FIELD OF DREAMS lied to me

It has taken me a long time to arrive to this conclusion:

Traditional professional development (PD) for teachers is not effective.

Teachers are busy. They’re still learning how to teach Common Core standards. They’re grappling with intervention, adopted curriculum, finding time for PE, and a myriad of other issues that have been around for decades (grading, parent conferences, classroom management). Of course, they have personal lives, too.

That’s why traditional PD doesn’t work. Traditional PD provides training after school. Maybe you get a day or two off to travel to a training center–away from students–and learn the newest program. Then you go back to your classroom and implement it.

In the past, I’ve set up the majority of my PD sessions after school where teachers can come to me and learn something about technology. I was convinced this was the best way. Then I learned it wasn’t. Teachers are too busy to go to a PD session after school–there’s just not enough time in the day. I thought just providing a training was enough. Like in Field of Dreams, I believed if I built it, they would come.

Field of Dreams lied to me.

I’ve even tried going to school sites and conducting training sessions, which usually results in poor turnout, too. This is a problem, because I truly believe I have quality material that will positively affect student learning. I have to share what I know. What’s the solution?


The solution is that I go to the teachers, in their classrooms, and teach their students while teachers watch. At first, people told me I wouldn’t receive enough bang for my buck. 45-60 minutes in one teacher’s classroom? Isn’t it better to have a PD session where there’s an opportunity for many teachers to show up?

No. Being in another teacher’s classroom affords me the opportunity to teach approximately 30 students and the teacher. Those students will get excited about technology, and they’ll help their friends. Teachers will see how engaged the students are, and they’ll tell their friends. Capacity (which is partly a shared knowledge of skills) grows in both students and teachers. This helps me build student and teacher leaders on campus who spread the awesome power of technology to others. This is stronger that a measly PD session. Plus, it shows I have skin in the game in regards to what I preach, and it helps me gain credibility in the eyes of teachers.

I still promote after school PD sessions in moderation, but most of my time and energy (PD-wise) is spent preparing lessons and teaching, which is what I love to do after all.

Flow in education

I just finished reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. The book is wonderful, but one of the most enjoyable parts was the authors referenced by Wiliam. He mentioned Robert Pirsig, which prompted me to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He also wrote of John Wooden, Malcolm Gladwell, Barry Schwartz, and Marianne Williamson. You can be confident that an educational author who includes these people in his or her book is on to something.

Most interesting was Wiliam’s inclusion of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi describes ‘flow’ as being so absorbed in an activity, you’re not even thinking about it. It’s someone who’s attempting a task that’s interesting and challenging. Wiliam explains it this way:

When the level of challenge is low and the level of capability is high, the result is often boredom. When the level of challenge is high and the level of capability is low, the result is generally anxiety. When both are low, the result is apathy. However, when both capability and challenge are high, the result is ‘flow.’

That sweet spot of high capability and challenge is what all teachers should strive to implement in their classrooms. An example of this is Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is used by STAR Reading and Accelerated Reader to help students pick books that are challenging, but not too challenging. A book within a student’s ZPD may not be easy, but the goal of finishing it is not out of reach. Likewise, the objectives a teacher introduces in class must mirror this type of ZPD criteria. Student buy-in is highest when the objective is challenging and the student believes he or she can learn it. When this occurs, classes hum along with the sounds of student inquiry and productivity.

We’re all technology specialists

I’m a ‘technology specialist’ in a school district, and I think the job title conjures a lot of different emotions within educators. Some teachers hear technology and feel anxiety. Others feel indifference. Some teachers are excited about the burgeoning web based tools available and want to share the latest, greatest software programs they’ve discovered.

My role has different titles depending on the school district. Sometimes it’s ‘Teacher on Special Assignment’ (TOSA). Other times it’s ‘technology coach’, ‘instructional coach’, or even ‘Chief Technology Officer’ (CTO). Whatever the name, the main purpose should be the same:

The point of a technology specialist within a school district is to diminish while teachers’ technological expertise increases. 

My position isn’t temporary, but I think it won’t be necessary forever. The same goes for all the other tech specialists out there. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • As teachers learn, they don’t need as many official or ‘district-sponsored’ professional development sessions because they’ll all learn how to learn about technology on their own.
  • Web based programs are making it easier to create teacher accounts and populate classes with students. Eventually, it’ll be possible for most software platforms to be populated by teachers and students (ex: Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Google Classroom, Front Row, etc.).

It’s possible that at some point, all teachers in my school district will be able to manage their own students’ accounts, use the programs effectively by blending their instruction, and answer each others’ questions. Heck, maybe they’ll even put on professional development sessions for each other during prep periods, PLC sessions, or after school. Meanwhile, I can transition back into the classroom, knowing that I used my time as a technology specialist effectively so the ultimate result occurred: All teachers have become technology specialists. 

