In education, professional development has typically consisted of stand-alone workshops and seminars in which teachers are bombarded with ideas, techniques and resources to implement in their classrooms. Teachers generally walk away excited, ready to share their findings and put their new knowledge to practice, but often become distracted as they return to their normal (and busy) schedules, placing what they learned aside. Research reveals these traditional techniques for professional development often have minimal impact on teachers.
Effective professional development is flexible, based around teachers busy schedules and includes ongoing support and coaching. It is most effective when teachers are engaged in active learning experiences that are relevant to what they are currently teaching.
Professional Learning Communities provide this structure, giving teachers the time and space to work together on a common goal. Many school systems are adopting the PLC model so that schools can be places of learning, for both students and teachers. The key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators. In the PLC, small groups of teachers should actively engage in these learning-centered, results-oriented activities:
The benefits of the Professional Learning Community include increased teacher satisfaction, decreased teacher isolation and an overall improvement in teacher performance, but one of the biggest obstacles to the PLC is time. Busy teachers don’t always have time for face-to-face meetings where they can exchange in extensive collaboration. Technology alleviates this barrier of time, enhances the professional learning community and can increase its chances for success.
Incorporating the use of digital tools to create an online or blended professional learning community allows for increased flexibility and efficiency as well as easy access to resources and materials. The Internet and mobile technologies provide teachers with opportunities to reflect and collaborate with each other and with experts outside their schools. They have access to information and other resources with few limitations of time, space or pace. Collaboration is what distinguishes online PLCs from online professional development.
Online or blended PLCs have further advantages over the traditional PLCs that include:
The online and blended professional learning community seems to be an ideal option for schools looking to maximize resources and increase teacher and student performance. I’ve outlined three concepts in which to focus when creating a successful online or blended PLC.
1. Create a Community
It is extremely important that communication & reflection are supported. Members of the PLC must have an safe, web-based environment where they are able to share victories and failures, discuss and analyze student performance and assess what works and doesn't work. This can be done through discussion forums and social networks allowing the online community to be accessible anytime and anywhere.
Virtual meetings can be set up at specific times utilizing conferencing tools such as Skype, Google Hangout or Twitter. Discussion boards and blogs allow for more flexible communication in which teachers are not tied to a specific meeting time. Community discussion boards provide a space in which all members of the PLC can regularly contribute thoughts, ideas, and even questions around teaching practices. The discussion board should be a support group in which members are able to find instructional insights, solutions to obstacles, and gather strategies from like minded professionals.
The use of blogs within the PLC encourage reflection. When teachers blog about their instructional practices, they are able to reflect on successes and failures. Blogs provide a record of progress and document personal insights that might not otherwise be shared. Blogs might even become a place for teachers to publicly share original ideas and creative practices and then include these in a professional portfolio. With this in mind, it is important for PLC leaders to design activities that build community (allowing members to socialize) and promote-self reflection.
2. Foster Collaboration
An environment where teachers are able to submit and share curricular resources is necessary for a successful online PLC. An online repository should be developed so that users have the ability to upload files, add and edit content, and share materials with other members. It is especially important that this element allow for collaboration. Because the work of teachers is often isolated, opportunities for professional collaboration and co-creation should be nurtured.
Technology also has the ability to decrease the workload of teachers and allowing them to focus on improving practices and supporting students. The creation of digital lesson plans and curricular assets prevent teachers from recreating materials year after year. Collective creativity is supported when materials are developed collaboratively, drawing upon the expertise of multiple professionals. Teachers are able to collaborate, share and exchange information and views on best practices as they create digital assets. Collaboration tools such as Google Drive or Wikispaces might be a good place to start. These digital environments also allow for openness, transparency and accountability; but it is important that the culture of the PLC support collaboration and not competition.
3. Encourage Growth
“Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” John Dewey
Dewey defined education as growth, a process of positive change, and growth should be encouraged by all members of the PLC. Leaders should celebrate teacher growth and praise success. The use of e-portfolios can help teachers determine the impact of their instruction on student learning, reflect on their own learning and beliefs about teaching, and share professional milestones. Leaders are able to utilize these e-portfolios to evaluate growth and highlight outstanding performance and accomplishments.
