenny (@Kennycolosie) and Dylan could share their story and thoughts to a wider audience.  I spoke to Jonathan, who unfortunately missed their amazing story, immediately following the session as well as in the weeks following EdCamp43.  We tossed around the idea of a guest post or the boys skyping into our district admin meeting. He came up with an idea to try to recreate the conversation with them and then send me the audio.

The following quotes are the summarized ideas of Kenny and Dylan, two History 12 and Comparative Civ 12 students from a school in Surrey, BC (I have not separated who said what as they both seemed to agree and build upon each others’ responses… I apologize in advance to these guys as my words probably do not do justice to what they originally so passionately stated).

From Kenny and Dylan:

The typical classroom work we see is work… copy… regurgitate… repeat.  We do this for teachers and they ask us questions right away and we can answer.  However, if you asked us next week, or even the next day, we won’t have a clue.  We have memorized but we have not learned.

When we first started Mr. Vervaet’s classes, we hated it.  We were like, “just gimme the worksheets and tell me what to do and I will do it”.  He was talking about inquiry and not giving us grades.  We thought it was dumb… we said forget this feedback stuff… we wanted a percent.  It was so hard at the start.  Then, about a month into first semester, we had to do another assignment for a different class (basically had to copy and paste)… and we were like, wow, this sucks! We realized how much more we liked projects using inquiry and appreciated the ongoing feedback.  From that point on, we started to see that inquiry allowed us to research an area, based on a learning outcome, in which WE were interested.  We got to look at the learning outcome from a point of view that worked for us… inquiry helped us to become way more engaged.  Inquiry helped us to have a voice.  Rather than copying and pasting from Wikipedia, we were actually learning.  Mr. Vervaet makes the learning outcome clear, helps us to understand what it means,  and then helps us to come up with ways we can demonstrate our understanding of that outcome.

Allowing redos and not having percents has been huge to our learning too.  We can show our learning over time and keep improving rather than our stuff at the beginning and end being averaged into some number.  With Mr. Vervaet, our final mark is where we are at NOW rather than an average that includes when we struggled at the start.

Keeping the focus on learning rather than percents makes us take more risks.  We find in other classes that we don’t take risks – we don’t get a chance to redo an assignment so when it is done, it is done.  If we screw up, we lose marks with no chance of changing anything so why would we take a risk? Without redos there is no chance to show learning if we learn something after the due date.  This adds more stress because there is so much pressure to get things right the first time and there is less chance for feedback from the teacher.  If you figure things out late, there is no way to change your mark.  High-stakes learning (without the chance for improvement) makes school suck… makes us not want to be there.  When teachers focus on marks, marks, marks, it puts so much pressure on students to get marks that when the marks aren’t there, students become demotivated, disengaged and sometimes even depressed.  We see most students motivated about learning when there is flexibility of deadlines, projects that we are interested in, and a chance to redo assignments.

Clear criteria is also so important to us.  When you don’t have an idea of what you are aiming for, you end up trying everything and hoping that it is what the teacher wants.  When you know the criteria, the learning outcomes are clear and our efforts can be focused because we know what we are aiming for (rather than guessing or trying to cover everything).

Up until Mr. Vervaet’s class, we struggled to be motivated to learn in school.  We would watch the clocks and count down the minutes until the end of the day.  With inquiry-based learning, we found we were WAY more motivated in school, the learning was more relevant to us, and there were times when we even wanted to stand up and applaud.  At the end of the semester, we were like, “wow, can we retake that… we don’t want it to end!”.

If we could change a few things in high school education it would be to move away from the pressure of grades and strict deadlines.  We still know we need to get things done but having more flexible deadlines so we can plan out our work will make things less stressful for us.  Having the chance to redo assignment also removes some of the pressure and actually improves our learning.  In grade 8, we actually liked the pressure as it was kind of new… but then it wore on us and by the time we reached grades 10-12 we just wanted to get out… the focus shifts to getting to the end and you miss the learning along the way.  We also feel that thigs are changing; students lives are different than they were when teachers were in school and sometimes teachers still teach the way they were taught.  Times are different now so school should be different too.

There is clear research about the power of inquiry-based learning as well as the importance of ongoing descriptive feedback based on clear criteria and learning intentions.  If you look at the image at the top, the words that stand out to these students make it clear  what matters in THEIR learning and that we need to not only listen to the researchers (particularly Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Paul Black) and teacher leaders but also to the students in our classes.

Dylan and Kenny have provided clear feedback to us and are some of the voices of the most important people in our schools.  Their views align well with education research…. so this begs the question: how do we make mindsets like inquiry and assessment for learning become the norm, rather than the exception, in schools?  

I want to thank Jonathan for taking the time to do the legwork for this post as well as modelling and sharing his passion for education reform.  Thank you to Dylan and Kenny for their all important inspiring voices on education… keep speaking up boys!

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How Social Media is Changing Education

CC Image from http://kexino.com

The title of this post is a bit misleading.  It is not social media that is changing education, it is the people involved in education who are collaborating by sharing great ideas and challenging others to continue to grow as learners.

