Professional Learning in Schools

For one of my Klingenstein classes, I was asked to explore a question that had been on my mind for some time. As a result of my work at Trinity and the professional development opportunities there, I’ve had this idea in my head for a while. Although it’s nothing earth-shattering, it’s something that I’m passionate about and something that I wanted to share with my professor (who is quite removed from the technology conversation). His comments on my paper provided a fair amount of push-back that led me to support many of my ideas (and provide tangible evidence, links, etc that I couldn’t provide in my paper) and reconsider others. I’ll hopefully post the fruits of that conversation later.


In a school where the use of technology is expected, how can a school leader build and sustain an effective professional learning environment where digital natives and digital immigrants learn and grow together?

In the 21st century, technology has seeped into most facets of our society. Breaking news is delivered to handheld phones, birth announcements are made through status updates on Facebook, and anyone can instantly become a published author by opening a free account on a blogging platform. As a result, our society has changed. By nature of our engagement with technology, we are connected to each other and to a network of people, many of whom live in another state or even another country. We are more connected than ever, yet despite this influx of technology, schools, educational leaders, and teachers seem quite disconnected from the changing world and, more importantly, from one another.

Marc Prensky, author of “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” explains “the single biggest problem facing education today is that our digital immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (2001, p.2). Since Prensky’s original observations in 2001, many of the digital natives have graduated and some are employed as teachers. Thus, there are two camps of teachers in schools – those with a digital accent (immigrants) and those who speak the technical language of 21st century (natives). Since these two groups of teachers exist and are employed to teach and guide students in an age of emerging technology, it is essential to address the disconnect between the two groups, redefine the role of the teacher, and develop a rich professional development structure that supports learning in the 21st century.

In 2009, the teacher as the “sage on the stage” or the communicator of content is no longer acceptable. Classrooms can no longer be teacher-centric. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen argues that classrooms must be transformed into student-centric environments. This type of environment promotes learning which “opens the door for students to learn in ways that match their intelligence types” while “teachers serve as professional learning coaches and content architects to help individual students progress” (2008, p. 38-39). While Christensen argues for disruptive change by way of software-delivered instruction and computer based learning, I believe in the power of a professional development structure that engages teachers and puts them in charge of their own learning.

Since lack of resources and high-stakes testing are often cited as major reasons for the dearth of technological innovation in public schools, independent schools are in a unique position. Given adequate resources (up-to-date hardware/software and technology teams/departments), innovative curriculum, and opportunities for professional development, independent schools must develop a rich professional development program that allows teachers to meet core competencies of the curriculum while utilizing tools of the technological age. In an independent school, a Web 2.0 professional development structure meets these needs.

Administrators who want transformative change in their schools must find a way to build and sustain professional learning communities and networks. By employing innovative technological tools (Web 2.0) to teaching and learning, these environments allow for digital natives and digital immigrants to learn and grow alongside one another. Instead of this change being dictated and driven in a top down fashion, administrators must find leaders who will facilitate and guide teachers so the change in schools happens within the network of leaders and teachers. A leader is necessary to establish this collaborative professional learning community, and the instruction must be differentiated in a way that supports the native and the immigrant. With a structured environment where individual growth and risk-taking is encouraged and expected, teachers can begin to tailor their own professional development to meet their instructional and personal needs.

A leader who differentiates instruction in order to affect change can employ a variety of techniques in the establishment of a collaborative professional development community. While one-on-one instruction and assistance aids those teachers who are intimidated and overwhelmed by new technologies, professional learning communities and personal learning networks are two effective mechanisms of professional growth and development for teachers. Although professional learning communities (PLCs) as defined by Richard DeFour are common in many independent schools, digital personal learning networks (PLNs) are uncommon but allow for greater independent exploration, networking, and connective learning that can occur anytime and anywhere. By creating various avenues for teachers to explore and to learn, a leader must be visionary but grounded. Not only will they introduce new technologies and encourage 21st century literacy within curricula, but they will also partner with teachers and address teachers’ needs both in and outside of the classroom.

The creation of a personal learning community of this kind is complicated and at first, it involves intensive face-to-face dialogue about common goals, teachers’ roles, learning objectives, and twenty first century tools that promote new teaching paradigms. In “The Role of Technology,” Marc Prensky states “the basic direction is away from the old pedagogy of teachers ‘telling’ to the new pedagogy of kids teaching themselves with teacher’s guidance,” thus his view is that “the role of technology in our classrooms is to support the new teaching paradigm” (2008, p.1).  Whether or not teachers agree with Prensky’s claims, many will agree that a shift in pedagogy is necessary and that the role of technology has changed the ways schools address their educational aims. The PLC explores these issues in a structured, goal-oriented way. Since the implementation of a school-wide PLC would be overwhelming, identifying a smaller cohort of individuals to establish an initial PLC may provide a substantial foundation for future growth. As native and immigrant teachers learn alongside one another, they will begin to connect to the digital world and to each other in new, revolutionary ways.

In addition to the creation of a PLC, I suggest that administrators introduce, to all teachers, the idea of forming a group to explore the new terrain of educational technology at the school and gauge faculty interest. If a variety of teachers demonstrate interest, the initial stages of creating a personal learning network can begin. If there are not enough teachers or enough variety (natives and immigrants) to support a PLN, the administrator should engage faculty in conversation to hopefully establish a strong contingent. Similar to a PLC, a PLN must have a leader to facilitate early discussions in face-to-face meetings. Based on Chip and Dan Heath’s ideas in their book, Made to Stick, the information initially presented in these face-to-face interactions needs to be personal, tangible, present, and desirable. The systematic introduction of technological tools by this leader ensures that the process is organized and members of the PLN have a leader to consult with questions and concerns (however, ultimately the hope is that they will consult with other members in their personal network). Tools such as RSS, wikis, blogs, and social networks should be introduced in an accessible way to ensure that members, through inquiry and experimentation, learn about the tools and the implications for classroom use.

Although a PLN can take various forms, its structure (face to face meetings and online collaboration via RSS, blogging, wikis, and NING) makes it more accessible to those with a background in technology. Knowledge of Web 2.0 skills are not required, but since PLNs are, by nature, more independent, comfort with basic technology and online networking ensures initial success. Mark Federman, a PhD candidate and researcher at OISE/UT, explained the power of networks, learning, and education which guides my vision of an effective PLN. He writes on his blog,

Education is not merely about transferring information. It is about contextualizing that information in the real life experiences of the learners, and in relation with the experiences of other learners…It is the relationships among people and sharing contextualized experiences that creates emergent knowledge that is the basis of education.

PLNs, PLCs, and one-on-one investigation into these new web literacies are ways in which schools, educational leaders, and teachers can begin to transform the educational landscape.

The purpose of re-thinking professional development and establishing collaborative communities (PLCs and PLNs) is to provide teachers with a place to engage in the metacognitive work that helps improve practice. In the 21st century, the teacher, whether digital native or digital immigrant, must step off the stage and recognize their new role and the new world in which they are working. Since this will not happen automatically, communities and networks of professional learning and collaborative growth must be thoughtfully established and supported by independent school administrators. Leaders who help implement these environments and initiate this new growth must be present and able to mentor, nudge, encourage, and push teachers to engage in practices that help transform their thinking. As teachers (natives and immigrants) begin to shift their view of teaching, students will benefit because their classrooms will begin to look and feel different. Schools must no longer resemble the schools of the 19th century. Instead, administrators and teachers must work together to establish learning environments where all learn in connected, networked, and authentic ways.


Flickr 30 – November 3rd

I took an alternate route to law class, a little distracted by the intensity of the readings, and I was wowed by sun’s reflection on the south side of Riverside Church. I wish I could have been inside the church to see the light streaming through the stained glass windows…this view gave me a bit of perspective concerning my day, the classes, and the upcoming work for the week…


November Noticings (Flickr 30)

A few members of the Klingenstein cohort have decided to embark on a photography journey for the month of November. We are committing to taking a picture a day (a far cry from those who commit to take a picture every day of the year) in order to notice the “everyday” things. I think this is especially important as we are thinking and reading and discussing BIG things like privatization of schools, inner-city education, and ethics of educational institutions.

I hope to write (one day soon) about the Klingenstein wiki and Flickr site – and why I’m excited that other teachers and administrators are beginning to see the implications for these tools in schools.

My first entry, a photo of a strong tree in Central Park, reminds me of a poem by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. “When I am Among the Trees” fits perfectly with my pictures from the first and second of November. Enjoy!

November 1st, 2009:


November 2nd, 2009:


“When I am Among the Trees”

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Mary Oliver, Thirst