Professional Development that Works

September 26th, 2017 Uncategorized

If students can benefit from high quality inquiry-based learning opportunities, why couldn’t we afford the same opportunity to teachers? Students and teachers face similar challenges as learners, so it makes sense to teach our teachers the same we we want our students to be taught. What we call ‘traditional professional development’ involves a projector, screen, and a presentation app like Powerpoint, loaded with slides to drill down a topic. A full “powerpoint’ing” is useful for compliance: to cover the bases to so no one can claim ignorance. Sometimes this is necessary, but no one wants Professional Development (PD) that mimics legalese fine print. Better yet, does anyone really ever thrive under these conditions? 

I, like many of you, am guilty of doing this. It’s how many of us were taught. In the pursuit of finding a more effective PD style, I’ve tried everything (badges, breakout style hands-on games, online learning..). This journey of successes and failures has lead me to one breathtaking conclusion: if I’m “teaching”, I’m doing it wrong.

  • No more powerpoints. It puts the work on the teacher, not the learner.
  • People like games! A little fun and competition never hurt anyone..
  • Recognize achievement: Badges! but it needs to mean something.
  • Increase opportunities for teachers to choose their own path. If it is important to 1, it’s important to enough!
  • Inquiry. Provoke growth and develop leadership through voice-and-choice.

Isn’t the career of a teacher one big passion project? Can we recognize that the act of teaching requires a high degree of higher-order thinking? Of course, teachers routinely use voice and choice to instruct and lead their students. Inquiry is fundamental to being a teacher. With Inquiry comes assessment, and perhaps maybe a little assessment would be good for PD. But not with multiple-choice quizzes and tests. Rather, let’s ask our learners to be creators and feed their inquiry with feedback.

Last Spring, we decided as a district to try Spark, Set.. Go! to organize our district technology PD. We picked our topics from TEAM, a rubric borrowed from the TAP Model that is used to  evaluate teachers in Tennessee. With district and building leaders, we broke out the Spark Cards and dove into each topic by asking ourselves, “If we identified excellence or leadership in this topic, what specifically would we see”. These became the SET questions. We created a few open-ended activities or problems to solve and these became the SPARK statements. We finished each Spark Deck with a wide-open GO Guiding Question, inviting the learner to display their voice and validate their leadership.

Using the Spark-Out Chrome Extension, I created a document to host each instructional strand. These documents included the Guiding Questions and Statements along with links to resources and YouTube videos. Using the Spark Suite Add-ons for G Suite, we automated the feedback cycle. As teachers worked their way through whichever strand they chose, their points accumulated on a leaderboard and they were awarded badges. Importantly, every submission was given feedback, which generated more conversations and deeper learning. The automation of Spark Suite gave us more time to do what we love: interact with our learners.

In addition to posting everything online for our teachers to access on their own time, we hosted three events where teachers would receive credit for their time. Many teachers came expecting something traditional. We explained how the instruction worked and invited them to find and sit with peers who were working on the same strand. The final touch of the instructions was important: focus on the Guiding Statement/Question, not the content.

Each card contained content (links and videos) alongside the Guiding question or statement. We explained the content was there for their convenience and all that was expected of them was to answer the question. If they had experience with or knowledge of other resources they found to be superior than the ours, they were encouraged to share their ideas as a part of their submission. We even said that we wanted them to tell us what they liked and their submissions would only make the cards better for the next teacher. “This was your chance to show leadership.” we said. I do believe this was the key. By de-emphasizing the content – content that “we” selected and placing the emphasis on “their” submissions, we empowered our teachers. We demonstrated that we valued in their experience and judgement. The guiding question went from being a “hoop to jump through” to a opportunity to show leadership and express themselves. Most of the time, they didn’t have anything to add, but the Guiding Question put the content, the resources and videos, into the context of instruction. It helped the teacher see these digital tools in a way that made sense to them. This was especially profound in experienced teachers who were driven by years of success in the classroom, but struggled to make an adjustment to our Chromebook environment.

Routinely, we had teachers stay longer than they planned. The conversations in the groups were authentic and valuable to everyone, including the leaders. Participation in our experiment grew throughout the Summer. Many stated that they were motivated by points or a Badge, but these same teachers also excelled in their submissions. Most importantly, I feel that our efforts made a direct impact in the classroom in a way that traditional efforts did not.

You can view the instructional strands (Spark Decks) we used on our website,