If you’ve been in education for any length of time, you’ve likely experienced a myriad of professional learning experiences. Conferences, webinars, book studies, workshops, and the dreaded “mandatory training” are all part of the lexicon of learning for the everyday educator. Strangely, a large part of our profession dreads these events. Then again, maybe that’s not so strange.
We try and tell teachers to make their classrooms student-centered with voice and choice. We want them to incorporate movement and mindfulness as well as risk-taking into their instruction. Then we absolutely do NONE of that when it comes to professional learning. During my 10+ years as a provider for professional learning, I try to emulate all the things we are asking our teachers to do. If you’ve ever seen one of my sessions you know there’s movement, voice, choice, and conversation taking place regularly. I’ll admit, there are some times when I can tell educators just want to sit in the back and surf on the web or grade papers, but usually by the time we are finished, they approach me with comments like:
“You know, I hate ice breakers, but I’m glad I did that.”
“I really just wanted to sit in the back and get my 6 hours credit, but I’m glad you got me to participate and try new things.”
I think at our core, all of us are learners. However, I think for many of us, we have been subjugated to instructional malpractice when it comes to the teaching of adults, otherwise known as andragogy. Brianna Hodges and I are in the midst of a several-year debate on the subject that teaching adults is different than teaching kids, otherwise known as pedagogy. We recently took this debate on the air with the OnEducation Podcast, and while the debate remains unresolved, I do think we need to consider the learners in our audience whenever we plan professional learning.
Last night, I woke up in a cold sweat. I’d just had a series of nightmares about attending a variety of professional learning and ALL of the worst things I could imagine were happening. I quickly grabbed my notepad to write down some of the things I remembered so I could think about a cure for each uncomfortable situation. The following scenarios may make you cringe or may hit a little close to home, but please know, these are all completely hypothetical and pulled from my series of nightmares.
Nightmare #1: The professional learning that could have been an email
As I walked into the room I could tell there was something wrong. Everyone had their laptops open around the table and no one was making eye contact. Had I done something that offended them? Was my zipper down? Had I forgot my clothes? (remember, this is a nightmare). Finally my boss says, “I’m glad you all are here, this shouldn’t take very long but we need to go over our TPS reports.” Obviously I had been watching Office Space recently and that had crept into my dream. I looked down at my watch and it was 9:02. I sat down in my chair and a foggy haze seemed to drift around me. It seemed like the clock was spinning rapidly and people’s faces seemed to get sucked into their laptop screens.
My stomach started to growl. You know, that uncomfortable growl that everyone else notices but you try and pretend your chair was just making a funny noise? Was I hungry? Or starving? Had we taken this meeting right through lunch?
Then, I noticed my beard was growing at an abnormal rate. How long was this meeting going to take? What was this all about anyway? At the end, my boss asks me in a question in a voice that now sounded like my old varsity basketball coach, “Well Hooker, what do you think?!”
And then I wake up. The anxiety I was experiencing was similar to those that recount tales of being stuck in a small space or trapped in an elevator. It was like I was suffering from some sort of claustrophobia of learning.
Cure: I think that schools and districts have the best of intentions when holding meetings to discuss things. However, rather than making the meeting focus on items that could easily be handled over email, make it about outcomes. Consider “flipping” your faculty meetings so that time together is time to collaborate and problem-solve, not just disseminate information.
Nightmare #2: The all-day sit-n-get
I drifted back off to sleep and awoke in a strange room. The walls were colored that sanitarium off-white tone. Everyone was in a chair and desk, but they all appeared to be wearing straight jackets and Hannibal Lecter-like masks. Suddenly, the lights dim and a person wearing what appears to be some sort of 1940’s style army sergeant clothes walks in. He begins to show us videos of classrooms, a wide variety of apps, and even shares some clever quotes. I was almost in a hypnotic state as I watched slide after slide loaded with bullet points about “optimal learning production” flash across the screen.
My back started to ache so I tried to stand up, only to find that I had been chained to my desk. Others in the room seemed to be struggling to move in much the same way. The presenter didn’t stop or even recognize the discomfort. He continued to drone on in what was quickly becoming a very monotonous voice similar to Ben Stein’s teacher voice in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The room began to spin. The walls closed in as the florescent lights over head began to buzz and flicker. The temperature seemed to be increasing. I was in hell. Finally, I got the courage to try and rock myself back and forth to try and tip over my desk in the hopes of breaking the chain. When I finally started to tip over, I awoke with a jolt. I had fallen out of my bed and found myself wrapped up in my sheets.