Within an online PLC, leaders should provide professional development and learning opportunities while permitting autonomy. Teachers no are no longer limited to the resources provided in their school’s professional library. Mobile devices and the Internet make information readily available for everyone. Kleine-Kracht suggested that administrators, along with teachers, must be learners: questioning, investigating, and seeking solutions for school improvement. An online PLC can provide individualized, just in time professional development.
Members of the PLC are able to access webinars, podcasts, blogs, journal articles and online videos. Sites like Coursera and Udemy even offer free online courses that cover a multitude of topics. Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook can be used to acquire and share ideas. Through the use of these tools, members should develop their own Personal Learning Network (PLN). This global network will enhance each member’s own learning as well as his or her contributions to the professional learning community. Subscribing to professional learning sites, blogs, wikis and twitter feeds allow members to customize their own professional learning path while creating a unique professional identity.
Creating an online or blended PLC requires a commitment by all members and begins with planning. The University of North Carolina provides three steps to consider as you begin planning:
As you follow these steps, focus on the concepts of community, collaboration, and growth. All professional learning communities have different needs and technology can provide unique opportunities to meet these needs. Technology becomes a burden when users are required to keep track of many different usernames and passwords or when digital tools are overly complicated or too complex. It is important that online PLCs don't become overwhelming for teachers.
Itslearning is an outstanding, user-friendly platform with a variety of easy to use tools ideal for the online PLC. Users are able to share and collaborate on resources including documents, presentations, and video, which can be uploaded, embedded, or created directly in the platform. RSS feed, Twitter feed, and other Web 2.0 content can also be embedded into customizable user interfaces. Because itslearning is web-based, there is no need to search app stores or worry with downloads. Teachers are able to access content on any web-based device using a single username and password.
As you begin to develop your online or blended PLC, don’t miss out on the benefits of utilizing the itslearning platform:
References (Direct quotes are linked to the following references)
The Common Core State Standards have certainly raised some controversy – debates regarding the amount of work for teachers, poor student performance, federal regulations versus state’s rights, and the legitimacy of the Standards themselves. I’m sure there are other arguments; but as I mentioned in my last post, I believe our educational system is on the right track by adopting the Standards.
I didn’t come to this conclusion immediately. Initially I believed the Common Core Standards to be a great effort at uniting America’s educational system, but also understood the annoyance of those against big government policies. After listening to many of my teacher friends complain about the implementation of the Standards, I decided to dive in and study the Standards in depth to gain a better understanding of their content and development.
I began my journey by reading the mission statement and “About the Standards.” I looked at the key points in English language arts and math, and I examined all of the Anchor Standards. I then read the introduction to each of the Standards and printed out the math and ELA Standards to study while I traveled. This became my go to reading material when I wasn’t allowed to use electronic devices during take off or landing! As I studied, I also looked for the consideration of technology in the design and ways technology could be used in the implementation of the Standards. I used Diigo to bookmark and highlight all of points that I felt to be significant. (You can see my notes here.) Out of everything I read, I pulled out three critical points, which I’d like to address.
First, the Standards are “designed to be robust and relevant to the real world.” I am a strong believer that students must understand that education isn’t about sitting at a desk listening to a teacher lecture, but education is about making sense of our world. I have seen so many teachers fall into the rut of teaching to the test… whether that is following the structure of a textbook or making sure that every state standard is covered one by one. Teachers are so consumed with getting everything done that students become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content being introduced but never deeply examined or they are bored by the lecture, worksheet, test routine.
The Common Core Standards were designed to be more rigorous, allowing teachers to slow down and delve deeper into the material. This is crucial as studies reveal that focusing on in-depth learning of concepts supports richer understanding and results in improved performance overall. By cutting back on multiple topics, teachers should be able to focus on central concepts and create experiences that are more meaningful and relevant to the students’ lives. Dan Meyer does an amazing job exemplifying this.
Second, the Standards do not “dictate curriculum or teaching methods.” I love Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk titled, “Do schools kill creativity?” in which he explains why educational systems should nurture creativity. I believe that teachers are some of the most creative people on earth, but due to the pressures mentioned in my last point, many have completely lost eagerness to be creative. Because the Standards “focus on results rather than means,” teachers are now given the time and flexibility to be creative without being restricted in the process. The Standards also call for students to “engage with the subject matter and model understanding.” How can teachers not utilize their own creativity when they design lessons that engage students and encourage student creativity?
