Sunday, December 21, 2014

Introducing Participatory Professional Development

by Rebecca Itow 
cross-posted at Join the conversation here.

This post introduces a new model of professional development that leverages teachers' existing experiences, understandings, and beliefs about knowledge and learning to help them adapt and integrate new practices into their courses. This is the first in a series of posts outlining Participatory Professional Development.

I’ve been a teacher of some kind or another for about as long as I can remember. From reading to young kids with processing disorders to teaching ten-minute playwriting and producing festivals to tutoring middle and high school students for cash in college, I seem to always find myself in some kind of educator role. So when I became a teacher – and not a geneticist as I had planned – no one but me was surprised. “Of course you became a teacher,” everyone said. “You were teaching toddlers when you were three,” they said. “You were born a teacher,” they said. And I suppose they were right. 

I walked into my very own classroom as a high school English teacher in January 2007, and like most new teachers, I was terrified that they’d realize I had no idea what I was doing. But as it turned out, I did have some idea. In fact, I had a lot of ideas about how people learn and the kind of engagement I’d like to see in my classroom. I spent about half of a quarter trying to adopt the Jane Schaffer writing method the other English teachers were using before I changed my focus to helping my students find their voice instead of their colored pens. 

By the end of my first semester, I had become heavily involved in the school. I served on the special education committee, was tutoring students too ill to go to school, began coaching a mock trial team, and became the school’s technology educator for teachers. I used new technologies and engaged my students in rich discussions on complex topics, and suddenly students were asking, “why did you become a teacher?” implying that this was some kind of fallback plan. But it wasn’t. I loved teaching. It had quickly become my passion.

I did not know teaching fellow educators would evolve into a career, but things have a way of taking on a life of their own. The school, like many public schools, had limited funds and big dreams, so I helped our principal find and utilize new (and mostly free) tools for teaching. When the English department ran out of paper in November 2007, I made my class almost completely paperless. I taught my students to maximize the functionality of their word processors. I experimented with EtherPad and Google Docs, both developing technologies at the time. I augmented in-class discussions with online ones, using learning management systems to make difficult discussions accessible. Discussions exploded in my classroom with students bringing in new opinions and resources, and connecting concepts across literature and contexts. And then I taught some of the English teachers how to do what I inherently did in my classroom. That turned into a set of workshops for the faculty at school-wide PD sessions. Suddenly I found that, in addition to having solid ideas about how children learn, I was developing some pretty strong opinions about teacher learning and the opportunities that are so rarely afforded for professional development. We needed more chances to meaningfully develop, try on, and implement innovative teaching techniques and practices – practices that highlight learners’ experiences and connect them to one another, the content, and the world around them.

Prior to my admission to Indiana University, I worked with Dan Hickey to design a curricular module on The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (that’s the whole title, in case you were wondering) using the curricular framework he had developed. I inherently fostered in my classroom the kind of learning Dr. Hickey had been studying and designing for for years. The module went beautifully, and upon entering the Learning Sciences PhD program at Indiana University, I immediately began addressing the professional development challenge of teaching educators how to use Hickey’s curricular framework, called Participatory Learning and Assessment. PLA is a curricular design framework based on discussion-based activity and situated theories of knowing and learning. When introducing the kinds of practices PLA promotes – especially ones that ask teachers to give more agency to their students in learning and assessment processes – teachers have often felt uncomfortable. Many have stated that these new practices seemed difficult to implement, and some teachers even felt that they were antithetical to their training. 

I began working with five teachers at different school sites to help them adopt PLA. Quickly, I came to two conclusions: First I recognized that the more the professional development took place online, the more likely the teachers were to stay involved and converse with one another. By centralizing activity in a Wordpress site (PLAnet) and the National Writing Project’s Digital Is, teachers readily shared anecdotes, gave feedback, and asked for help from one another. Secondly, I concluded that focusing on adaptation rather than adoption helped the teachers feel more comfortable trying out new practices. By adapting the framework to work with their own needs and teaching styles, the teachers were much more likely to try out and take up the new practices. (Iris Tabak’s recent work in teacher adaptation is also fueling my thinking here.) 

These two conclusions formed the basis for Participatory Professional Development (PPD), a set of design principles for educator professional development. Drawing on Jenkins’ notions of participatory environments, Ito et al.’s Connected Learning, and the growing literature on situated learning, I refined an initial model of PD (Hickey and Itow, 2012) to form five design principles for building professional development for teachers (which will be presented in a later post). PPD focuses on fostering a participatory environment in which a professional learning community can collaboratively grapple with new concepts and ideas, using their own experiences, understandings, and beliefs about knowledge & learning to try on and take up new practices. By valuing teachers’ prior experiences and epistemologies, teachers feel less put upon and have the power and freedom to learn about, critique, and try on new practices. This stands in stark contrast to a lot of professional development, which often consists of full or half-day workshops that tell teachers about new practices but do not support them in the uptake or implementation processes. 

PPD values teachers’ insights and opinions, asking them to freely critique the new practices being presented and participate in a rich discussion about what the practices are, how they might be used, and the kind of engagement they might foster. The initial discussions about the new practices open the floor to much deeper discussions about assessment, pedagogy, and epistemologies. Differing opinions provide new perspectives, allowing participants to act as support for one another. PPD (a) values teachers’ experiences and epistemologies as it (b) helps shift pedagogical practice and (c) impact assumptions about knowing and learning while (d) maintaining teachers’ agency over their development and teaching practice.

Based on the above assumption and the professional development literature, PPD gives teachers an opportunity to work and learn in the kinds of spaces they are asked to foster. This is important because it is often difficult for teachers – or anyone, for that matter – to design for something they have never experienced. And since the practices presented in PPD are often new to teachers, it is necessary to allow them to grasp an intimate understanding of the kind of setting and engagement they are being asked to foster and elicit. 

Currently, PPD is being implemented around PLA (described above). The framework is being taken up in several courses in a university-run online high school. Given the growing ubiquity of online education, new pedagogical practices (that move away from the isolated siloed learning modes so often found in online education) are needed. PPD is helping teachers adapt PLA to their needs and teaching styles so that their online courses foster robust peer-to-peer discourse in technology-rich environments while rigorously teaching content and impacting achievement tests. This implementation is generating many salient examples of teacher agency, adaptation, and uptake of new practices, demonstrating how PPD can aid in introducing teachers to a new curricular framework. Certainly the PPD principles are useful beyond this implementation; it is likely that they will be helpful in teaching teachers to use other new practices in technology-rich environments, especially those that foster peer-to-peer discourse, participatory environments, and connected learning so prevalent in educational reform today.

In later posts I will detail the PPD principles, what they look like in action, and explore some of the challenges in implementing them. In the meantime, I’d appreciate any discussion on these issues.

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