Cure: There are many days in our lives where we have an entire day dedicated to professional learning. Sometimes, the provider has only one job: to make sure you hear and see every bit of information they have prepared. The average adult brain can go 18-20 minutes in lecture setting before needing some sort of transition. My cure for the all-day sit-n-get is to break the day up into 20-minute chunks. Some of those chunks may involve some lecture or information sharing, but they never go longer than 20 minutes without some sort of brain break or discussion question to focus thinking. I often have my attendees “Stand-n-talk” to someone across the room about a question or idea. This accomplishes a couple of things:
1. It gets them out of their seat, thus increasing oxygen flow to the brain.
2. It makes them talk with someone that might not know as well, thus helping them expand their thoughts outside of their echo chamber.
Need other ideas on how to break up your professional learning day? You can find some of my favorite brain breaks on this google spreadsheet.
Nightmare #3: Drinking from a firehose
After picking myself off the floor and crawling into bed, I quickly fall back into the dream I was just in. Only now, something is a little different. I appear to be the only person in the room. I’m still strapped to my desk, but now there is a spotlight blaring into my face. I can’t quite make out what or who is behind the spotlight, but I do notice a 60-second countdown timer on the wall and what appears to be a panel of people sitting at a table taking notes.
The timer goes off and a door to my left opens. Someone walks in as a slide lights up on the projector screen. They quickly go through their presentation (about an app or idea, I can’t quite remember) and then proceed to walk off to the right and punch a giant red button.
I hear the squeak of a nob turning and look up just in time to be blasted in the face with a stream of water. As I shake off the water, I notice the timer go off again as another person walks in from the left. They also rapidly go through their presentation as the 60 seconds counts down. Again, after the rapid-fire presenting of non-sensical information, the presenter slaps the red button and I get sprayed by a hose. And then another presenter walks in, followed by another and another and another. Each one does the same thing. They present information quickly and then punch the red button. After what seems to be 50 or 60 of these, I wake up in a cold sweat (and realize I need to go to the bathroom).
Cure: This scenario reminds me of the early days of apps when you would see all sorts of sessions that were “60 apps in 60 minutes”. They are referred to as firehose sessions for a reason. I will admit that one of my more popular session offerings is a “list” session, however I try and do it a little differently by building in some time for attendees to reflect on what I had just covered. Another cure for these rapid-fire sessions besides doing a little less and allowing for reflection, is to differentiate and prepare self-paced challenges ahead of time. I’ve started doing a session on “Google Tips & Tricks” which can admittedly be a misleading title. However, once the session starts, I give all the attendees access to the resources, which include a ton of self-paced challenges. I tell the crowd that there is no way I’m going to rapid-fire through all of these and that I know most people learn best by actually using the tool or strategy. Creating self-paced challenges ahead of time transfers the voice and choice of instruction from the presenter to the attendee. They can self-monitor how much information they are taking in and decide whether or not to crank up the hose.
While these nightmares may seem extreme, my dreams were influenced by real events that I’ve experienced during my 21+ years in education. I do not have cures and solutions for every problem when it comes to professional learning. However, I do think if we begin to be just a little more mindful of our adult learners, we can start to make perceptions and attitudes around professional learning change for the good. One of the biggest compliments I ever get as a professional learning provider is when someone says, “I always look forward to your sessions because I don’t know what to expect but I know I’ll walk away entertained and with something useful.”
I think for providers of professional learning the best way to judge the success of what we provide is a simple math problem. Take the speed of which people are running to your workshop and divide it by the speed of which they are running away from it.
And hopefully don’t make these nightmares a reality.
Listen carefully! We are a group of individuals that represent a large faction of educators. While we respect the way you have run the training methods of your organization in the past, it is time for a change. As such, we are holding your teachers’ learning hostage. Their learning is safe and unharmed at this time, however, if you would like to release their learning, you must meet our list of demands when it comes to how you provide training for adults. Failure to meet these demands will result in the wide-spread lack of professional growth and lack of improvement in pedagogical practice by your staff.
