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PD: How do educators get to know what they don’t know?

When it comes to education reform there are in general two major camps, but there are also several variations of each. The first camp would like to blow up the system and start all over. The other camp wants to continue the status quo while working to change it in directions governed by whatever dominant force of change has the ear of the public at the time. I find my own inclinations falling somewhere between the two camps. I want to blow some stuff up while improving upon some existing stuff. Like most educators, or any people with a basic understanding authentic assessment, I do want to blow up any notion or hint of compliance with high stakes, standardized testing. The area of improvement that I think that will get us the biggest bang for the all-important, tax buck is Professional Development.

It has long been my position that to be better educators, we need to be better learners. Since I have worked in Higher Ed now for a while, many teachers have said to me how they love having student teachers in their building, because they can learn so much from the “young people” about all the new stuff in education. Some variation of that phrase has been repeated by more than one educator every year since I have been working with student teachers. To me that is a big RED FLAG. It causes me to ask, “Why does a veteran teacher need to have a student bring them up to date on the latest methodology, pedagogy, and technology in the field of education?”  If our students are to get a relevant education, should we not have relevant educators? Why on earth would experienced educators need students to provide that which every school district in the country should be striving to provide teachers within their system?

We need to examine the way we approach Professional Development in education. Too often it is left up to the educators to seek out their own PD. That is good for some, but not all educators have an understanding of what they do not know. If you don’t know about something, how would you know to seek PD in that area? This is especially true of learning with technology. I have a Master’s degree in educational technology. The fact is that not any of the applications or computers that I learned on, as well as the methodology in the use of those components, exists today. Very little of that degree would be relevant, if I did not continue to learn, adapt, and progress with what I know. The same holds true with any degree in any profession. From the day one gets a degree, things in that area of expertise begin to change. With the influence of a technology-driven culture, things move at a much faster pace than years past causing a more rapid rate of change. Therefore, the pace at which things change has increased exponentially, while the way we provide PD to deal with these changes is relatively unchanged from years past in many, if not most schools.

PD is offered by many schools in an annual or semi-annual teacher workshop day. The other method is to allow teachers to seek out their own PD on their own time, often at their own expense. Technology training for teachers is often addressed in schools. The method of choice however by many schools is what my friend Brian Wasson, an IT guy, refers to as the “Home Depot Method”.  The district goes out and buys all the cool tools from the vendors and then tries to teach, or force feed them to the teachers. That is a sure formula for failure.

We need to change PD. It must be part of an educator’s work week, and that includes administrators. We need educators to connect with other educators to collaborate and maintain relevance. Educators need to explore their needs and address them with solutions of their choosing after exploring the options. Faculty meetings can address procedures in shared documents with educators, while using  the time in meetings to discuss pedagogy, methodology, best practices, and new ideas. Educators need to be supported in trying new endeavors. When we address PD as evolving and continuous, and not as a teacher’s workshop day, we will begin to bring relevance back to education. Schools that do this now will be the first to tell us this. Of course we need to connect with them for that to happen. Connecting educators is a first step.

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Comment by Rachel Thompson on October 11, 2012 at 12:52pm

Tom, what first caught my attention was your line "to be better educator,s we need to be better learners."  It's a powerful refrain that bears repeating.  Will Richardson said it in his "19 Bold Ideas for Change" at ISTE -- "Be learners first, teachers second." Sheryl Nussbaum Beach challenges us to do the same in her book The Connected Educator: "Commit with us to develop a shared wisdom that supports teachers and leaders as learners first" (4). That crucial shift -- the need for reflective practice and continuous learning -- will bring relevance, and I'm adding my voice to that fervent plea.  Professional development (from a traditional perspective) suggests that someone else has determined that you lack something; professional growth implies an internal drive to continue learning and changing based on determining what's best for engaging our students.

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