Many of the professional development experiences we have as K-12 educators are lackluster. At their worst, they can be uninspiring, inauthentic, and ineffective. A waste of everyone’s valuable time.
On the other hand, professional learning can be stimulating, inquiry-driven, and powerful. It can ignite our lives as both teachers and learners. How can we spend more time in these rich experiences? What is it that sets these experiences apart?
The impetus behind deeper professional learning is to apply the ideas of inquiry, self-direction, critical thinking, and collaboration to our own professional learning as educators in order to have experiences that enrich our learning and that of our students. When teachers come up with their own questions about their practice, such as “How does openness afford new kinds of learning?” and explore them together, powerful learning results. And by participating in this kind of learning as educators, we are able to understand and apply it in our classrooms.
A couple years ago, I began to take a closer look at my own experiences in professional development, both as a participant and as a facilitator, and found them to be lacking. Too often I found myself standing on a literal stage suggesting that “sit and get” methods were less than optimal in participants’ own learning environments. Too often the workshop agendas were set by the district administration with little or no input from participants. Too often there was not enough time for meaningful group discussion, collaboration, and hands-on work, and too little follow-up afterward.
This led me to explore other learning models, in particular peer learning in open spaces. Through Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), I discovered a model of learning that was participant-driven, community-based, and open (in all senses of the word). While my first experiences with this model were not related to K-12 education, I soon saw the obvious application to deeper professional learning for teachers.
And so began the P2PU School of Education (https://courses.p2pu.org/en/schools/school-of-ed-pilot/). While I was the founder of this school, like everyone in peer learning, I am both a facilitator and a participating learner. I started this school to experiment with providing authentic, peer learning experiences for K-12 teachers.
In the fall of 2011, we launched our first seven courses, which were well received. Some of our initial premises were proven out. The learning was extremely social with the conversations among participants being active and vibrant. High quality facilitation was critical. One facilitator said, “It is clear to me that my participation, encouragement, cajoling, and also complimenting, has an influence in the quality and quantity of participation.” Among our richest experiences were the asynchronous online discussion threads and the synchronous gatherings via web-based tools like G+. Groups of teachers spent time together, exploring and negotiating the meaning of topics like student engagement, writing across the curriculum, and content curation.
Other suppositions we had were not supported. Surprisingly, the high quality content we had invested in developing was not the most valued part of these groups. In fact, it was sometimes discouraging that participants did not even seem to be reading the course content we had worked hard to assemble. My own course on open educational resources was an example of this with participants sometimes veering off into discussions of free, but not open, resources, which was to me a counter-example of what the course attempted to convey. It was a strong lesson to me in “less is more” and in what kind of content best lends itself to peer learning.
We also found that the most important instructor/facilitator skills were not necessarily content expertise, but rather community building and group facilitation ability. Contrary to what we originally supposed, a high level of content expertise on the part of facilitators may even dampen the peer learning experience, as participants are more prone to want to be “taught” by the experts, rather than fully engaging in the peer experience.
One challenge we ran into, not uncommon for online learning, was sustaining participation levels. One facilitator found that comments could sometimes draw people back in: “I think people want to participate but get busy in their lives, so if a comment makes them feel like they can jump back in without too much effort, they will.” We also found that some people came back to the courses even after they had formally concluded, which has been gratifying.
Participation seemed at times to be sporadic or declining; however, when we probed deeper, we found that there were a significant number of “lurkers” who were gaining value from the course, despite their apparent lack of participation. One evening I facilitated a web-based discussion with course participants and was surprised to see a participant who had not been active in the course previously. I’d assumed she’d dropped out of the group. She didn’t participate much in the web conversation, but afterward she asked me if I could stay on for a few minutes. She then told me that this course had changed her classroom. She said, “This has totally opened up a whole new world for me. This is absolutely fantastic. I’m just enthralled with all the goodies that I can now use for my students. Thank you, thank you so much for hosting such a fabulous class for us. I really appreciate it.” This comment brought tears to my eyes and made all the frustration worthwhile. It taught me that you can’t make assumptions and, as one participant said, “Lurking is a ‘stage of development’ in the online space.”
