I’m sitting in an airport, waiting to board my plane home from a week at ISTE. ISTE is, by far, the largest conference I attend each year. It draws learners from all over the country who want to explore new tools, learn new teaching strategies, and meet new people. The days are packed with learning and the evenings are packed with connecting. It feeds the learner and the extrovert in me, and it’s exhausting. Some might say that conferences such as ISTE are the place for professional development. While I obviously love conferences, both as a speaker and as an attendee, they aren’t my favorite learning venues.
Whenever I talk to people about professional development, I get a mixed bag of responses. When I call it professional learning, I get a more positive vibe. The two are not exactly synonymous, but are definitely closely aligned. I’m a big believer that every professional should seek out learning in order to stay fresh, relevant, and energized. As someone who frequently provides professional learning opportunities, I think all good professional development (PD) must be:
ISTE hits the first two. Since each person gets to select which sessions they attend, they can choose those that are most relevant to their work and learning needs. That also makes it differentiated (to a point). But that’s where it stops. Conference sessions are “one-and-done” experiences. No one is going to check in with you to see if you’ve applied what you learned. This part makes conference learning more surface-level learning experiences. We hope to leave each session with a few points of impact that we can put into practice, but we also leave the conference a bit overwhelmed (and did I mention exhausted?!). We can get some deeper learning from the sessions if we spend intentional time reflecting, and make an organized plan for implementation. Without those two things, much of what we heard and learned won’t really be applied. I’m not saying these sessions aren’t valuable. They definitely are. They expose us to new ideas and broaden our views. They are also a great place to connect and collaborate with other educators. That’s one of my favorite parts about conferences. I learn just as much from these organic conversations as I do from the workshops themselves. But the majority of people can’t attend conferences for a variety of reasons. So, let’s focus instead on other professional learning opportunities.
The chief complaints I hear about PD offered in district is that it’s 1.) usually boring, and/or 2.) “doesn’t apply to me”. If you ask teachers what PD looks like, they will typically tell you that it’s someone talking at their entire staff about one topic. It’s rarely interactive and often the teachers are sitting there thinking of all of the things back in the classroom that they could be doing. As a teacher, I attended those kinds of “professional development” experiences, and as a consultant, I strive hard not to produce them.
The easiest way to differentiate professional learning is to let the learner choose the topic of learning and set a personalized goal. The building or district leader can organize this “Genius Hour” type of practice and it can be as long or short-term, as desired. Educators can work on their projects during staff meeting times, but if they are truly invested in a personal learning project, they will take their learning outside of the contracted hours. It’s fine to include some accountability pieces (goal-setting, coaching conversations, opportunities to share the learning) and will actually help everyone maintain focus. I would have the only requirement be that the projects must benefit the teaching and learning happening in their schools.
Last month, I was able to feed my own need for growth while attending an annual Advanced Learning Partnerships retreat. I always leave these retreats energized and excited by the work ahead. Two days surrounded by thought leaders who also happen to be passionate educators feeds my mind and my heart. This type of professional learning is both intentional and spontaneous. There were specific learning exercises designed to facilitate collaboration, deep thinking, and strategic growth opportunities. That was during the day. The evenings were filled with times for team-building (otherwise known as “fun”) that naturally led to some spontaneous professional growth through the organic conversations. The beauty of this type of professional learning is that it encompasses all three of the “must-haves”. It was differentiated in that we had many opportunities to choose learning paths during the day. It was relevant because it directly impacts the work I do on a daily basis as a consultant in the education industry. This learning is ongoing in two respects. First, I constantly reflect on my work as I put it into practice, naturally leading to growth and more learning. Second, the learning at the retreat was done with and alongside people I treasure as thought partners in the work. We have conversations surrounding the work we are doing, helping one another take part in continuous professional growth.
How can we replicate this type of learning experience in the workplace? We can’t often (or ever) whisk people off to a concentrated retreat-style of learning. But we can make sure that staff meetings respect the time and interests of the audience. We can make sure that we provide meaningful professional learning opportunities for all educators. We can encourage intentional reflection and goal-setting to ensure that learning is differentiated, relevant, and ongoing. And we can seek out ways to embed regular coaching into the learning opportunities offered. I have the benefit of coaching educators at all levels and have repeatedly witnessed the growth and transformation that this type of professional development allows. If you are building or district leader, how can you provide coaching to your staff? Who is your coach? If you want to learn more about this type of professional learning, let’s talk. It’s the deepest way to take part in differentiated, relevant, and ongoing development that benefits everyone.