Finally, the Standards take an interdisciplinary approach. I am a firm believer that education should be fluid; curricula should be designed to promote interconnections between and among the content areas. The ELA Standards call for an increase in “literacy and vocabulary in social studies, science and technical subjects to build knowledge, gain insight, and broaden perspective.” Rather than using a textbook to teach individual subjects, teachers might use trade books, informational texts, and primary sources to impart content knowledge related to social studies or science while also teaching conventions, effective language usage, and vocabulary, all of which is essential for reading, writing, speaking and listening. The Math Standards call for students to “analyze situations, model understanding, construct arguments, and critique the reasoning of others.” Students must be able to communicate effectively to justify their understanding of mathematics and apply it to practical situations in everyday life. None of this can be done without a solid grasp of language skills.
While I do not believe that the Common Core State Standards are a silver bullet in education, I am convinced that as a nation we are on the right track. I outlined three points that I believe support the implementation of the Common Core and I have found many other great points within the Standards (especially ways to incorporate the use of technology) that I discuss in my professional development sessions. My desire is for the Common Core to be the beginning of a fundamental overhaul of what and how we teach. Our students deserve to be engaged in authentic, real world, rigorous learning experiences that focus on the meaningful application of core academic knowledge.
Now that the Standards are being implemented, teachers, schools, and districts are faced with the challenge of successfully building a rigorous curriculum (aligned to the CCSS) that is built around 21st century competencies - critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication while also incorporating the use of technology. Recently, a friend loaned me a book I believe to be extremely relevant to this challenge:
Teacher as Architect was written by educators to be a guide in “instructional design and delivery for the modern teacher.” It walks the reader through the steps to become an “architect of learning,” and it provides the tools and resources needed to build the aforementioned curriculum. Teacher as Architect addresses the questions, “What does it mean to be a modern teacher? How has education changed over time?” And, “What are the best practices in education for our 21st century learners?”
I found Teacher as Architect to be insightful and highly relevant to the challenges teachers are currently facing. The hands-on style of writing allowed me to interact with the content. The tools and resources better equipped me to construct engaging curricula appropriate for the 21st century learner. Accompanying the book is an online resource library based around the book’s four core principals that maximize teaching effectiveness. The library also contains professional development kits complete with PowerPoints, PDFs, activities, and guides for facilitators and participants. A Questioning Flip Book is a part of the tool kit and is another remarkable reference to help teachers plan and effectively use questions in lessons. For anyone in education... it is a must read!
Just after I wrote my last entry regarding STEM education and critical thinking, I stumbled upon an article in The Economist titled, “Best and brightest… Only a few countries are teaching children how to think.” The article summarized Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And how they Got That Way. I was absolutely amazed with the first paragraph in the article describing an American company forced to open factories abroad due to the lack of skilled workers in the U.S.
"…the skills [needed] to fill even [the] most basic factory jobs require workers to think critically. Graduates of local schools are often unable to read or do simple maths."
Wow, this was so similar to what I had been writing about earlier that I picked up my iPad and ordered the book.
I began to read and couldn’t put the book down. The author follows three foreign exchange students to Poland, Finland, and North Korea as she investigates the successes and failures of these educational systems. Her description of Finland’s educational reform in the 1970’s parallels the reform efforts taking place in America’s educational system today, and her analysis of their educational history, policy, and culture reveal two key factors essential to educational reform: academic standards and teacher quality. Not only that, but the largest contributing factor for success was not the amount of money spent on technology in the classroom nor student engagement, but “rigor”—clear and high expectations shared by students, parents, teachers, administrators.
"To give our kids the kind of education they deserve we must first agree that rigor matters most of all; that school exists to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That is the core consensus that makes everything else possible."
Ripley does an outstanding job of illustrating the need for critical thinking and the implementation of rigor into our school system. I highly recommend this book especially to educators and parents, and I believe that the American educational system is on the right path as we adopt the common core standards. (To this, I will speak more in my next entry.)