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Arrested (Professional) Development

By now, you’ve probably seen it: the video that showed public school teachers in Chicago going through what can only be described as some of the most appalling professional development. And while some in the comments (also in the comments here) point out that the facilitator was simply having the participants go through the same kind of drills they would have their students do, others (quite rightly) noted that it was poor pedagogy, no matter the intended audience: teacher or student.

Professional development, like any teaching, is extraordinarily difficult to do well. Unfortunately, most of us have experienced poor (ok terrible) professional development sessions during our careers. Most sessions on pedagogy don’t even use the pedagogy they espouse. Others assume the worst of the participants. Others still provide little to nothing of relevance to the majority of those in attendance. We need to do better, and there are many who are doing better. We just need to be open to those opportunities, both traditional and non-traditional.

The best professional development is participatory and connectivist. It is driven by the needs and interests of those attending and allows for collaboration between the facilitator, the participants, and beyond. It needs to be a space where everyone is open, honest, and ready and willing to work and to try. It challenges us to actually engage with, experiment on, and develop for ourselves whatever approach, tool, or technology targeted by the session. It is, unsurprisingly, much like the learning environments we want to create for our own students.

Social Media as PD

It is Wednesday night, and my kids are finally down for bed. I’ve spent a long day teaching, but I grab a glass of wine and my laptop, settling down to moderate this week’s #FYCchat, or First-Year Composition chat, on Twitter. I co-founded it in 2010, inspired by the many K-12 chats I witnessed happening in my Twitter feed, notably #engchat for Language Arts teachers of all levels. Once a week, for one hour, a group of us who teach Freshman Writing get together to share with one another around a selected topic. The participants range from graduate students to full professors, from community colleges to prestigious liberal arts colleges. And it fundamentally changed the way I teach.

While the chats are only for an hour once a week, we use the hashtag outside of that hour to share articles we think our peers would find interesting, ask questions, and seek support and advice. We have grown into a community of writing instructors, regardless of geographical location and institution type. We learn from one another. And we do it openly, in public, and willingly. Graduate students alongside senior professors, and everyone in between. We crowdsource best practices, a true form of peer-review, because through our interactions, we become a real community of peers, of colleagues.

These Twitter chats have provided countless hours of professional development to thousands of teachers. You can find a full list of types of chats, as well as when they take place here. All disciplines are covered. All levels. All types. Everyone is invited to participate at whatever level. Lurkers (those who follow the hashtag but don’t actively tweet) are welcome, too. There is a bit of a learning curve, as the tweets come fast and furious; using a tool that only shows you the hashtagged tweets like TweetChat. It’s fast-paced, it’s boisterous, it’s community-driven, but most importantly, these chats are filled with some of the most passionate, open, talented, and generous educators I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, on Twitter or in person.

The Un-Conference

It looks like chaos; people darting around a large classroom, their hands filled with markers and giant Post-It notes. We’ve brainstormed possible sessions, and we’re now grouping them together, choosing which ones we’d like to attend, deciding where to put ourselves: do we need lab space, white board space, or just an empty, open room to roam? After about 15 minutes, we all take a step back and look at the day we just planned. The sessions range from discussing innovative pedagogical practices to an introduction to GitHub. There is space tomorrow for any topics that might come up today that we want to get further into.

Welcome to THATCamp. It is an un-conference, meaning that the sessions are developed by the participants, for the participants. The focus of THATCamps are the intersection of technology and the humanities, and have typically been directed towards higher education professionals. But participants have come from museums, community organizations, libraries, and, yes, K-12 teachers.

And welcome to Edcamp. Also designed around the un-conference model, which has held events all around the world. Its mission: “We are all self-directed learners, developing and sharing our expertise with the world.”

These un-conferences are opportunities to create a meaningful experience and grow and expand professional communities.

For many, the most valuable part of a traditional conference is what happens between sessions, over drinks, over food, over the long walk between conference venues. Un-conferences are like that: meeting like-minded people and seeing where things go from there. This isn’t to say that the traditional conference and conference workshops can’t be effective, or are no longer worthwhile, but for one thing, they are expensive. Un-conferences are, by design, free (or almost free), and take place regionally so that participants don’t have to break the bank to get there. Often, locals will offer spare bedrooms to participants coming in from out of town.

Un-conferences might not be the answer for everyone, but we can learn something from the success of this format: when you put together a group of dedicated, motivated, and open educators, good things happen. Great things happen. Learning happens. Community happens.

Think Past MOOCs

I am browsing the offerings from Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers, and I am struck by how many of the offerings are geared towards teachers. I met someone at my own institution who helped develop an Advanced Chemistry MOOC, and she pointed out that many of the most active participants were K-12 teachers looking to stay current, brush up, or find new and better resources to use in their own classrooms, particularly those living in rural or more isolated areas. But as I suffered through my own MOOC experience, listening to boring lectures, completing overly-prescriptive assignments, I kept thinking about other online learning experiences I had had.

Professional development doesn’t have to be expensive, didactic, and a chore anymore.

The National Writing Project now annually offers #CLMOOC, or the Connected Learning MOOC, that looks to inspire, connect, and re-energize educators. This summer focused on making, while last summer it was about play. But the National Writing Project isn’t the only people who are looking to Reclaim Open Learning; this fall will see a coming together of multiple open, online education projects together forConnected Courses: Active Co-Learning in Higher Education. It brings together some of the best open learning classes, such as ds106, FemTechNet, and PhoNar. These open, collaborative, participatory courses are changing the MOOC experience from passively listening or watching recorded lectures to participatory learning and engagement.

From the Maker Movement to Learning to Code from Scratch, there are communities out there to support learners, rather than just transmit information to them. We can learn from each other, support one another, and share our trials and triumphs. Professional development doesn’t have to be expensive, didactic, and a chore anymore. It can be an opportunity to help your faculty, school, and students open up to the world.


*This piece first appeared on Educating Modern Learners. *

[Photo Auditorium audience by Colin Knowles licensed CC BY-SA 2.0]