What is Powerful Professional Development?

I have a passion for learning.  I was a curious kid.  A risk taker. A reader.  As a beginning teacher, my learning was fueled by the plethora of professional development opportunities to learn that were available in the system, including district and school based professional development.  The British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) provides a structure and funding for vibrant, Professional Specialist Associations to organize groups of like-minded teachers into Local Specialist Associations.  I jumped in feet first and became actively involved as participant and executive member of The Primary Teachers’ Association.  My first principal invited me to attend my first meeting of The International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association).  I would go on to become the president of the local chapter, The B.C.Literacy Council, and then provincial coordinator.  Human Rights Education.  Special Education.  English Language Learning.  Outdoor Learning.  I had a wide range of interests and the encouragement from colleagues and administration.

There is no shortage of professional development opportunities for curious educators.  In fact, the big question, is how do we take the front-end loading and personal passions and incorporate the ideas into educational practices that support our students in their learning?  The focus on “Make and Take” or “ideas to try tomorrow”, were often novel but not necessarily transformative in my practice.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Maureen Dockendorf.   After 5 years of teaching in Abbotsford,  I began teaching in Coquitlam.  I promptly signed up to participate in a Teacher Inquiry group led by Maureen Dockendorf.  We defined areas of interest.  Clarified our question.  Came up with a plan to work with our students and colleagues to find possibilities and sometimes, answers.   Reported out on the learning to keep us accountable for doing the work and integrating other sources or learning.  The added bonus was it was fun.  It involved collaborating with colleagues.  It caused us to carefully considering the questions and responses of our students.  It led to reflection of who we were as educators in the class and how we were meeting the needs of our students.  It allowed us to go deeper in our learning.

The work of Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert has been instrumental in the inquiry process becoming an influential force in the learning of educators and students in British Columbia.  The Spiral of Inquiry they developed has been instrumental in shifting the way we think about learning.

  • What am I learning and why is it important?
  • How is my learning going?
  • What am I going to do next?

Professional development expectations have shifted.  The merits of a powerful speaker conveying ideas based on solid research and practices continues to be inspirational.  The New and Aspiring Leaders Program designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is masterful at bringing together inspirational speakers and facilitating with educators from all over the world.  Collaborative structures were built into the program to facilitate the sharing of ideas with educational leaders from all over the world.  Educators were astounded by the implementation of Universal Design in education for all students in Canada.

A number of strategies have become common place to facilitate conversation about the ideas.  Think Pair Share, sitting in table groups, focus questions, and mixer activities have become common strategies to encourage even diverse audiences to talk about the ideas being presented by the speaker.

Social media has become a tool to present, learn and engage with colleagues about ideas online.  I have seen this as a way to get people in the same room to engage with each other and the speaker.  Twitter has become my newspaper and educational magazine.  On a daily basis I will read articles, blogs and magazine stories that are recommended by the people I follow.

I also participate in twitter chats, some regularly scheduled like @BCedchat on Sunday nights at 7 pm PST, other slow chats over the course of a month, like @perfinker.  I share out things I’m excited about and sometimes plan to meet face to face with online , like annual Edvents facilitated by @Edvent247

I have been asked how I have the “extra” time to blog.  For me, writing is my effort to make sense of the ideas percolating in my mind.  Having worked as a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University, I developed a strong appreciation of sitting with ideas over a period of time before making a judgement.  It was not learning that came easily to me.  One of my colleagues in Coquitlam nicknamed me the Tasmanian Devil back in my SD#43 days.  Reflection takes time.  If I can reflect before formulating and articulating an idea in writing, then I am in a much better place to engage in a discussion.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural year of Short Course II offered by the British Columbia Principal Vice Principal Association.  The design of Short Course II  for experienced principals and vice principals incorporated the three elements I believe are required to exist in an infinite loop for professional development to be powerful enough to implement personal and systemic change.  The elements continue on throughout a lifetime, although not necessarily in the same order.

  1. Inspiring big ideas to consider
  2. Opportunities for meaningful collaboration with peers to occur
  3. Time to reflect on the ideas

Leading, learning and innovation was the focus of the four day summit offered by BCPVPA at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan campus in Kelowna, B.C.  The input was inspirational on so many levels.

