Thursday, July 14, 2016

Personalizing Professional Development

By Keith George

The idea of personalized learning for students has received a great deal of attention over the past several years. The Gates Foundation issued a report in 2014 that identifies four basic “look fors” related to the personalization of student learning. These include the creation of individual learner profiles that lead to personal learning paths that are customized to the goals for each individual student. Students are assessed using competency-based progression measures. They should be able to complete their work in flexible learning environments, which encompasses every aspect of the educational process- staffing, space, time (Gates, 2014. emphasis added).

A more recent trend has been to apply this concept of personalization to teacher professional development. This has been initiated in a couple of simple ways including allowing more teacher input into the selection of PD sessions they attend. For instance, many school districts have altered the traditional sit-and-get, prescribed, beginning of the year inservice or professional development days to offer teachers choice.

Another fast growing strategy is the EdCamp model in which educators gather for a educator-driven sessions facilitated and created by the participants. This model allows teachers to attend sessions that they feel they would benefit from most. Having attended several EdCamps and serving on the planning teams of both EdCamp Montgomery (AL) and EdCamp Lake Eufaula (AL), participants most commonly appreciate being able to choose the sessions they want to attend.

The EdCamp format has become so popular, in fact, that many traditional educational technology conferences are incorporating “un-conference” days or portions. On these days, there are no scheduled sessions, only time slots in which motivated educators can step up to share ideas and strategies with anyone who might be interested in the same topic.

A photo from EdCamp Montgomery!

While these moves towards more teacher choice in their PD are a start, the idea of truly personalizing the professional development takes more. If we adopt the same “look fors” that the Gates Foundation describes then we can formalize this effort. Many teacher evaluation systems include some sort of self-assessment but this is often a “completion” effort in that is only a box to be checked. They also often require teachers, usually in consultation with an administrator, to develop goals and identify strengths and weaknesses. Occasionally, teachers are allowed to identify ways to reach their goals. However, they may or may not have the support, both financially and administratively, to follow through on their self-identified goals.

The competency-based progression concept is a tougher nut to crack with teachers. Most teachers would be hesitant to have their skills measured objectively for fear that they would be misused. However, this could be overcome with an earned credential approach in which third parties issued the credentials and teachers had voice in the courses they completed.

The area of greatest potential, however, is that of learning environments. This broad concept includes the time, location, and even the format of the PD that teachers complete. Allowing teachers to determine how they go about reaching their identified goals could have an incredible effect on the benefit of the professional development activities in which they participate.

For instance, if a teacher has reflected on their teaching practice and determined that they need to improve in the area of integrating technology into their science classroom, the teacher may start by searching for resources that could help reach that goal. The teacher may decide that they will locate a book on the topic and participate in an online book study. They might locate an upcoming EdCamp and participate in a teacher-driven session on technology in the science classroom. The teacher might then actively participate in a series of scheduled Twitter chats to share ideas and questions related to connecting technology to science education. Finally, the teacher might enroll in a free, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to learn more specific strategies on technology integration.

The key to all of these ideas is that the teacher, not the district or the administrators, determined how the teacher reaches the goals. That is not to say that teachers should not consult with administrators during this process, only that the teacher should drive the path that the learning follows. Additionally, teachers need to realize that there is a justifiable need for accountability. We already know that “sit and get” PD is not effective because it is often done in isolation with no follow up. Effective PD includes both practice and reflection. These must be included even when teachers design their own learning. When teachers are given the opportunity to control their own learning, they will design a learning plan that provides the most benefit for them and their students.


Early Progress: Interim Research on Personalized Learning, RAND Corporation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, November 5, 2014. http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/article/early-progressinterim-report-personalized-learning.




keith2006web.jpgKeith George is the Educational Technology Specialist with the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative at the Alabama State Department of Education. Before joining the State Department of Education, Keith taught Social Studies and Computer Technology for 13 years, as well as serving as an Instructional Technology Coach.

Keith routinely presents on effective technology integration at several state and regional conferences. He is active on Twitter @BigTechCoach and blogs at www.bigtechcoach.com.

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