Sunday / June 16

15 Ways to Get “Just Right” Professional Learning

I remember a time not so long ago when Professional Development was viewed as educators attending a workshop, training, or conference. These opportunities were time-bound, meaning that if you missed the offering, you had to determine how you would gain the knowledge you missed. You would have to be in the “right place” at the “right time” which required you to be on location of the event. You would have to have the “right resources” or funding to attend and you would need to know the “right people” to get invited.

Many times, these opportunities were great, but could not be designed to meet the needs of each participant. There was a 50/50 chance that you received the “right information” that was going to help you to grow as a professional. We would spend hours looking for the “right opportunity” or if we were leaders in the field, designing the right workshop/training that could transcend the needs of all. During the NCLB era, sustained learning opportunities reverted back to the one-shot, top-down, “drive-by” workshops that are least useful for improving practice. (Darling Hammond, 2014)

I am in no way suggesting that there were not great opportunities for development. I am forever grateful for the powerful learning I received during that time. You can only imagine the excitement I received when I gambled on a PD and felt like I hit the jackpot! However, there was little control in determining what information from those offerings would meet my developmental needs and be “just right” for me. So, if I wasn’t doodling or preparing my grocery list, I was learning…half of the time and frustrated too. Perhaps in a 6-hour workshop, there were nuggets of information that I took with me. Needless to say, I became a career professional learner and was passionate then and still remain passionate about great opportunities for learning and along the way, I grew as a professional. More often than not, I gained something from these experiences.

Ten years later and over 1000 (+) hours of professional development time, which was collected on a sheet of paper that allowed me to keep my certificate, you think I would have known better when I had a chance to create learning designs for others… However, as a former Director of Professional Development for 7 years for a large urban school district in the southeast, I was very involved with planning these “one-shot” development opportunities that were intended to meet the needs of hundreds of educators at the same time. I prepared countless catalogs (you should have seen my columns and rows with just the right amount of text so I could get 10 to a page) with over a hundred offerings with a hope, belief and strong desire that of those offerings, the 13,000 employees that I supported would select something they would grow from at a time that they could attend on a day they were available…lots of variables and moving pieces. Here was a one-shot chance for them to get what they needed. After a few yeas of madness around this process… which was totally out of alignment with what I believed; my team and I became solution oriented (focused on what the educators really needed as learners, honoring techno-centric ideas and aligned to professional learning standards) and created an eLearning community by transforming and redesigning all of those one-shot cataloged courses into a thriving virtual learning community (Alexander, 2013). No more guessing game or casino night for the community of learners in my school district.

As we entered into the early part of the 21st century the foremothers and forefathers of professional development transitioned to an understanding that educators could enhance their practice by being fully engaged in a sustained process of growth and inquiry, also known as learning. Instead of it being Professional Development, the experiences should be Professional Learning. According to Darling-Hammond (1996) the invention of 21st century schools that can educate all children rests first and foremost, upon the development of a highly qualified and committed teaching force. This change in instructional expectations would require us as deliverers of learning to be active engagers of learning. As we embraced the new world in which our students were born by being digital natives, we began to slowly engage in collaborative and collective learning structures with a focus on improving our practice to move student performance and increase our effectiveness as educators aligned to standards for professional learning. We no longer held onto the sessions of the past that were delivered in a one-size fits all format and viewed from the perspective that direct instruction given top down to develop the skills of teachers, is a way to sustain practice and move student performance.

Over the course of time, professional development has become closely linked with the top-down, training model of in-service based on the “assumption that teachers need direct instruction about how to improve their skills and master new strategies” (Martin, Kragler, Quatroche, & Bauserman, 2014, pg. 7)

With Professional Learning, we began to explore ways that would really speak to engaging teachers in authentic and valuable learning experiences, which did not have to be sit-and-get, one-time shots or something someone else decided for us. The opportunities for professional learning continue to grow into thriving learning communities. There are now so many amazing opportunities for learning.

The concept of professional learning looks more like “ownership over compliance, conversation over transmission, deep understanding over enacting rules and routines, and goal-directed activity over content coverage” (Martin et al., 2014, pg. 147).

Today, Professional Learning is seen as a growth model that values active engagement, teacher voice, collective thought, collaboration, inquiry and reflection. This type of learning happens most frequently through professional learning communities with a job-embedded focus.  However, the community does not have to be in your backyard, your school community or in your country!!! The good news is that this type of learning is VIRTUALLY Everywhere. The online world we all live and breathe in has afforded us learning opportunities that are being conducted in formal and informal virtual spaces. We no longer have to wait for the “right time, right person, right resources and right opportunity” to engage in learning that is “Just Right” for us as reflective, inquisitive, and collaborative learners.

As I think of the world of Professional Learning that is “Just Right” for us, I think of 15 amazing ways for us to develop our Professional Learning Tapestry. I am certain that you can add to this “Just Right” list of engaged learning options and personalize it with your favorite Virtual Spaces on your chosen technology device at a time that works “Just for You”:

  1. We use Twitter to tweet and even Periscope live feeds of learning
  2. Engage in free online courses
  3. Connect on webinars
  4. Join Google hangouts and add to collective thinking through Google documents
  5. Follow our favorite scholar friends on Facebook
  6. Hook into GoToMeetings
  7. Follow RSS feeds of our favorite blog spots like Corwin Connect
  8. Catch a good 5-minute podcast
  9. Join conversations with others in our professional learning networks through our LinkedIn profile
  10. Watch, listen and get motivated by TEDtalks
  11. Make and watch instructional videos on almost any topic in our spare time
  12. Connect on edWeb in an online learning community where resources are shared globally
  13. Subscribe to online journals with a plethora of great articles
  14. Purchase online publications through Corwin and engage in eLearning with our favorite authors
  15. Participate in Virtual Learning Communities using a variety of engaging Web 2.0 tools to keep us engaged in the “right opportunity, at anytime, in any space on the right work that is “just right” for us

What a great time to be a professional educator. Learning is collaborative, it is collective and it is Virtually Everywhere in any way we want it. Learning happens at all times and no one person is the creator of our learning tapestry or the holder of when it is offered. It is amazing the transformation that has happened in less than a decade. If you are anything like me, you are learning when you wait at a doctor’s appointment, you are learning when you are in yet another unproductive meeting, and you are learning when you don’t think you are learning. In our techno-centric world we can always be engaged in Virtual Learner-Learner Spaces where I am learning from you…you are learning from me and we are learning from each other (Alexander, 2013).

Written by

Dr. Sonja Hollins-Alexander has been in the field of education for 22 years with 16 of those being in educational leadership at the school, district and higher education levels. During this time, she has served as a school social worker, teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant director and currently serves as a the director of professional learning for a large urban school district. She also is a professor in the Education Department at Argosy University, Atlanta and Troy University, Covington. Through her professional journey she has had experiences in Strategic Planning, Organizational Improvement, Policy Development, Project and Program Management, Stakeholder Communication and Engagement, Budget Planning, Grant Writing, Instructional Design, Curriculum Development and Implementation, Facilitator of Adult Learning, Conference Facilitation and Design, Quality Assurance Team Member for AdvancED and fully engaged in the development and use of Online Collaborative/Instructional Software.

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