Learning is a glorious pursuit. It fills us with joy and the capacity to do more, to know more, and to be more. It allows us to see the world through curiosity-filled eyes, to walk a mile in the shoes of another, and to make our world a better place.
As educators, we understand the importance of learning as a lifelong process. We try to spark the flame of curiosity in the young people we care for, and provide opportunities for collaboration, inquiry, curiosity, personalised learning, and creative problem solving. So surely the model that we would use in terms of our own professional learning reflects this? Our own professional learning should be collaborative, personalised, and driven by inquiry, curiosity, and creative problem solving. Surely?
In your experience as an educator, how many conferences or ‘PD Days’ have you attended where you sat in a row listening for the majority of the time? Where you followed the directions of the ‘trainer’ and jumped through the hoops (active learning), or indeed simply took notes (passive learning) and filed them away? Not to say that a didactic model of teaching from a genuine expert and wonderful communicator is not inspiring — it can be — but if it is the only model of professional learning we receive, then where is the opportunity for us to take control of our own learning? The comment one hears more than any other about PD Days is that the best parts were the discussions over coffee and lunch, and networking with other people in the same boat. Well if they are the most memorable parts, why are they not the focus?
In his outstanding book OPEN — How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future, David Price argues for a model of learning that is open, and that reflects a much more personalised and connected way of learning. When looking at traditional forms of learning (professional and school based), he places them in diametric opposition to the way anyone can learn in a connected, technology and information-rich world. In traditional forms of learning, we are bound by formal, linear, and predetermined curricula — and we learn what we are told we need to know, just in case it will be useful in the future.
On the other hand, if we discover a need to learn something new, our first port of call is almost always the internet. If we need to know how to wire an electrical plug, or if we want to hear a world renowned scientist explain quantum physics, we can jump online and tap into the world’s information. This level of access — not only to knowledge, but also to networks of people — allows us to have genuinely just-in-time learning, information, and support at our fingertips.
You may take a course about classroom behaviour management early in your career just in case you need it one day. The problem with this is that five years later, when you do have a tricky classroom behaviour issue to deal with, you rack your brains trying to remember the notes you wrote before filing them away, and never looking at them again.
This is of course an extreme example, but it is interesting to look at the opposite view, where your professional learning is informal, built on a network, non-linear, and just-in-time. In this instance, you, as a reflective practitioner, realise that classroom behaviour deteriorates when you try to do group work. You don’t panic, but look at this issue with a sense of curiosity and inquiry, and reach out to your professional learning network on social media. You share your issue in an online community, and within hours 30 other teachers respond with similar experiences, tell you what worked and what didn’t work for them, and become part of your journey. You are no longer alone faced with an issue; you are part of a networked community who supportively inquire into their own practice, and share their wins and losses.
So how can we shift away from a one-off PD Day as the norm towards a just-in-time, highly networked, personalised approach to lifelong professional learning?
Make teacher inquiry the norm (and make time for it)
As a whole-school approach, look carefully at what you value in terms of time. Always ensure that learning is at the heart of everything you do. In every staff meeting, share a learning strategy that has worked for you, or pose a question about your own practice that you would like help with. Looking at ourselves as lifelong learners actually means looking at ourselves as curious beings who are constantly inquiring into the way we currently do things to see if we can do them better.
At John Monash Science School, the students participate in co-curricular activities on a Wednesday afternoon. This is run by non-teaching staff so that teachers can have three hours of professional learning every week with a very strong focus on practitioner inquiry and sharing best practice. The administrative tasks are completed with plenty of time left for constructive, genuine, and shared professional learning. The shift in language has moved from professional development (done to you) to professional learning (done by you).
Build a Professional Learning Network (PLN)
Putting yourself ‘out there’ in the social media sphere may seem too akin to online dating, but it can connect you with people who inspire your thinking, who answer your questions, who provide different perspectives to your own pedagogical beliefs, and who share resources and ideas freely. If you wish to keep your private and professional social presence separate, have a rule where you only use one medium such as Facebook for friends and family, and use another medium such as Twitter or Google+ for professional learning. Learn to use and follow hashtags — #auedchat, #scootle, and #AussieED are useful for educators — and follow users like @scootle and @EdServAus to help filter the massive waterfall of information that is out there. Join communities that focus on learning, like Scootle Community.
Steal like an artist
In his manifesto Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon encourages us to look at what other artists/teachers are doing, and use their work as inspiration. A good thief will look carefully at another teacher’s strategy and remix it to suit their own learners; not only transforming the idea and crediting the originator, but by paying it forward and sharing their own ideas with other educators.
This may seem like a simple idea, but how many classrooms operate (literally) behind closed doors in your school? Can you encourage teachers to share their ideas, open up their learning spaces, and urge idea stealing (with honour, credit, and reciprocity)? This also means looking beyond schools for inspiration. Try watching a TED talk once a week, or talk to your friend the architect, gardener, or bank teller, and see what you can learn from them. Learning is all around us; we just need to look with curiosity.
So next time you attend a PD Day where you are asked to sit in rows and merely listen, think about the kind of learning you deserve and do something differently. It is time to walk the talk and learn. Always.
Unstuck Learning Design
Chris Harte is a languages teacher, Google Certified Innovator, and design thinker. After spending 15 years working at schools in the UK and Australia, he is having a rest from teaching by running his own educational and design consultancy, Unstuck Learning Design.