It doesn’t hurt to spend a little energy and effort promoting professional learning and getting teachers excited for it. Come up with a theme and make it feel like an exclusive “members-only” type event. While some of them may come because they “have to”, it helps start the training off with excitement and energy. One example would be to send out a video or graphic that highlights the training in a fun way. Here’s one that takes a “Point Break” theme to make learning about High Quality Assessments just a tad more exciting:
Building on the buzz and excitement from your promotion, take some time to create an atmosphere for your training event. This can be as simple as having some appropriately-themed music to adding some simple decorations around the tables. When someone walks into your room, they should be excited about being there, not dreading it. Know that many educators are entering your room with the expectation that this will just be another 6 hours of “sit n’ get”, which is why it’s important to create that exciting first impression when they walk in. Have fun activity for them that involves more than just making a name card like “tweet what your first job ever was” or “find a picture of what super hero best represents you”. This will give you as the trainer an opportunity to connect with the attendees as well as give you some material that you can use later.
Research shows that hunger affects the brain and cognitive development. While we know funding is always tight and food is the first thing to get cut, this is a list of demands. If you want your staff to learn, make sure they are not hungry. This doesn’t mean you have to provide a 5-course meal, it can be as simple as a basket of chocolate or some protein-heavy snack mix. Having protein in your diet not only creates better avenues for neurotransmitters to help with learning and retention, it increases happiness according to this study.
And this doesn’t mean have 10 minutes set aside for walking around and adding notes to those giant sticky chart papers on the walls. Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of the attendee. Would you attend your own professional learning? “Fun” can sometimes be a negative word when it comes to learning and it shouldn’t be. Making learning fun, even for adults, will not only increase engagement in the learning, it will keep them coming back for more.
Having periods of movements or “brain breaks” throughout your training not only provide some much needed breaks from what is being input into the brain, research shows that movement facilitates brain plasticity (essentially the science of having the brain learn something new). Doing a brief improv activity or having your attendees move and stretch increases oxygen flow to the brain as well as this plasticity. A side-effect of doing a group improv activity is that it creates an environment of trust and risk-taking as well as collegiality between staff that might not normally be working along side one another.
How many times have we heard that adults shouldn’t lecture children all day? Do we think that what’s best with pedagogy wouldn’t also apply to what’s best with andragogy? Who’s doing the work and talking during professional learning? If it’s more the instructor than then the attendees, you need to rethink how you are engaging your adult learners. When outlining your day for professional learning, try and employ somewhat of a “chunk n’ chew” method to the day. Break the day up into 20-30 minute segments that involving both introduction of a new skill, but also time for attendees to try it out and discuss ideas for application.
Taking into account the demands for engagement, movement, and making things more student-led, you must create opportunities for staff to collaborate on an idea or solve a problem. Providing time for collaboration in your professional learning allows opportunities for staff to discuss best practices around a topic or share strategies around a particular pedagogical problem.
Learning new things and skills takes a lot of cognitive ability. Having a training where all you do is show a series of new tools or tricks can be overwhelming to the brain and makes it nearly impossible to internalize all of it. As mentioned in demand #6, creating “chunk n’ chew” learning opportunities throughout the training will give staff an opportunity to try out the new skill as well as plan for application. Taking time to plan for application of the skill when it is learned, has a greater chance to translate into actual practice in the classroom.
We try to differentiate for learners in our classrooms, why not do the same for staff? Every single person comes into a training session with a different set of prior skills, knowledge, and preferred learning methods. When planning your professional learning, you need to allow opportunities for both the struggling learners and the high-flyers to be successful. This can be as simple as sharing your outline for the day ahead of time on Google docs or a website so that some can go at their own pace, while others can revisit a newly learned strategy.
Our final demand is that you provide some time for staff to reflect on what they have learned. When planning the professional learning experience for your staff, make sure there is time to reflect throughout the day. This doesn’t mean just spend the last 5 minutes reflecting on something they learned that day, but rather actual pockets of time throughout the day where they can reflect in the medium of their choosing. After all, educational reformer John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
We feel our list of demands are not unreasonable. Please secure these demands prior to your next professional learning event or your teachers’ learning will suffer the consequences.
The E.B.P.L. (Educators for Better Professional Learning)