Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pondering the PD Flip

Last week I attended a conference sponsored by SFU’s Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy (CSELP).  The topic:  Targeting technology for maximum student benefit.  Three educational leaders – Chris Kennedy, Brian Kuhn and Kris Magnusson - shared their ideas about how “learning empowered by technology” (a key driver of the BC Education Plan) can best be achieved.  What technology should be given priority?  How should limited funding be used?

They agreed that they wouldn’t even talk about what was obvious:  the essential infrastructure of a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).

Many districts (certainly my own) are struggling to get this “obvious” piece in place.  Part of the problem is related to what Kris Magnusson noted:  “Our most pressing need is not a technology shift, but a culture shift.”  We can’t see outside of how things have always been done.  Consider this conference.  We all sat crammed into a room craning our necks to see to the front of the room where the three speakers delivered their message and we diligently wrote notes – or felt very “21st century-ish” and tweeted our thoughts for all the world rather than just whispering them to our neighbours.  (You can peruse these 140 character ruminations – all 850 of them. As a teacher, you would wonder, of course, were the students paying attention as they tweeted so prolifically?)

During the final panel discussion at the end of a long day of sitting and listening, we sat and listened to the three speakers have a conversation with each other, sparked by questions from moderator Bruce Beairsto.  Chris Kennedy dropped a hard question into the discussion – how could we have done this day differently?  Would it have been better if we had “flipped” the conference so that the presentations were pre-recorded and attendees could view them prior to attending, so we could use the face-to-face time to build on the ideas?

There was a pause in the panel discussion and a small buzz of conversation from the rather languid audience who had begun to catch up on emails.  No, said, Kris Magnusson.  People would have been too busy, too interrupted, if left on their own, to focus on the presentations.  (Of course, this is a doubly important reason why flipped classrooms won’t work, but we continue to tout them as revolutionary.  Read Ira Socol’s argument for rejecting the flip.)  What’s more, someone said, perhaps Brian, the conversations wouldn’t work without some relationship and a context for working together.  And then the panel changed directions.

I wish they’d continued on this point.  The point, I think, is this:  unless we can figure out how to learn differently, how can we frame different learning in classrooms?  How can we use technology to transform education, if, as educational leaders, we can only imagine using it to do what we’ve always done? Part of our reluctance to reimagine professional development might be related to another point that Chris Kennedy made:  many teachers become teachers (and professors become professors and especially speakers become speakers) because they like to be “on the stage,” and in control of the message. He suggested that if people knew ahead of time that they would merely be a “guide on the side,” they might not have become teachers at all.   Here, of course, is the culture shift.  What I learned from making this shift in my own teaching practice is that being a guide is often a little, well, boring.   I became a fetcher, a finder, a sometimes facilitator, an observer, a noticer, a connector.  My role became increasingly passive as the student’s role became increasingly active. As a professional development leader, I’m learning the same lesson – and it’s just as hard.
(And I’m just as slow at learning it.)

And so I thought further about how we could have done the day better.  Consider this:  we don’t travel at great expense (including the time expense) to meet in one place.  Instead the event could be a live webcast.  The twitter backchannel would allow us to have input and connect with other districts and, better, we could set up a moderated twitter chat at the end of each speech - a question generated from the talk could be posed for everyone to collect, gather and tweet our thoughts and add further questions.  Then at our separate venues we could engage in meaningful focused contextualized conversations about what we heard to consider how we might use the information to grow our own plans.  As it was, although we had a team of people attending, it was almost impossible to hear each other in the din of conversations between speakers, and our table included people from other districts and from SFU, so the conversation was necessarily general.  It isn’t that it’s a bad thing to have this general discourse; it’s that we have to learn so much so quickly that the thrust of the day needed to be how we can use these ideas for our own forward movement. We needed, in a word, to personalize the experience.  We have the technology to find creative ways to make this possible.  All we have to do now is to understand that it is the right next step for learning together.

But that next step is only possible if we consider the other barrier to flipped PD mentioned by the panel:  relationships are necessary for meaningful conversations.  This is not just a barrier in multi-district events, but in our own district and even our schools. As Roland Barth says, “although conversations have the capacity to promote reflection, to create and exchange craft knowledge, and to help improve the organization, schools deal more in meetings - in talking at and being talked at.”  This method is, of course, very efficient and sensible if you already have the solution, If you are just delivering information, if there is no ambiguity or questions or broader possibilities, if you are not seeking something new, but just want to roll out the old way of doing things.  Conversations demand a culture shift and are intregral to that shift.  To reimagine education, to use technology to do what we’ve never done before, we need to figure out how to have messy, uncomfortable conversations that acknowledge that no one of us has the answer, that value our diversity, and honour each contribution to build new understandings, rather than simply vying for our favourite “right way” that everyone has to “buy into.”  And another hard part (I’m learning a lot about this) is learning how to self-organize, to design our own learning, to create experiences that matter to us and support our next learning steps.  When you try to set up classrooms for students to be active participants, they’ll often say – can’t you just tell us what to do and give us a worksheet?  As adults, we, too, wish to wait for someone to organize the learning, give us the handouts and binders – although we’ll complain later, of course, that it didn’t meet our needs.

We live in exciting times.  But if we are going to target technology for maximum student benefit, our first job will be to learn how to learn together in new ways.  After a day listening to educational leaders (and I’m not complaining about the day, only pondering; it was thought-provoking and invited hard questions and open discussions rather than “the way” to “do” technology in schools), one thing, though, is crystal clear:  there is a lot to learn.

Chris Kennedy’s slides and notes
Brian Kuhn’s slides

image from Marc Wathieu’s photostream


  1. Shelley - what a great reflective post! I think we could make a day like this more engaging. I do believe a face 2 face "together" experience is quite different from any electronic replica could be. I participate in conference calls, webinars, etc. and they are not the same learning experience, not even close. I think when 3D immersive technology starts to feel real, then conferences at a distance could be valuable.

    I will assume face 2 face conferences are still the best approach. How can we change them up to maximize value? One option is to limit a day like last Thursday to two keynotes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, each for 3 hours. Embed in each, a critical discussion question every 20 minutes, created by the speaker. Table groups contribute to a shared google doc or a wiki with their input. Some members feed the twitter back channel with some of the conversation as well. Alternatively to the gdoc/wiki is to have table facilitators take the table through a 15 minute cooperative learning activity to engage with the critical question. A bi-product could be the table creates other critical questions for future consideration.

    I think there's various creative ways to mix up a symposium day to make it interactive, to ensure everyone is contributing, and to reduce the passive listening.

    Thanks for attending, and I hope inspite of the long periods of being "talked to", you got value out of the content for you and your District!

    1. Al Pittampalli asks, “Does LIVE still matter?” I love his analogy with a football game. Increasingly, though, live needs to be very special. Your ideas to make the experience more immersive are important, but lately I’ve also been wondering about the value of collaborating face-to-face with people we aren’t in a relationship with, who we aren’t going to work with intensely and in an ongoing way. But perhaps we are. Now that we can create at-distance relationships through PLNs that allow us to continue the conversations (like here!), our face-to-face experiences will become increasingly meaningful. Of course, for me, just listening is also a treat. I appreciated the day! I’m just always concerned with how we can best use limited time, resources and energy to ensure beautiful learning for our children in a future we can barely imagine.

  2. Interesting discussion. I would have to agree with Shelley that time is more valuable than experiencing a certain "je ne sais quoi" that is part of the live experience. That way one could listen to some new ideas and still have time to collaborate with colleagues face-to-face.