Professional Development Needs an Overhaul

Zulama  Teams with Educurious at SXSWedu conference

Bev Vaillancourt, Editorial Director

FullSizeRender 3As I boarded my flight to Austin, Texas, to attend the SXSWedu conference, I mulled over just what I might be hearing and seeing, but mostly I wondered whether the presentation Jane Chadsey from Educurious and I had planned for the conference would be all that we hoped it could be.

Several months ago Zulama, Educurious, and Working Examples submitted a joint application to SXSWedu to share our thoughts on what makes for a truly dynamic professional development experience. Titled Professional Development Needs an Overhaul, the presentation brought together what we believe to be best practices in designing fully engaging professional development. We were committed to bring to Austin our shared passion for education and our shared belief in the importance of teachers as collaborative decision makers in the professional development process.

To our delight, our session room filled to capacity and then some. For two short hours educators collaborated on discussing adult learning and its relationship to design thinking.

  • Who are the stakeholders in professional development?
  • Is it limited to teachers, or does it also include administrators, school board members, and students?
  • What are the outcomes for each and are they the same?
  • Is there opportunity to fail and fail fast, and then iterate within a dynamic culture of support, synergy, and creativity?
  • What role does relevance play for each stakeholder and how is that determined?

We discussed motivators and performance based on small steps that includes time for reflection. Importantly, we discussed an overarching respect of the process, which means dedicated time for individuals to work in teams within schools, a district, and across districts to problem solve. We stressed that professional development must be an experience that includes “flow.” And, as we ended, we reminded everyone “don’t forget the fun.” Professional development, as all learning, really needs to be fun to succeed.

With our Problem Solving workshop finished, Jane and I were off to enjoy the rest of the conference. Student agency and student-led learning perhaps were the overriding themes of SXSWedu. From the session on Acton Academy where teachers are termed “guides” to several sessions on personalized learning, trust in student curiosity and ingenuity permeated the many sessions held in three different conference venues over four days. And, not surprisingly, project based learning was often heard as the vehicle for moving students beyond core content to meaningful and engaged experiences.

Project based learning forms the core of Zulama’s courses. But, exactly what is PBL and how can its design maximize content knowledge and engagement? Many consider the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) foremost in PBL training. What a bonus to have BIE presenting at SXSWedu! So, off I went on Tuesday morning to fine tune my PBL skills. The core question BIE posed was “How can we evaluate good project based learning? Importantly, determining the outcomes and figuring out how project based learning can be authentically assessed drives the process. What is it students want to learn? How will they know they’ve succeeded in accomplishing what they’ve determined as outcomes? What will get them there?

FullSizeRender 20BIE stresses that project based learning must be the “main course, and not the dessert,” of classroom strategy. Curious about just how powerful PBL can be for kids? Take a look at Media Saves the Beach, a student-led science project that crossed all subject areas and drew on the individual talents and skillsets of each group of students. No well-crafted lesson plan could have taken this project to what it became as students totally immersed themselves in finding answers to problems that directly impacted their community. Guided by a teacher who trusted the inherent curiosity and learning capacity of his students, mutual respect for skills and knowledge yielded sophisticated project data overlaid with significant community relevance and scientific importance. Perhaps Scott Nguyen a high school student presenter said it best the last day of the conference, “Students are very capable, far more capable than you think.”

Maker Spaces ruled at SXSWedu this year. Computer coding certainly has found an important place in maker spaces. Take a look at this KIBO / beebot project that combines computer coding with robotics. Primary age kids code what they would like the robot to do by sequencing and scanning bar codes on a series of blocks. Touch a button on the robot and off it goes on its programmed path. Young kids are building entire KIBO/beebot villages out of cardboard and props, and then sending their robots on their merry way to navigate around the village. I can tell you that adults at SXSWedu were having a grand time stringing coding blocks!

The primary outcome of education should be to put more ownership in learners’ hands so that students can navigate everything they will encounter in their lives. – Stacey Childress of the NewSchools Venture Fund

This statement underscores Zulama’s philosophy of student-centered classrooms and student directed learning. If there was one main take-way for me from the SXSWedu conference, it’s that educators can play a pivotal role in expanding collective, creative experiences that powers learning on student terms driven by student interests. Authenticity – real tools, real meaning, real processes that significantly impact students outside of the schoolhouse walls – is what 21st Century learning must be all about. “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience,” wrote John Dewey many years ago. Then, as today, his words give deep meaning to that very personal experience called education.

Beyond all of the sessions I attended, and beyond all of the energized conversations I had the honor of sharing with exceptional educators, the most profound moments for me at the conference came from a SXSWedu showing of a movie called Conducta, translated as Behavior, set in a poverty-laden village in Cuba. It is a deeply moving story of a teacher who places her students in front of the system and cares more about who they are and what they can become than what the system says they should be. The movie dramatically reminds us of how deeply young people feel righteousness, and how quickly they understand injustice. But mostly, it reminds us of how one teacher can help any child find vision and hope. This belief fueled the energy of the SXSWedu conference, and made it well worth attending.


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