One epiphany for me was when a participant said, “I was hoping to be taught something but instead we are doing the teaching. I really don’t have time right now to collaborate on someone else’s project.” I had assumed that when participants signed up for a peer learning experience, they would be expecting collaboration.
I came to realize that deeper professional learning is a new experience for many people. Self-direction in learning is often not a natural or comfortable task for those who are not practiced in it.
Upon discussing this with others, we decided to put together a course called Empowering Your Personal Learning. This was the first instance where a core group of co-facilitators/participants brainstormed the course outline together. This kind of participant-inspired, inquiry-driven group has been very successful.
Almost two years and 30 or so courses later, there are many things that we have learned in this grand experiment.
First, in our experience, the formation of community has been critical. The social nature of peer learning relies on trust and relationships. This is not something that can be fostered over a few weeks. While this kind of community-building takes time, we are beginning to see some evidence of it at P2PU. In large part this has been due to the ongoing, generous participation of many individuals, as well as organizations such as the National Writing Project. We have benefitted greatly from the participation of their already-existing community of passionate and deep thinking educators who share our values and goals. I personally feel a great friendship with many of the people I’ve met through this experience. When I have a challenging question or an inspiring victory to share, they are the people I turn to, whether through P2PU, Twitter, G+, email, or phone.
I have also learned that peer learning experiences work best when they are designed by the group, not instituted from the top down. Going through a collaborative design process as a group also seems to free up participants to suggest their own course-related activities mid-stream. In one course on curation, several participants added course activities that were far more useful than the ones we had originally planned. This felt to me like a turning point in our process and a real victory for peer learning.
We’ve found that diverse groups of learners add to the conversation. At P2PU, we have significant international participation, as well as that from various disciplines and professions. Even for groups that deal with what appear to be U.S.-centric topics, like the Common Core, having this diversity of participants has made the conversations richer.
In terms of logistics, shorter courses (three to four weeks) seem better able to maintain momentum, while still giving enough time for in-depth exploration. These shorter courses can then spin off into more in-depth, follow-up explorations. Courses with defined start and end times have had more sustained participation, as opposed to those with open, rolling enrollment.
One of the pleasant surprises at the School of Ed has been the advent of peer learning groups with students and teachers involved together. Harry Brake from the American School Foundation in Mexico City started a project on P2PU in which students write grants to fund community service projects that they design. This was inspired by a face-to-face project that Mr. Brake had started in Delaware. Now, with this project being online, teachers and students from other parts of the world, as well as a variety of non-profit organizations, have connected and participated. Students are working on grants to improve educational access in Mexico, to build homes for the less fortunate, to support the arts, and to build wells in developing countries.
Another ground-breaking educator, Paul Allison, from the Bronx Academy Senior High, has extended his curriculum through the P2PU community as well. Mr. Allison is a co-founder of Youth Voices (www.youthvoices.net), a school-based social network that encourages students to write about their passions, connect with other students, comment on each other’s work, and create multimedia about topics that are important to them. This is deeper learning in action.
The Youth Voices project has recently been expanded to be a full, Common Core-aligned curriculum. Through this, students are completing projects on subjects of their own choosing at their own pace and direction. Mr. Allison has designed and incorporated badges into this through the P2PU community. For their work, students are awarded badges that count for credit toward graduation. While some call this a gamification of education, one of Mr. Allison’s students, Anthony, aptly pointed out in a web meeting with other teachers and students that “this is no game.” These students are doing in-depth projects that not only develop core academic skills, but hone important deeper learning skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, self-direction, and persistence.
As in other courses, while students have clearly benefitted from Mr. Allison’s approach, teachers around the world have also gained from seeing how an innovative approach like this can work. Together, by interacting with this class in the Bronx, we’re thinking through complex issues like how deeper learning can be aligned to the Common Core, how student self-direction can be prompted and tracked, and how assessment and credit can be tied to these projects.
I have been involved in doing some peer evaluations with these students and was even able to visit them in the Bronx. Having this face-to-face contact deepened our online contacts. I feel a real connection to these students and often wonder how specific individuals are progressing in their work. Being able to check in on them online helps to maintain the connection.
Through this important work, I’ve experienced the power of online collaborations with teachers and students. And as in my face-to-face experiences, I’ve seen that students often drive the innovation in formal educational environments.
As much as we’ve learned over the course of this experiment, we still have even more to figure out.
One issue that we’ve wrestled with is the open nature of our learning community. Openness can mean many things, and at P2PU it includes having open-licensed (Creative Commons) content that can be freely shared, remixed, and redistributed; having enrollment that is free and open to anyone in the world; and having group activities be freely viewable on the Internet and not behind firewalls. I believe that this openness and transparency encourages a kind of participation that is uniquely beneficial.
However, I also recognize that for those who are new to peer and online learning, this openness can be unnerving. In fact, other communities have reported that openness like this can actually discourage participation by some. I’m not sure how to resolve this conundrum.
Another question that plagues many online communities including ours is how to sustain momentum. I feel a sense of loss for all the participants who sign up for a course and then don’t participate, as well as every time a participant drops out. Still, I know that teachers are under unprecedented time pressures and that finding the time to participate in extra professional learning opportunities like these is difficult. I have gotten countless emails with stories of personal travails that prevent people from participating despite their best intentions.
At the present, participation at the P2PU School of Ed, for both participants and facilitators (including me), is an opt-in, volunteer activity. Currently, P2PU offers neither formal university continuing education credits, nor stipends, for participation. Are the intrinsic rewards of this participation enough?
In my experiences with more formal professional development, I have seen the detrimental effects of professional development that is offered on a pay-for-attendance basis – participants who are only there to get their check can end up being roadblocks to others’ learning. Offering stipends in some ways seems to run counter to the intrinsic motivation inherent in this kind of learning. On the other hand, teachers certainly should be adequately compensated for the important work they do, and most district pay schedules do not provide this.
In our pilot phase, we pursued university credit for P2PU courses. The process involved many long and sometimes agonizing conversations. This highlighted for me the many differences between informal and formal learning, such as participation measures (seat time vs. a competency measure), the role of a syllabus (predetermined and unchanging vs. “hack the syllabus” and make it up as you go), assessment measures (traditional vs. authentic), and even facilitator qualifications (traditionally certified vs. peer facilitators). At the time, we decided that the compromises we would have to make to be certified to grant formal credit weren’t worth the trade-offs. And still, we recognize that teachers need this formal credit to be recertified and to advance on the salary scale.
We have also pondered the potential intersections between informal learning, such as that happening at P2PU, and formal learning, including the many district-provided professional development in-services. I would love to see more districts experiment with deeper professional learning within their institutions. I believe that this could change the nature of professional development and re-energize teachers in their practice. I have seen teachers staying up late in the night to post comments or have conversations with others about topics they feel passionately about. I know that if more teachers had these deep experiences of inquiry, reflection, and collaboration, they would benefit, as would their students.
In doing this work, my sincerest hope is that other teachers, schools, districts, and ministries of education will consider incorporating deeper learning into their professional development plans.
Whether it is through the P2PU School of Ed or other communities, I hope that rich and vibrant communities take hold with more and more people participating. And as those communities experiment, as we have done, I hope that they will share their experiences with us. As with all forms of deeper learning, there will be successes and failures, and it is only through experimenting and sharing that we all improve our practice.
I believe that deeper professional learning has the potential to change not only how we learn as adults, but also to affect how we facilitate learning with students. My hope for the future is together as a community we can make this happen, not just for a few teachers and a few students, but on a large scale.