Demystifying Professional Development
Published in the February 1999 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine
© 1998 - Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator
In the early eighties, I began helping teachers in one
computer classrooms add computational technology to their bag of
tricks. Eighteen years and over
a thousand professional development sessions later, I find myself doing
remarkably similar work. My efforts to assist educators in using
computers as a constructive
medium for learning, self expression and vehicle for school reform
has taken me from the South Bronx to Sydney. For the past eight years
I have worked
with schools in which every student and teacher has a professional
laptops. Even in these "computer rich" environments there is
a universality to the challenges facing teacher professional development.
In order to develop meaningful systemic professional development (PD) we must be able to answer why we believe computers should be in schools. Computers increase opportunities for intellectual development and creative expression. The introduction of school computing can serve as a catalyst for educators to discuss the nature of teaching and learning while reacquainting themselves with the learning process.
Ive thought a lot about these challenges and conclude
that the critical issues determining successful professional development
can be reduced to
two factors; leadership and access to adequate resources.
Before exploring these two factors, we should debunk two pernicious myths.
The Osmosis myth
Countless tales have been published about school districts that provided teachers with a computer in order to assist with clerical tasks in the wide-eyed hope that someday this computer use would magically be used to enhance student learning. I have yet to be persuaded by empirical or even anecdotal evidence that this approach is successful. This approach falls short for the following reasons.
- Teachers should do less clerical work, not more.
- Teachers are employed to benefit children and computers are purchased to enhance the learning process.
- The process of gaining comfort with the computer is
often hard and frustrating. Associating this difficult process with a
chore you dont like to do is a sure recipe for failure.
- Teacher fluency can be acquired and situated in actual student learning experiences.
The Budgeting myth
Much has been written about how 30-50% of technology
budgets should be spent on professional development. While I agree
with the need for PD, I reject this notion categorically. One hundred percent
of technology budgets should be spent on technology. People value
they pay for and we dont pay for art teachers out of the crayon budget.
This is a mischievous accounting trick designed to make computers
appear expensive and often ignores more pressing professional development
If students rarely work on personally meaningful projects
over a sustained period of time now, then computer-based constructionism
will be out of reach. If students dont collaborate with their classmates,
then the online project with Belarus will be unsuccessful. If teachers
are concerned about assessing computer-based work, you may need to
address your resources to broader issues like authentic assessment, whole
and cooperative learning.
Suggestions for Meaningful Professional Development
Access to Adequate Resources
Scarcity is a major obstacle to use
In many cases there are not enough computers available for teacher and student use to warrant the effort of teachers required using them effectively. How many afterschool workshops does a teacher need to attend before she can get a new printer ribbon?
Work with the living and do no harm
Energy and resources are in short supply. Focus your initial PD efforts on teachers likely to create exciting models for other teachers to emulate.
Cast a wide net
Learning is life-long and PD is a form of learning. Your PD offerings need to be ongoing and varied in order to attract teachers with different interests and levels of readiness.
Computers offer school leaders with a wonderful opportunity
to achieve long-standing learning goals and even some unanticipated
outcomes. Dont be modest. Dream big. Imagine all of the new forms
of expression, ways of knowing and powerful ideas now available to students.
your school community that these are your expectations.
My answer is that if you have a vision of Someday you can use this to guide what do Monday. But if your vision of where it is going is doing the same old stuff a bit (or a lot) better your efforts will be bypassed by history. (Seymour Papert)
Stay on message
Dont encourage teachers to take risks and experiment
with new approaches without supporting them. Leadership requires
administrators to articulate clear expectations, acknowledge teacher achievement
afford change the necessary time to occur.
Practice what you preach
Leaders should model the pedagogical and epistemological approaches they advocate. They should also use computers and the net.
One-size does not fit all
The two-hour afterschool workshop is not always effective for everyone. A range of PD approaches needs to be available, including mentoring, university courses, community education, conferences, institutes and teacher-led afterschool/summer programs for kids.
Work on teachers turf
Whenever possible, work with teachers in their classrooms to realize the potential of computing. Help colleagues create shareable models.
Get em outta here
If your goal is to have teachers truly experience new
forms of learning; you need to get them away from the bell schedule
and family carpools for a few days of learning in a immersive setting. A
of practice including should be encouraged by including experts
and newbies in these PD "slumber parties."
Teachers who have demonstrated creativity, fluency and collegiality should have a reduced teaching load in order to mentor peers.
Some schools engage in formal action research circles.
All schools should have regularly scheduled meetings at which
teachers are encouraged to share exciting things their students have done
computers. Eventually teachers will share what they have done.
This is a way of valuing your teachers efforts and demonstrating your
commitment to forward momentum.
Acknowledge the present, embrace the future
Kids have all sorts of technological competencies whether school contributed to their development or not. Take advantage of what kids know and the resources they bring to the learning process. Generation WHY is a fantastic embodiment of this idea. Prepare yourself for the day when every child has ubiquitous access to computing and communications resources. What will teaching and learning look like then? What can we do now to prepare for that eventuality?