The most important influence on student learning…

is an effective teacher in the classroom. There’s no interactive whiteboard, laptop, tablet, doc camera, web-based program, intervention strategy, curriculum, assembly, or after school program that can top what a teacher can do to help students learn and produce. Books back up this observation, and we all have at least one teacher from our past who lit a fire within us for a subject, so there’s probably not too many people who would argue with what I’ve just claimed.

That’s why it’s so alarming that even though most people say teachers are the most important factor in classrooms, the education pendulum never lands on professional development for teachers being a number one priority. Surgeons receive ongoing training. So do nurses, engineers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers. PD for teachers shouldn’t be relegated to only the beginning and end of the school year. Their expertise is just as important as the other listed professions. New educational studies, theories, and strategies are produced at least every month.

The onus for training doesn’t just land on the country, state, or school district. Yes, society should elect officials who make wise decisions regarding budgeting for PD, but teachers must also understand the importance of continual learning (not just for students, but for themselves) and strive to become better at their craft every day of the school year.

Enter Sugata Mitra.

If you haven’t watched Mitra’s TED talk, please be my guest:

If you didn’t watch the video, here’s the gist of his message: Students who are given access to the internet and encouraged by adults to explore interesting things learned at an amazingly fast rate. So fast, in fact, that Mitra’s findings could quite possibly revolutionize how we think about teaching. For some people, it already has.

If you’re familiar with Mitra, you know he views effective teachers as cheerleaders for student learning. In his opinion, teachers should not stand and deliver; instead, they should pose perplexing questions–such as Mitra’s example from the recent CUE Conference: Why do people’s teeth fall out?

I agree with Mitra. Does this conflict with my thoughts at the beginning of this post? I don’t think so, as long as I conflate the two. A teacher with expertise, experience, and skill at formatively assessing whether or not a student learned something is worth a lot. (Dylan Wiliam states that the value of a great teacher to society is around $300,000.) This is the ‘cheerleader’ needed for the type of classroom Mitra supports. This ‘Mitra teacher’ knows when to let students explore, when to encourage, when to guide… when to do almost everything.

This means (and I seriously wish what you’re about to read could be a disclaimer everyone hears whenever I talk about that importance of 1:1 devices in the classroom) technology is only a tool to be used–sometimes by teachers but mostly by students–to promote learning. I’m not a proponent of plopping children in front of screens and expecting them to learn. This will lead only to a scary, Wall-E like future. Good teachers know when to use good tools to reap good results. This is why PD is so important, because it’s only brave and knowledgeable teachers–teachers who see themselves more as senseis than lecturers, who will close the achievement gap and help all children learn.

Zen, the art of motorcycle maintenance, and pedagogy

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is concerned with quality, and the prose wrings out two different forces. The first is the ‘romantic’ view, which appreciates the aesthetics of objects such as motorcycles, but doesn’t much care for dissecting the motorcycle to learn how it runs or how to maintain it. The ‘classical’ approach is interested in how the motorcycle works and the critical thinking necessary to keep it working. Classical finds quality in the understanding of the ins-and-outs of a well-running machine, while the romantic finds it in the image of a person riding the motorcycle on a lonely highway.

Teachers experience this dichotomy on a daily basis. Teach grammar, and the students can quickly lose the beauty of how words, phrases, and clauses combine to make beautiful thoughts. Focus primarily on poetry or literature, and students fail to appreciate the craftsmanship necessary to construct a piece of literature. This is true in every subject. Math can be astounding, but there’s a lot of studying and practice needed for students to appreciate the wonders of math. The same for science, languages, woodshop… the list goes on.

The struggle is: Do you teach students what they need to know with the foresight that a classical approach will blossom into a romantic awareness? Or do you teach the romantic viewpoint with the intention of delving into specifics–and in the case of a mortocycle, mechanics–and hope that a love of the idea of the subject evolves into a fascination with the parts that make it operate?

Pedagogy falls into this dichotomy as well. Some teachers want students to have a classical approach to the subject. This is the educator who would rather focus on grammar than read To Kill a Mockingbird. The romantic teacher focuses primarily on To Kill a Mockingbird, with the intent the literature will lead to an appreciation and understanding of grammar. Of course, there are some classical teachers who care nothing for developing the romantic mindset and vice versa. The resolution comes through blending the two approaches. The rub is this is easier said than done. Experience is important and so is a love for not just the subject, but the idea of the subject. If you’re teaching how to maintain a motorcycle, you need a love of the romantic notion of riding as well as a lucid understanding concerning how the parts create the whole.

Teaching is complicated, there’s no doubt about it. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers an important perspective for leading students toward a craft they will understand and enjoy.