  1. The Indigenous people in the area, welcomed us to the land and shared their teachings.
  2. David Istance not only presented but engaged with each of the groups. As many of you will already know, he was one of the authors of the OECD 7 Principles of Education that have been the catalyst of educational change around the globe.
  3. British born, Amelia Pederson, presented the doctoral work she is doing at Harvard and actively engaged with the group, table groups and individuals throughout the week.
  4. David Weiss, President and CEO of Weiss International, gave us his perspective from working with organizational consultants who lead innovative consulting and training projects.
  5. Innovative business owners in Kelowna welcomed our BCPVPA groups into their companies and engaged in conversations about their inspiration, their process of developing their innovative idea, the skill set required of their employees and their goals moving forward.

Opportunities were structured for collaboration with colleagues throughout the province over the course of the four day program and throughout the year.

  1. A facilitator was assigned to each group and welcomed us into our table group and posed discussion questions and processes to keep us on track.
  2. We sat in the same daily table group and had the opportunity to get to know each other and engage with the ideas and questions together.
  3. We also had the opportunity to meet with other people with similar interests to develop our own inquiries to focus our work throughout the year. I was able to connect both professionally and personally with colleagues from Delta and Richmond to tease out my ideas.
  4. Informal opportunities to collaborate were part of the program, such as the wine and cheese at a local winery and the Open Deck time on the roof of FreshGrade.
  5. Online opportunities were provided to meet with our table groups over the course of the year.

By the time I had finished Short Course II, I had defined the first of my professional growth goals.  This is a management requirement for principals and vice principals in the Vancouver School Board in in British Columbia.  However for me defining an inquiry goal has always been part of grounding me in my practice.  Doing it prior to the start of the next school year allowed me to reflect on the previous year, consider new learning and thoughtfully plan my year so I could act deliberately rather than reactively.  During Short Course II, we agreed to meet with other SCII participants and participate online with our table groups.  It being the inaugural year, the anticipated challenges with technology presented themselves.  However it provides a pathway forward to continue to engage with colleagues over time.  The more we got to know each other, the better the conversation.  The inspiration, the collaboration and grappling with the ideas over time, provided an amazing model for powerful professional development.

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ProD Inspiration

Professional reading on the topic of professional development largely espouses the view that much of professional development for educators is not worth the time or money. Large-scale conferences or filling the room with a speaker does not serve the attendees in the room. This has not been my experience. I am a whole-hearted enthusiast of professional development in a variety of forms largely because I’ve experienced the direct benefit.

I have actively engaged in “teacher research” or “reflective practice” or “inquiry based practice”, since it was introduced to me under the label of “qualitative research” at Simon Fraser University in pursuit of my MA. I was in my Kindergarten class, creating a body of research with my questions and my students. Maureen Dockendorf popularized this process for wide-spread participation of teachers in Coquitlam.  Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser’s work and subsequent book, Spirals of Inquiry (2013), has continued to provide a philosophical frame and structure for educators to find answers to their questions while maintaining a focus on student learning. There is no limit to the power of asking questions, focusing on our classrooms and engaging in a conversation with colleagues about our practice and the implications for student learning.

Implicit in the asking of big questions, is the quest to find the answers. That doesn’t just happen in the microcosm of our classrooms. Some of my recent questions have come out of the work with the Grade 3/4 class I enroll on Monday and Tuesdays and my computer classes with intermediate students.   I’m working with a small group of colleagues trying to integrate digital technology into our practice to develop language proficiency and extend thinking skills. Our inquiry group has been supported by Audrey Van Alstyn and the VSB PILOT initiative – Professionals Investigating Learning Opportunities using Technology.  We have had access to planning time, regular practical instruction, discussion of pedagogy and the SAMR model with Dr. Reuben Puentedura, the support of literacy mentors in our classrooms and the opportunity to learn from others involved in PILOT via Speed Geeking and The Digital Fair.   The learning curve has been steep, and at times daunting, but always exciting. However the learning does not happen in a vacuum. We are constantly drawing on the background knowledge and ideas of specialists in the field.

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Much of my thinking has percolated on the ideas from professional reading, professional development and the subsequent conversations in person and via social media. I am energized by professional development and I have been involved in many different forms. I would like to discuss the impact of three professional development opportunities that would meet the criteria for a stand and delivery professional development.   Even though interaction is built into the presentations, according to popular research, it would render this style of professional development as obsolete.

LEARNING AND THE BRAIN CONFERENCE (May 2014):

The research on the plasticity of the brain opened up interesting conversation with my father, a retired neurosurgeon and fueled a fascination with the implications for education. When faced with the opportunity to attend a Brain Research Conference in New York, I jumped.  The power of neuroscientists and educators coming together to define best practice is probably one of the most powerful opportunities at our disposal today. Yes, I was one who lined up to have my purchases signed by the “rock stars” of educational research. And yes, then I proceeded to read the books and look for connections with my practice and applications in my educational context.  I have even participated in the follow-up monthly online chats.

INTERNATIONAL READING (NOW LITERACY) ASSOCIATION (July 2014):

I first became involved in The International Reading Association as a beginning teacher in Abbotsford. Level of involvement fluctuated throughout the years, but my role, as a literacy teacher and learner remained constant and the International Reading Association has always been the “go to” place for practical application of educational research. The International Reading (now Literacy) Association Leadership Convention in Tampa, Florida brought together literacy leaders from North America and beyond to share our work with our provincial /state and local literacy councils. I attended in my capacity as the Provincial Coordinator interested in supporting research based literacy teaching.  The connections made with colleagues of like mind has provided a bank or ideas and support to continue with my work in literacy learning and leadership.

PHI DELTA KAPPA – UBC CHAPTER

My involvement in PDK has come out of a love of the cross-pollination that comes from engaging in conversation about educational leadership with people engaged in a variety of education contexts, from a range of school boards and educational institutions. PDK is a professional organization that is founded on the premise of research, generally organizing 3-4 dinner meetings and featuring a speaker or panel to discuss an area of interest to our members. In April (2015), George Couros and Jordan Tinney presented a session: Report Cards and Communicating Student Learning: Leadership & Learning in a Changing World. The room was filled to capacity within the week and the waiting list started to grow. Tinney and Couros engaged participants in a discussion of the possibilities for innovation that exist in the educational context in B.C. to engage and empower students as well as teachers, utilize social media and create digital portfolios to document student learning.   They created electricity in the room. Ideas were also processed via twitter (#PDKedchat )during the presentation and allowed people outside the room to participate as well.

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In each of these contexts, people of like mind and a growth mindset flocked to sessions to discuss the ideas and make sense of the presentation in light of their own educational context. The conversations would continue long after the actual presentations within professional networks, in blogs and via twitter. The connections with other professional development was be processed, questioned, discussed, embraced, dismissed or implemented in hybrid form.

James Paul Gee presented a talk called: The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Literacy at The Learning and the Brain Conference in New York in May 2014. I was inspired and had a template to build my understanding of what digital literacy needed to look like in my context. At a breakfast meeting in Tampa with Marcie Craig Post, the Executive Director of International Literacy Association, the discussion continued about the need to provide students not only with the scaffolding so they can learn to talk, read and develop thinking skills but the importance of “talk, text, and knowledge (TTK) mentoring” required to use digital tools effectively for literacy development. Tinney and Couros pushed the card with the possibilities for implementation of meaningful assessment and evaluation practices.

When presentations resonate with educators, the conversation continues. Listening to a presentation brings a depth of understanding that doesn’t always come from reading the book, a blog or a twitter post. When people I respect recommend titles of books, I read them or at least aspire to read them! When they ask a question that captures my attention, I think about it. Perhaps I use it to frame my next inquiry project.  I have been lucky to have many opportunities to learn new ideas, consolidate old ones and ask questions. I’ve had the good fortune to listen to amazing professionals with breadth of background knowledge and experiences. They stood, they delivered, they engaged the audience and made me think.   I left the room with new tools, more questions, a sense of efficacy and the inspiration to act. I strongly believe the appetite for this mode of professional development is not going away anytime soon. It represents one necessary part of my professional development appetite.