Before social media, there were pockets of brilliance in every school, district, and education system but very few people knew about them.  In some countries education was (and still is) viewed as a “race to the top” in which you do not share ideas, you hoard them and hope that your ideas are better than others’.  Schools competing with each other do not share ideas and, as a result, they do not grow as effectively.  What social media has done is allowed the spreading of great ideas in more efficient manner.  Educators in British Columbia can connect and learn from practices taking place anywhere in the world; in addition, they can receive feedback on ideas from any people interested in education.   Good ideas not only become viral but these same ideas also grow to become even better.  I love stealing ideas (and giving credit) from other educators.  George Couros told me one time, “the more people I connect with on Twitter, the more ideas I can steal to make our school better.”

Yes, we still have rankings of schools and countries and these do create much harm and stress; however, as Chris Kennedy said, we can now connect with educators in the other countries to find out what they are doing well and how we can work together to bring those ideas into our own systems.  Let’s be honest, do we want ONLY our students to do well or do we want ALL students to do well?  Can we help create a better society if we are only helping students within our walls to be great?  We don’t hope to be the best by knocking everyone else down… we hope to be GREAT alongside those who we work and grow with.

On Saturday, I had another great edcamp experience at Edcamp Fraser Valley.  The Edcamp experience is highly promoted through Twitter and blogs and the actual day can almost be like a microcosm for Social Media.  We had sessions facilitated and participated by parents, teachers, professors, admin, and students (from elementary through university) and it was all about sharing great ideas and making them better.  People left the edcamp reflecting on how they are going to bring these to their school or learning community… and they left with connections to people that can help them to do this.  We meet people who have like interests that inspire us and we meet people who respectfully disagree and cause us to look at things through a different lens (in my opinion, this is what we need to see more of in social media – those intellectual collisions that help us grow). Edcamps and social media are driven by passionate participants who want to share a voice in education.

Social Media is a place  in which there is less hierarchy (I realize it still exists).  Prior to social media, the idea of me connecting with the author of the book I just read or the keynote speaker I just heard would have been absurd; now, I almost expect to be able to continue the discussions with others, including the speaker or author, through social media.  Also, when conversations are occurring on Twitter, I rarely know the formal position of the person I am chatting with as it is about the dialogue, not the position.  We purposely did not include position or affiliation on our name tags at EdcampFV for this reason… it is not about where you work or what you do but more about what ideas you bring to the discussion.

Gone are the days when we believed we should be trying to be the best by outdoing the school or country next door.  In today’s world we are starting to realize that in order to become great, we need to collaborate and help each other grow by sharing ideas and challenging mindsets.  Yes, policy changes need to take place but the people that can drive system change are those who work within the system; educators, including everyone that impacts education, can affect change by modeling and sharing great practices.

So, how is social media changing education?  It is not… but the people using it to continually connect are directly and indirectly affecting those ‘around’ them and thus, changing what we call education.

 Thank you to George for the chats that have inspired this post.  Just realized that George has already written on this topic so have added it here.

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You’re Invited! Edcamp Fraser Valley – Dec 3

Last April I attended the best professional learning day of my career: Edcamp Vancouver (for more on my experience as an “edcamper”, please click here).  Following this experience, I knew we had to bring an “unconference” like this to the Fraser Valley so along with some other admin, teachers, and parents, we have organized Edcamp Fraser Valley for Saturday, December 3 at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge.

So what is Edcamp and why is it such an amazing learning experience? Grant Frend, one of the Edcamp FV organizers, describes it as:

One forum that enables educators [including students, parents, community] to engage in meaningful and relevant professional development is the Edcamp model.  What is Edcamp? Edcamp is organic, democratic, participant driven professional development for educators. There are no keynote presentations, there is no formal pre-set agenda, and participants set the course of the day.

My thoughts on Edcamp:

  • flattened hierarchies – voices from ALL people passionate about education can be heard rather than one expert and many listeners
  • participant driven – have a topic you want to learn more about – put up an idea and then join up with other interested people
  • all about conversation – the “empty vase” model of professional development does not exist at Edcamp -YOU drive the learning!
  • relationships – you get to meet new people that share areas of interest AND/OR you get to meet those people whom you have already connected with online
  • flexible schedule – the schedule is decided on the day and participants are encouraged to vote with their feet – they can decided to move to a different session at any time
  • networking sessions – there is much more time in between sessions to continue the dialogue or meet up with other participants to reflect on the sessions. Click here for the schedule for the day.
  • price is right – it is FREE! (unless you want lunch which is $5)

Here are some slides from David Wees (the educator who brought Edcamp to BC last year) that describe the Edcamp Vancouver model:

If you are a ANYBODY (students, parents, community members, trustees, educators, etc) interested in education in the Fraser Valley or beyond, come join us in Maple Ridge on December 3rd!

With the release of the BC Education Plan, this is a great opportunity to share and discuss the future of education in the province.  For more information and to register, please go to the Edcamp Fraser Valley website.  Join people already registered from the Frasey Valley, Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Okanagan and Washing State!

Also, like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.  For an information sheet to distribute, click here. For more info, please contact me.

 

For a more in-depth talk on Edcamp, please watch the embedded video from Kristen Swanson: