Bringing Learning to the Rubes. . .

Hayes Mizell has been one of my professional heroes since the day that I churned through his book Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform in about 6 hours.  Hayes always seems to find the insights that I overlook and shares them in a way that makes me think.

I just found a new blog that Hayes has started for the NSDC and was blown away by the first entry that I read.  In it, Hayes talks about a flaw that I’ve fought against in teacher professional development over the course of my career.  He writes:

Verbs are powerful. They not only describe an action, they also suggest the intent that drives the action. When educators talk about professional development, they frequently use the verbs “provide” or “deliver” (some foreign English-language newspapers use “imparted”). This usage suggests one person possesses professional development and gives it to another person, like a package or a tool.

But professional development is not a commodity (though some vendors market it that way). No educator develops as a professional because someone “delivers” learning to them. Professionals grow by actively seeking new knowledge and skills, by reflecting on their experiences and learning from the experiences of others, and by practice.

 

Hayes couldn’t be more accurate when describing the general attitude around teacher professional development.  A false—and incredibly frustrating—belief that teachers must sit in sessions delivered by “experts” in order to grow as professionals still exists in education no matter how much smoke we blow about professional learning communities or communities of practice.  While we talk a good talk about the ability of teams of teachers to learn together, little real value is placed on any kind of professional growth that teachers pursue on their own.

Need proof?  Then consider these two events from my own career:

Almost 7 years ago, our state required that all teachers earn at least 2 continuing education credits (the equivalent of 20 hours worth of study) in technology.  The thinking was solid:  Our world is changing, yet our classrooms are not.  In order to ensure that teachers are growing as digital educators, there should be some expectation that the study of technology play a part of their ongoing learning.

The problem was that for guys like me who are on the cutting edge of technology—and have been for years—-the kinds of technology classes being offered at the school and district level were woefully inadequate.  I can remember looking over the course catalog and being shocked by classes titled “Email and You: A New Way to Communicate,” “Getting to Know Your Computer,” and “Getting to Know the Internet,” because all would be a waste of 20 hours of my time.  Not only would such classes leave me bored and frustrated, they would give me absolutely nothing to take back to my classroom.

Wanting to be a team player, I decided to suck it up and take a class being offered by the technology specialist at our school on Hyperstudio—a Powerpoint-ish program that was popular at the time and that I’d started to experiment with.  When she handed out materials that I’d developed for a professional development session delivered to the faculty of a different school months before, I realized that there was no way that I could hope to learn anything new.

So I called the professional development contact at our state’s Department of Public Instruction in an attempt to get approval for an independent study on digital moviemaking in the classroom.  That may sound routine today, but 7 years ago, digital moviemaking was in its infancy and I wanted to find a way to incorporate it into my instruction.  I’d purchased several hundred dollars worth of my own equipment and promised to document the lessons that I learned so that there was an artifact to evaluate before I was awarded continuing education credit.

The conversation went something like this:

BF:  “Hi.  I’ve got a question to ask.  I’m in need of twenty hours worth of technology credits, but I can’t find anything offered by the school, district or state that will challenge me.  I know that I’m a bit different because I’ve been working with technology for a long while—so I understand that the classes you’re offering are probably appropriate for the majority of teachers—-but I was hoping to get approval for an independent study on digital moviemaking in the classroom.  It’s something I’m starting to explore because I think it’s got great potential to motivate kids.”

SD: “Mr. Ferriter, I find it hard to believe that there is nothing that we’re offering that you couldn’t learn from.  Have you seen the course titled Getting to Know the Internet?  It’s been very well received and it’s being delivered by one of our top experts.”

BF:  “Yes, I saw that one.  The only thing is I’ve been using websites to communicate with my parents and students for something like 2 years now, so I worry that the content covered in Getting to Know the Internet might be a step or two behind where I am developmentally.  Besides, the digital moviemaking that I’m doing is directly tied to what I’m teaching.  I’m planning on having students in my Language Arts class create short commercials showing elements of bias, which is a part of our curriculum.”

SD: “No, Mr. Ferriter.  This won’t be allowed.  You must take a course from our approved list and from a proven expert.  Otherwise, we can’t be sure that you’ll really be better prepared to serve the students in your class.”

