Stop for a moment and think: What is the best professional learning program you have ever experienced?
Was it one of the weekly school staff meetings? Perhaps it was a curriculum day session or a conference you attended at the end of the year? Was it a session you were required to attend or a session you were hanging out to attend? Was it a talk, a presentation, a workshop or a reading? Was it a one off session or a series of sessions? Were you required to actively participate and/or submit required responses? Did it involve the use of social media, the blogosphere or attendance in an online forum? Did you pick up new skills and knowledge that have now become part and parcel of your teaching personae?
But most importantly, did you feel motivated, inspired and reinvigorated after attending that session? Has the aura, that special exuberance, which comes from mastery and achievement stayed with you so that it continues to inspire your learning journey? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you will know how the students you teach should be feeling each and every time you leave them at the end of a lesson. Is it not the aim of all teachers to hear such words as those of Santiago Gonzalez, a 14-year-old child prodigy who dreams in code, when he says:
“I really enjoy learning … to me I find it as essential as eating … either you die … or you are pretty miserable without learning.” (ow.ly/CHxpX)
And if this is the aim we have for the students in our classes, then surely this should be the outcome of each and every professional learning activity in which we engage. Just like the students in our classes, we too need to appreciate that learning is the greatest gift or, as Bill Clinton responded at the 2014 Global Education and Skills Forum when asked “What is the most important thing you have learned?”:
“I think the most important thing that I have learned is that there’s more to learn … that we should all be hungry for a lifetime …” (ow.ly/FTc4c)
In our rapidly changing world in which new technology develops at breathtaking speed, it is essential for teachers to not just keep up, but to master new skills and new pedagogy so that it becomes a part of them and their teaching repertoire. Like our students, teachers need to become self-starters, who are able to learn on their own rather than being dependent on attendance at a particular professional learning activity which entails time release. Learning should no longer be confined to the specific time and place of a ‘Professional Development’ or ‘Professional Learning’ course or program. Rather, we all need to embrace learning opportunities which constantly present themselves in both formal and informal settings. The very term ‘Lifelong Learning’ implies a never ending cycle in which we are empowered to set our own agenda, to pursue knowledge for the sake of it, and to enable learning to inspire continued learning!
Like the students in our classes, teachers are individuals. Each has their own ‘readiness to learn’ level based on prior knowledge, interest and experience. Rather than continuing to bundle all teachers into required curriculum day activities and programs, try creating small groups in which teachers are matched according to predetermined criteria. The days of ‘one size fits all’ type learning, so typical of teacher training programs and professional development activities, need to be replaced by programs and activities which nurture lifelong learning. Programs of this nature will make learning meaningful and personal, and are the key to ensuring that learning actually occurs.
An expectation that teachers engage in professional learning programs is now well cemented in the education sector. Time and space must be set aside within the busy school week so teachers can learn, play, experiment and, most of all, think how newly acquired skills can be embedded into their day-to-day teaching. It is incumbent on school administrations to explore alternate programs and activities which eliminate teacher apathy toward learning how to use new tools, exploring new pedagogies, and developing new skills.
The carrot and stick approach must stop. Teachers, like the students in our schools, need to discover the joy of learning and its inherent power. To learn for the sake of learning rather than to learn because it is a requirement needs to be the basis of all teacher learning programs. By thinking outside the box, a range of new learning opportunities can be created within our schools.
- Focussed group learning: Designing learning sessions based on the interests and/or needs of teachers that have simple, clearly articulated aims and goals should be made available. Bite-sized chunks of knowledge are easier to digest than extensive lengthy programs. Make these sessions short and to the point. Active participation should be their hallmark.
- Cluster learning: Providing opportunities for teachers with similar interests and/or needs to brainstorm, experiment and learn from and with each other, will not only increase learning opportunities, but will increase bonding and sharing. Designate leaders or mentors who have a clear plan of achievable goals to lead participants on a new path of lifelong learning.
- Hands on learning: Having the opportunity to play with new technology not only ensures new skills are learned, but enhances self-confidence. Time to practise new skills under the guidance of a mentor who could guide and encourage active learning for each participant, irrespective of their prior knowledge or skill base, could create confidence to use these new skills in the classroom.
- Open ended learning: Given the freedom to learn as much or as little, as slowly or as quickly as one likes, means teachers can take responsibility for their own learning. Being able to learn new skills without constraints of structure and deadlines can be liberating. This can be best achieved by holding learning sessions over a stretch of months rather than weeks.
- Non demanding learning: Removing competitive elements from the discovery and development of new skills means that teachers can learn at their own pace without the risk of being compared to their peers. Not feeling intimidated, not feeling pressured to achieve, but rather being encouraged to learn just for the sake of learning is a classroom atmosphere we try to create for our students. Why not for our teachers as well?
- Meaningful learning: Presenting instruction about a solution or approach which reflects a teacher’s on the spot need, leads to powerful learning. Capitalising on ‘need to know’ learning by having individual participants set their own agenda of what is to be learned can be most effective! Seeing the immediate relevancy and value of a new skill or a new tool can be inspirational.
- Reflective learning: Part of learning new skills requires time to think and assimilate the new with the old. Having the time and the means to reflect on new skills is an extremely important part of the learning process. Incorporating either verbal or written opportunities for reflective learning enables participants to synthesise the new with the old, and is vitally important for successful learning to occur.
- Self-paced learning: With decisions left in the hands of the learner, that oft repeated phrase ‘if only I had time’ can be tackled head on. While overarching requirements will be put in place by the design of the learning program, teachers can be enticed by their own desire and determination, to independently decide what, when, where and how they learn and develop new skills and, in the process, take full control and ownership of their own learning.
- Online learning: Unlike ever before, teachers today are able to explore a wide range of learning programs which can be tailored to meet their individual needs and interests. Online learning programs provide a supportive and safe learning environment for a range of learners from the beginner to the highly experienced. Exploring all aspects of education, including targeted skills and a range of tools in an online setting, can be exhilarating, invigorating, and highly stimulating. The introduction of online learning opportunities within a school is both realistic and extremely feasible.
- Lifelong learning: Learning how to learn is something we constantly strive to instil in our students. Like students, teachers need to be given a scaffold by which their learning builds upon itself. Well thought out structured programs which ensure that new skills are layered upon existing skills are essential. Acting as role models to their students, teachers participating in ongoing learning opportunities can actively demonstrate to their students that learning is indeed a lifelong process.
Developing exciting, stimulating and meaningful learning programs for teachers within our schools is vital. Ensuring that the content is grounded, relevant and well thought out is a must. Designing programs that are at one time short enough to be pursued regularly, yet long enough to enable learning to be absorbed and consolidated, is a key to their success.
Bev Novak has had extensive experience as a classroom teacher, specialist and Head of Library in a variety of school settings where she constantly aims to inspire a love of reading and ignite a joy of learning among students and teachers. Having published widely, Bev also authors two blogs, NovaNews and BevsBookBlog, in which she shares many tips, tools and experiences. In between exploring, discovering and experimenting, Bev actively encourages others to expand, embrace and enjoy their own journey of lifelong learning. You can contact Bev via her blog novanews19.wordpress.com or on Twitter @novanews19
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