22 April 2012

One Size Fits Some

I've been traveling a lot this spring--the Jenny Appleseed of PD. I've done a session in a mall...in a bookstore...in a conference room that seated 200...a first grade classroom...a school library in one of the smallest districts in the state. There have been any number of topics: standards and assessments; cues, questions, and advance organizers; reading strategies for digital texts; and so forth. If you tell me you need me to do a 20 minute session and the only space you have available is the janitor's closet, I can make it work. I do all right with presenting. I won't tell you that I hit my mark 100% of the time with 100% of the audience, as much as I would like to do so. But I like the opportunities, mainly because of the conversations that happen along the way.

Much of what I do would be considered "traditional PD," which is the current whipping boy of staff development. There are many excellent reasons to revile Sit-and-Get. I can't think of a single teacher I know who can't describe at least one horrific experience as part of a captive audience. Research shows it's grossly ineffective at changing teaching behaviors. It can be mind-numbingly boring. And yet, I think this form of learning still has a place in the arsenal. Why? Two reasons. One is simply that there are some teachers who like it. I routinely get feedback on sessions where at least one person says, "Please don't ask us to talk so much. I just want to sit and listen. " Fair enough. But I also think that there is more than one goal (change instruction) of this type of PD. You could argue that the sheer cost of teacher's time to attend a one-hour session gives very little return on investment if it doesn't result in instantaneous change. I would say that there is another purpose: to provide teachers with an opportunity to think and reflect. It's a brief window to feed a the teacher soul. You can inspire a bit of wonder and have time for discussion of one or two key ideas. Maybe that's all you need. Not everything in education is a problem to solve. Sometimes, we just want a reason to keep going.

I won't claim that traditional, face-to-face PD is more desirable than other varieties. There are lots of options for teachers through social media channels, "camps," informal workshops, online courses, job-embedded support, and more. All of them have a place. All of them will be a favourite of one teacher or another. I'm all for teachers being able to learn in an environment that supports them best. But what I see lost in all the shouting these days is that it should be up to each teacher to decide. I see plenty of tweets and blog posts deriding one form of PD or holding another above everything else. And what is lost in all of that is the simple truth that even "one size" (traditional) PD does fit some. It doesn't have to fit all. Ditto for unconferences. And PLCs. And Moodle courses. Seems like we should celebrate learning in all of its many forms.


Jenny said...

It sounds to me like what you are advocating is what we want for our students. Each person deciding how best they can learn what they need to learn.

The only caveat I would add here is that teachers should be exposed to other types of PD. I think many teachers choose traditional PD because they don't know any other, at least not first hand. Once people (students or teachers) have a variety of experiences then they are better equipped to decide what works best for them.

The Science Goddess said...

Great caveat--and would love to see that opportunity for teachers.

Our problem in the great wild west is the wide open space. Half of our districts have fewer than 1000 students (some as small as two teachers in size) and are far away from the madding crowd. Opportunities to experience job-embbeded PD are near impossible and anything that requires travel might as well be like going to the Moon, in terms of finding funding or a sub. (I've seen some federal allocations to districts--based on student enrollment--be as small as $8 for the year.)

I think I've assumed for a long time that teachers can have similar experiences (if they want to). But what I've learned over the last year is that this really isn't true, at least for a state that has a lot of space between districts. Being small has some advantages (e.g., Who cares about AYP when you don't have enough students in any particular subgroup?), but it mainly limits your ability to access professional conversations and growth. (Online things are difficult when you only have a dial-up connection.) It's been an interesting issue to think about this year. How do you ensure that teachers have a wealth of PD opportunities to access?

Jenny said...

Wow. Having been in a suburban environment for all of my teaching career, I manage to completely forget that it's not the same everywhere. I can't imagine trying to access any PD with a dial-up connection and hours from others.

That said, the issue there isn't traditional PD vs. other types. It's simply accessing PD at all. Are they able to access any PD right now?

I feel like my head has exploded this is such an astounding thing to comprehend.