BF:  “But what I’m telling you is that you’re not offering any classes that will ‘better prepare’ me.  I’m already using the Internet, I understand how to use email, and the people delivering classes are using my materials in their sessions.  If you make me take these courses, I’ll be following your rules but I won’t be learning anything.  How does that help either me or my students?  What’s more, how is that a good use of our state’s professional development dollars?”

SD: “Thank you for your concerns, Mr. Ferriter.  Now sign up for a course on the approved list.”

BF: “You realize that I won’t learn anything.”

SD:  “Yes, Mr. Ferriter.  Now sign up for a course on the approved list.”

This kind of struggle goes on for me even today.  Most recently, I’m working to get reading renewal credits for the extensive professional reading and writing that I’ve done.  After all, in the past 2 years, I’ve published 258 blog entries, 7 articles in journals like Education Leadership and the Journal for Staff Development, 2 chapters for 2 different books on assessment for Solution Tree and a 280-page manuscript for my first full-length book, which will be released by Solution Tree this summer.

My argument is that by reading and writing on the highest levels, I am learning skills that I can translate into my teaching with students.  I know what it means to make sense of text and have a solid understanding of the ways that authors influence readers and organize information.  Public articulation—a skill that I’m required to teach my students—is something I’ve invested thousands of hours into.  While I haven’t sat and listened to “approved experts” explain the reading process to me, I’ve read something like 100 books and then churned what I’ve learned from those texts into new knowledge.

The first response in a conversation that hasn’t ended yet was anything but promising: “While your writing is impressive, Mr. Ferriter, it doesn’t make you better prepared to teach young readers and writers.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that I don’t take professional development seriously at all.  (How’s that for a scary statement from an educator?!)  It’s become something that I do because I have to, but I generally sit in the back grading papers or writing plans instead of learning anything new.  I rack up tons of hours of “continuing education credit,” but I’d argue that those hours are misleading:  I learn far more from my professional work beyond professional development sessions than I do sitting in classes with the experts on the approved lists.

It’s funny because the greatest thinkers around education in our country are constantly preaching about returning innovation and imagination to the classroom, right?  Yet innovation and imagination are strangely absent from our thinking around teacher learning.  There, we rely on an antiquated model of “bringing learning to the rubes.” 

I’d go as far as to argue—and I think that Hayes would agree—-that when we lock ourselves into the idea that there are “approved experts” and “approved lists” solely responsible for delivering knowledge to teachers, we actually limit the learning potential of our schools by holding back all teachers—but especially our top-performers.  Worse yet, we send horrible messages about what the learning in our classrooms should look like

Can we really be surprised when teachers don’t give students independent opportunities to learn when they’re not given those same opportunities in their own learning?  Is it really a shock that the “teacher-as-expert” model of instruction still has a stranglehold on our classrooms when it remains the primary model of professional development for educators?

Does any of this resonate with you?  Do you find that teachers in your world are completing “continuing education credits” just to follow the rules?  Have the structures that your school, district or state got in place for improving the human capacity of teachers been effective or ineffective?

Why?  What changes to the professional learning of teachers would you recommend?

 

17 thoughts on “Bringing Learning to the Rubes. . .

  1. Matt Johnston

    Bill,
    I thought I would riff on this a little, on a different tack (I am just catching up).
    I wonder if anyone has thought about the opening quote you gave, about the use of verbs like “deliver” “provide” or “imart” when it comes to teaching kids. How many teacher lesson plans use those kinds of verbs? How much of that type of language is found in instructional manuals or materials designed for teacher/student interaction?
    Not only is it a problem with teacher professional development, but it may also be a problem with teacher/student interaction.

  2. Bob Heiny

    Yes, you make sense, Bill, and so does John. Your observations are consistent with mine and many other people with whom I work.
    Maybe this is another post:
    Government entities, philanthropists, PC manufacturers and software publishers have poured billions of dollars over the past two decades into U.S. schools to make PCs useful in this venue. In general, most of them informally agree that non-U.S. school people are more receptive than U.S. educators to using computers in schools. Some of these people continue to want to assist U.S. teachers to use PCs in classrooms.
    Given the situation John described about teacher-to-teacher confidence, how do PCs get used in U.S. classrooms? What’s the work-around? Which teachers will make it happen? Or, will it not happen, and the discussion will continue with minimum use through another generation of U.S. public school students?
    I hope you and your colleagues will share your insights about steps you and others will continue to take, so students may benefit directly and promptly.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    John and Bob—responding to a post by K—-are having an interesting conversation about why technology sits unused in most classrooms despite years of investment.
    My answer to this is simple: Technology sits unused because teachers don’t see how digital tools can be used to facilitate learning.
    To those of us who have created personal learning networks, who engage in digital conversations, who consume blogs much like we consume air, this is a bit shocking. “How can teachers not see that digital tools can be valuable for learners?” we think.
    But for the average teacher, blogs and digital conversations play almost no role in their own professional growth. In fact, many don’t even know what a blog is!
    Until teachers begin to learn differently themselves, there will be little change in the way that students learn in our classrooms. That means districts should create more opportunities for teachers to learn online—digital classes should become common and participation in digital learning communities should be incentivized with generous continuing education credit.
    Only then will teachers start to find ways to introduce their students to the same kinds of learning tools.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  4. Bob Heiny

    Good point, John. You bring up another, related heated issue. Why do you think PCs and related equipment sit unused in classrooms? If teachers trust other teachers more than PD presenters, are you saying it’s teachers’ fault that they do not use available resources? If so, then what should happen next, given the average tenure of a teacher is about 5 academic years?

  5. John Norton

    Kay wrote: “The digital divide between far too many educators and students is huge. Expensive technology is left unplugged in classrooms. You would agree the need for these courses exists, just not for you.”
    The proof that courses will not bridge this divide is that the expensive technology *is* languishing in classrooms, after years of huge federal, state and local investments in such training. Experts offering workshops will not solve this problem.
    Bill has it right when he says: “When we work closely with colleagues to examine our practice and to take action on our findings, we’re acting responsibly and far more likely to “learn” as opposed to “be taught.”
    And as Mike suggests, teachers are far more likely to introduce technology into their teaching as they work with fellow teachers who understand how & when the technology enhances (or does not enhance) the learning. Teachers trust teachers to know what matters and cut to the chase.

  6. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    I believe the skit is toward the end of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” and I’m pleased you found it useful. Regarding Bob’s comment that something may be learned from every situation, I’d merely observe that “something” is indeed relative. Yes, one can learn something from virtually any situation and any person. The issue is, however, whether that bit of knowledge has any bearing on teaching ability and performance. If we spend eight hours to pick up a single bit or two of insight–insight commonly not at all intended by the “presenter”–that’s rather a poor use of our time. Multiplied over many in service sessions and many hours, I suspect the public would be less than thrilled to discover how their tax dollars were being spent to little or no effect, to say nothing of how teachers feel about it (and that’s pretty much the way that presenters and administrators handle it: They don’t care how teachers feel about it).
    And regarding K. Borden’s comments, it’s worthwhile to understand that I–and I suspect that you, Bill–am not suggesting that such classes are utterly useless for everyone. I am suggesting that even for people who know little or nothing about a given subject, digital cameras for example, that the kind of inept instruction commonly experienced in professional development classes does little good for anyone on any level of knowledge.
    The focus belongs with those who are actually experts, the people who do the work. I’ve often said on this blog that it’s rather odd that while we automatically consider plumbers to be experts on plumbing, and carpenters to be expert in carpentry, we utterly ignore those who do the actual work in the field of teaching. If I never experienced another professional development class like 95% of those to which I’ve been subjected (rather like a lab rat exposed to caustic chemicals) I will certainly be no less capable and intelligent that I now am. The proper alternative is rather what Bill is suggesting.

  7. Bob Heiny

    Yes, Mr. Bill, I expect teachers to demonstrate master learning skills in PD and other meetings, even when we “already know the material.”
    Nothing is a waste of time for me unless I decide it is, and then I don’t know what I missed that someone else learned. That was a hard lesson for me to learn, although I’d heard it repeated most of my life.
    Now, I role play in my head how I think various learners hear and respond to material. That practice expands my understanding of learning in formal settings. I take that into sessions I offer or attend. I know others who do the same and profit from this practice. Likely some of your readers do also?

  8. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    One other note to chew on. Doctors practice medicine. Attorneys practice law. I keep that in mind as I work, research and build toward beginning our homeschool adventure next year. I will not be a certified expert teacher, I will be a practicing one, like I once practiced law. I am really ok with that :).

  9. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter said:
    “I’d go as far as to argue—and I think that Hayes would agree—-that when we lock ourselves into the idea that there are “approved experts” and “approved lists” solely responsible for delivering knowledge to teachers, we actually limit the learning potential of our schools by holding back all teachers—but especially our top-performers. Worse yet, we send horrible messages about what the learning in our classrooms should look like.
    Can we really be surprised when teachers don’t give students independent opportunities to learn when they’re not given those same opportunities in their own learning? Is it really a shock that the “teacher-as-expert” model of instruction still has a stranglehold on our classrooms when it remains the primary model of professional development for educators?
    Does any of this resonate with you?”
    Response:
    Before I had read this statement, I was already thinking about students in classrooms being forced to relearn material they could demonstrate proficiency with via pretesting. I thought about the one size fits all of heterogeneous classrooms, the too often failed differentiated instruction and the lack of flexibility to accelerate where appropriate/remediate when needed for students.
    Yes it resonated. Then I read further and saw you see the comparison as well.
    Top performers hit ceilings, in classrooms, in life and professional development… You are one. Unfortunately, many of your cohorts are not. They need exposure to those tech seminars. The digital divide between far too many educators and students is huge. Expensive technology is left unplugged in classrooms. You would agree the need for these courses exists, just not for you.
    Maybe you can find some solice the next time you are grading papers in one in knowing that your wasted time/opportunity is benefiting someone in a chair near you. Gifted parents have to help gifted children come to a place where they tolerate these things at times. It is the temperance radicals must sometimes practice.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    John D wrote:
    Having just today sat through a painful districtwide curriculum development session about technology in the classroom which was led by one of my peers, I feel qualified to point out that these sort of classes can be wastes of time even when “the experts” come from inside the building.
    You’re right, John—which is why we need to stop thinking that there are “experts” at all, no matter where they come from.
    Instead, the vast majority of our professional growth should be focused on collaborative conversations with peers working in the same content areas. When we work closely with colleagues to examine our practice and to take action on our findings, we’re acting responsibly and far more likely to “learn” as opposed to “be taught.”
    Rock on,
    Bill

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    It’s just like the Monty Python skit about the mother in the birthing theater who asks of the doctors: “What do I do?” John Cleese replies: “Nothing. You’re not qualified.”
    Brilliant analogy, Mike! I’m going to have to get on YouTube and find that sketch. It will be great to use in conversations about this issue simply because it emphasizes exactly how crazy it is to say that teachers aren’t qualified to drive their own learning.
    Thanks for pointing it out,
    Bill

  12. Bill Ferriter

    Bob wrote:
    An open mind can learn something from everyone at any time in any circumstance. I’ve found her comment useful in subsequent meetings.
    You know, Bob—I definitely agree that I can probably scrape together bits and pieces of new knowledge in any setting, but I’d argue that we’re wasting limited resources—particularly time—-when we ask teachers to take this approach to professional learning.
    It’s funny because we constantly talk about how much we want to see education improve, yet we never consider that changing the way that teachers learn might just be the right lever to pull to get that done.
    Maddening!
    Bill

  13. John D.

    Having just today sat through a painful districtwide curriculum development session about technology in the classroom which was led by one of my peers, I feel qualified to point out that these sort of classes can be wastes of time even when “the experts” come from inside the building.
    The Teachers as Scholars program in the Boston area (www.teachersasscholars.org) has been the only time in my career so far that a professional development program treated me like the educated, but extremely busy adult that I am.

  14. John Norton

    Hey Bill – I’m reminded of the quote your fellow blogger Ariel Sacks sometimes cites… which hangs on the door of one of her favorite professors:
    “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
    Which I guess we might paraphrase along the lines of:
    “The pointless PD will continue until teaching improves.”

