In response to why professional learning isn’t working, I hear this a lot,
“Everyone is in different places.”
Yup. They always have been and they always will be. Thankfully, there is an increased recognition of this truth in education along with an effort to create more purpose and autonomy in schools through personalized learning. This is a good thing but the idea of personalizing for all learners can also be overwhelming for those who are responsible for the outcomes, and this reality is why standardization has reigned in education. What I think is at the core of this challenge is that we are still thinking about personalized learning with a traditional approach to education. What I mean by this is the mindset that the teacher or the principal or someone in charge is responsible for personalizing for the learners. Instead, providing the structures and systems to allow for the learner to exert more agency, and drive more of the learning experience, is how the learning experiences become personal.
While I have seen a variety of attempts to personalize professional learning by creating conference professional development where people have a variety of choices to attend different sessions but often the presentations and the style of learning in each of the sessions are still very traditional sit and get. Similarly, flipped faculty meetings have received a lot of attention but if you are asking people to read articles or watch videos outside of the workday, we communicate it is not that important (see my post about homework). I am certainly not advocating that we provide less choice but to shift what is happening in our classrooms, we have to change how we are learning, not just the amount of choices we have and where we are learning.
I have had a few conversations lately that have caused me to reflect on how personalized learning is playing out in professional learning and some myths that might be preventing us from moving forward.
Myth 1- Learning can’t be personal in a large group.
I was talking to a principal recently and she told me that she had stopped having faculty meetings or bringing teachers together because all her teachers had such different needs and were all at so many different levels.
Contrary to this narrative that personalized learning means ensuring we provide more options to meet the needs of diverse learners at each of their different levels, in a professional learning day with a diverse group of educators recently, we started the day revisiting and/ or setting personal goals based on the larger system goals. As we explored a variety of models, engaged in structured protocols to push thinking, and allowed time to reflect on how to make the impact they wanted, each leader took something different from the conversation and applied it to their goals and how to move forward from where they were. Getting everyone in the same room to ensure there is a common message and goals is often very powerful to move everyone forward. What is critical is that you provide the time and space for learners to discuss their challenges, share their thinking and solve problems collaboratively, and reflect to ensure that the learning experiences are connecting to personal goals.
Personal learning doesn’t require myriad sessions or lessons tailored to each individual. While these approaches have merit, at times, we won’t reap the benefits of personal learning if we don’t involve the learners in the process. If we focus more on creating the experience and opportunity for learners to assess where they are based on desired outcomes and learn, experiment, and reflect to improve, the learning will be more personal.
Myth 2- Empowerment means that you trust people and let them learn whatever they want
Empowerment is critical to personal learning and as a result many have resorted to providing options for teachers to attend and choose what they wanted to learn. This sounds great, doesn’t it? We know learners respond well when we have voice and choice in our learning. As I talked to a friend who was contemplating next steps for his staff, he shared that on the surface providing choice in professional learning was working, not many teachers were complaining but when I asked about change in practice that he wanted to see, he acknowledged that not everyone was making the choice to learn and try new things and actually creating more pockets of innovation than moving towards the desired learning in all of the their classrooms. A select few were seeking new learning opportunities, while the majority remained doing what they had always done and where they were comfortable.
Empowering people is not to be confused with doing whatever you want- this rarely helps people move forward towards shared goals just as too much control and compliance restricts creativity and innovation. Instead of providing the free choice, which sounded great in theory, he met with each teacher and helped them select a specific inquiry or area of focus connected to the larger school goals. This goal was co-constructed and allowed for more focused coaching and support. The teachers collected evidence of what they were learning and the impact on what their students were learning and had buy-in because they selected their focus. Balancing the individual and system goals is a delicate balance that great leaders are always navigating based on the needs of those they serve.
Myth 3. People will ask for support if they need it
As many leaders are looking to empower those they serve, one, in particular, wanted to honor his teachers and show them how much he cared and appreciated their hard work. He wanted his teachers to know that he trusted them to get what they needed, own their learning, and chart their own pathways. The reality though, was that without a collective goal and individual accountability, some were standing still, some were overwhelmed and not sure which path to take, and a few were taking advantage of every new learning opportunity and charging ahead trying everything.
Many leaders say my door is open or coaches are available as needed. “Support as needed” sounds very personal but the reality is that most people don’t take advantage of coaching or support even though it is one of the most effective strategies for changing practices. It’s like college office hours–A few take advantage of the extra help for some it is mandatory but most people stay in their comfort zone and don’t go out of their way for support. Some will push and some will continue to do what they have always done if there is no other expectations and time built into their day to intentionally learn, reflect and work to improve. If you want to move all people, support can’t be optional, it has to be part of what you do.
Accountability is often thought of as a bad thing but doesn’t have to be. Micromanaging is bad but co-constructing goals and being held accountable to your students, community, and colleagues for sharing your learning and growth can be powerful. Setting goals and following up on progress helps us prioritize and focus on what matters. Just like providing a public audience for students in the classroom matters, it also matters for adults. If we want our kids to share their learning and it make it public, we need to expect it from ourselves
Personal Professional Learning
For professional learning to be “just right” it has to allow for personal pathways that are guided by clear goals and structures for learning. Traditionally we focus on what teachers attend and ensure that everyone has been trained rather than on what skills have been developed and how educators are developing their practice as a result. Personalization is not just about the content or a specific approach, but about involving learners in the process. For each learner to get what they need, often requires meeting the learners where they are and moving forward from there.