Is this the future of professional development?
June 1, 2012
Three times a year, Milwaukee Public Schools teachers file into schools across the district for “professional development,” or PD. The day begins with an hour of PowerPoint driving home something about some district initiative or another, the Comprehensive Literacy Plan, the Attendance Initiative, and so on.
Then teachers file into the schools’ classrooms, where in smaller groups they get to see a different PowerPoint further driving home some aspect of the district’s initiatives. After lunch, more PowerPoint, although teachers get some freedom to choose which afternoon PowerPoint they see.
If you feel like a zombie after reading that, try sitting through it.
But there’s an alternative approach, something called Edcamp. About 200 teachers, administrators, school technology coordinators, and others gather in a school’s auditorium, and after being briefed on just a few rules, they design their day.
A line forms at the front, where participants, sticky notes in hand, name the sessions they want to lead—or just be a part of—throughout the day. The sticky notes then go on a gridded white board. Some careful arrangement, some typing into a Google doc, and presto—there’s an agenda for the day. Everyone gets to see it; everyone gets to choose their sessions.
Those sessions, then, are led by the participants in them, and cover only topics that those participants are interested in. The sessions are interactive, engaging, live-tweeted, and Skyped. At the end of the day, everyone leaves exhausted but better informed, with notes, links to resources, and new friends.
At least, that was my experience at EdcampMKE, held last month at South Milwaukee High School. It was the 100th regional Edcamp; the first was in Philadelphia in 2010. Edcamp is an outgrowth of BarCamp, an “unconference” started in 2005 for web developers. In the unconference model, no agenda exists until those in attendance decide what they want the conference to be about.
At EdcampMKE, participants planned sessions on technology for the classroom like Evernote and Chromebooks and iPads, on nuts-and-bolts teaching like project-based learning and motivating young readers, and on strategies for engaging parents and planning your own Edcamp. Even though it was a Saturday and not a one of us was getting paid, we were fully engaged and left fully enriched. Not a PowerPoint in sight.
So, I thought, what about using the unconference model for professional development in MPS?
As luck would have it, one of the sessions at EdcampMKE was about professional development. As the participants seemed mostly to be school district technology coordinators, much of the conversation centered on how to get reluctant teachers to embrace technology in their classrooms. But everyone agreed: If the “sit and get” model of instruction doesn’t work for 21st century students in our schools, then we can’t expect it to work for 21st century teachers in professional development.
Wendy Dzurick, Franklin Public Schools’ Director of Instructional Services explained, “We tell teachers to teach a certain way, but PD isn’t delivered that way. We need to personalize learning for our adults, get people to develop their own learning networks, to own their learning.”
This is where MPS professional development fails. It is top-down, impersonal, un-owned.
Another Edcamp participant, James Gubbins, technology coordinator from a suburban Chicago school district, explained that this past year he’s led teachers in PD based on the Edcamp model. Teachers met to make their own curriculum and their own rubric for success. “The goal is to create a project about something that has affected them in their professional lives,” he said.
The result, Gubbins said, was teachers reaching beyond what they thought they were capable of doing—preparing meaningful projects and incorporating what they learned into the classroom.
The Edcamp model will not necessarily be easy to scale up to MPS; a diverse group of 5,000 teachers in a large urban district over a whole year of PD is not the same as 200 like-minded people willing to give up a single Saturday.
Moreover, MPS centralized its PD in 2010 because it had for too long been haphazard and inconsistent. While there is logic to Edcamp, it can certainly look haphazard from the outside, which might make MPS reluctant to try it.
But if MPS is going to attract and keep the best teachers, especially young and tech-savvy ones, they are going to need to embrace new ways of doing business—and they can start by giving teachers more control over their professional development.
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