Thursday, May 25, 2017

What is the One Thing All Learners Need?

This time I'm going to give away the answer in the first line: Personal Connection

We know that student-teacher relationships are important when it comes to students' academic success. But, how does this apply to professional learning for educators?

Earlier this week I had the privilege of working with the teachers, therapists, and specialists at the Valley Collaborative School. They asked me to share both a high quality curated list of openly licensed digital education resources (OER) and an instructional design method to help their educators customize learning based on both those resources and the varied needs of the children they serve. Based on my experience yesterday, combined with the work I've done with a few other districts, I have developed a theory: When it comes to professional learning, there are 3 levels of participation. Each level serves an important purpose, but if we never dig deep enough to get to Level 3 then the learning needs of participating educators may never truly be met.

Level 1: Keynote to Inspire

Keynote addresses are exciting. The audience buckles in for an experience. They expect to laugh, wonder, hear Tweetable soundbites, perhaps shed a tear, and leave inspired by new ideas. As educators, we sometimes need our souls to be fed by the inspiring big ideas of a keynote speaker. I know I always have room for improvement, but I hope the educators yesterday felt a sense of urgency and energy when the keynote was done. Many times I have left a big conference theater or even the auditorium of my local school and hoped to bring the energy I felt from the keynote to my students.

But, how, exactly? What are the actionable steps we should take?

Level 2: Demo to Experience

Often, when hired by a district or brought on by conference organizers, a keynote speaker will facilitate an interactive follow-up session that demonstrates the theories and practices they highlighted in their address. In my case yesterday, this meant walking educators through the Start With a Question method that incorporated OER, digital formative assessment, and collaboration. The teachers were working together to tinker with online simulations, experiment with video and gaming, and teach one another about the most efficient uses of their devices. I saw them engaged, talking, thinking, and sharing. Educators deserve to experience the joy of learning in this way often.

But, when the demo was over, would this experience and my instructions truly affect their teaching and their students' learning?

Level 3: Personal Engagement to Connect

Although it occurs less often in formal professional development, educators might need to engage one-on-one with the speaker/facilitator. Thankfully, this is exactly what I was able to do during the last of the 3 hours I'd planned with the teachers at the Valley Collaborative School yesterday. As I moved from table to table and sat down with the different small groups of educators, I discovered there were questions and ideas I never would have heard if I hadn't pursued those personal conversations. Much like many of our students, some teachers are unlikely to speak up in a large group and ask questions.

Some educators were already running with the resources and tools I'd demoed for them. They were exploring, designing, and building lessons. When I sat down to talk to them I wanted to encourage them, point out more advanced features they might want to use, and answer their higher level questions about how my approach compared to others they were already familiar with. I loved these interactions!

A few educators were open minded and able to get started, but then got stuck. I could recognize them by their facial expressions of body language and made an effort to get to them as quickly as possible. In most cases, they'd found some great digital resources, starting building a lesson, but weren't sure how this activity would fit into their teaching. We chatted about what their classroom space looked like, their students' personalities and needs, and how they normally start and end a lesson. Then we worked together to brainstorm how the Start With a Question method could improve on both the teaching experience for them and the learning experience for their students. I loved these interactions too!

Finally, there were educators in the room who stalled before they started. Since quite a few of the professionals who work in education are actually specialists, therapists, and clinicians it is important to connect to their unique but vital roles in our schools. During these conversations I asked a lot of questions about their typical day, the children they serve, and the resources and activities they currently depend on. I had much to learn from them. As a result of talking and learning from one another, we were able to develop some new approaches to their work that incorporate digital resources, devices, and new kinds of interaction. I'm grateful for these interactions because I learned the most from them.

These Level 3 interactions helped the professionals make clear connections between what they do each day with children and the method, resources, and tools I was sharing. Without personal conversations, those connections would have either taken longer to form or may have never formed at all. The efficacy of that 3 hour professional development afternoon was enhanced because we took the time to talk to one another face-to-face. When designing professional learning in the future, whether it is in the form of a keynote, an interactive session, or a very small group, I'm going to make a concerted effort to set aside time to have as many of those face-to-face conversations as possible.