  15. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    You know that one cannot be a prophet in one’s hometown, right? What’s the old saw? “He’s from at least 50 miles away and has a Powerpoint presentation (In the past, he had slides). He must be an expert.” We might add that without a doctorate, one cannot possibly be an expert.
    I find myself, upon occasion, reading your blog and shaking my head in amusement (and consternation) when you talk about being a “teacher leader,” and of making meaning change. In this post, you’ve outlined what experience has taught me is the reality for most teachers around the nation (I keep in contact with colleagues around the country). Not only are teachers not allowed to be leaders, they are most often not consulted on any matter relating to teaching and learning. They are, after all, mere teachers, and the system for “staff development” doesn’t recognize that mere teachers know anything or have the capability of contributing in any real way to teaching.
    Contradictory? Ironic? Even absurd? Of course! But it’s reality, isn’t it?
    Like you, I’m reasonably advanced in computer technology. I’ve been doing digital moviemaking, e-mail, web authoring, Powerpoint, digital cameras, scanners, you name it, for many years, yet I must have X number of hours per year to remain certified. Thus I must take classes in which I not only learn nothing, but struggle to restrain myself from murdering the “facilitator” who is delivering “professional development.”
    However, one need not be more technologically advanced than average to experience monumental and egregious wastes of their time.
    In Texas, our state education bureaucracy is of a size, power, and sheer wastefulness that makes it the envy of state education bureaucracies everywhere. The state is divided up into regions, each “served” by a “service center,” which is a multi million dollar building filled with “consultants,” who deliver the kind of “learning” you decry in your post. A master’s is a minimum requirement for a consultant posting, and almost all were elementary teachers prior to becoming consultants. With very few exceptions, I’ve found their offerings to be just as you’ve described them, delivered as though all teachers are third graders, and not bright third graders at that.
    They all use butcher paper which they hang on the walls, and we must make comments on stick on notes (for virtually every class I’ve taken) which we past on the butcher paper, and then we participate in a “gallery walk” whereby we walk around and read the stick on notes, thereby being exposed to “learning.” All have, of course, a Powerpoint presentation, and all have approximately 45 minutes (if that) of actual material stretched, very, very painfully, to cover six to eight hours. This, and outside consultants hired independently by our district (and of the same or worse quality), is all we have in terms of professional development. One of those, an elementary teacher from at least 50 miles away, was to teach us about Accelerated Reader (a program we’d been using for many years). He spent the first 45 minutes talking about his children. We quickly discovered that he thought he was supposed to teach us something else entirely, but wasn’t prepared to do even that. I had to keep a colleague from leaping over our table and throttling him (he was a retired CIA operative).
    Yes, I have, many, many times suggested that we’d be better served by getting teachers of like disciplines together to see what we do, what works and what doesn’t. This has been universally ignored. It’s just like the Monty Python skit about the mother in the birthing theater who asks of the doctors: “What do I do?” John Cleese replies: “Nothing. You’re not qualified.”
    Not only is there no hope of changing the state system, our district pretty much ignores us too, despite finding themselves very badly and undeniably embarrassed on several occasions over the last few years by horrendously bad (and expensive) consultants who attempted to deliver professional development. After one hour of a recent horror show, I bumped into a fellow teacher, our ROTC instructor, a Marine Cobra pilot, and we, spontaneously, said to each other: “Kill me now!”
    And so it goes in the delivery of professional development. We’re just not qualified.

  16. Bob Heiny

    You have clearly illustrated, Mr. Bill, a decades old argument faced by more educators than anyone has bothered to count. I accept your point about some misfits between requirements and individual teacher’s backgrounds.
    I’d like to suggest two alternative views of the same situation you address. They’re based on accepting what Kathy Sakas, an RN on one of my staffs, said decades ago. She reminded me of my father’s advice (he was a school dropout who went on to help create a major airline).
    An open mind can learn something from everyone at any time in any circumstance. I’ve found her comment useful in subsequent meetings.
    1. Submit your proposal for what you consider meaningful professional development to those who assemble the approved list. Part of the cost to you will be attending sessions when you’d prefer doing something else until your’s are offered.
    2. Set up a back channel operation with others attending sessions in order to identify something you don’t know in sessions you attend. Back channels are a great learning supplementary venue in classrooms and PD sessions.
    I look forward to reading your suggested PD offerings. You never know who will read your blog and how your suggestions will impact future “requirements.”

  17. Stephen Banks

    This is brilliant! As I am reading your blog I am following educators in attendance at Educon. These fortunate ones are twittering updates complete with tiny urls to pictures and streamed sessions, sharing the knowledge they are experiencing with others around the globe. I am so excited to watch as these minds are discussing the changes your blog seems to indicate we, as educators, need. Yet, there in my inbox is a reminder to sign up for exciting sessions to be delivered by experts at this year’s Teachers Convention. It seems that you are not alone in your frustration; yes it resonates with me and yes I will be taking my laptop , finding a hot zone and posting my thoughts to anyone that cares to read them during this years Sit,Listen, and you will Learn conference. Thank you for your words, they have refuelled my passion for change!

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