From Workshop to Classroom: The Problems of Enacting Professional Development

This past week, I was invited to present an introductory workshop on digital storytelling to a group of teachers in Alpena. Minus some minor glitches in figuring out file management with brand new jump drives, the session went well from both my perspective and that of the attendees. Exit comments were generally positive and, since I will be working with this group again, the suggestions will be very helpful, too.

Yet, in the section of the evaluations that asked teachers to rank items such as the objectives of the workshop being met, the organization, and so forth, all the positive responses were overshadowed by one question that received unusually low marks: “The impact this inservice will have on my teaching will probably be…” Responses here were at least one point lower, on average, than every other category.

This struck me as interesting because, throughout the day, we had been having discussions about access in their schools: access to computer labs and equipment, access to certain websites (such as Flickr), and access to time for planning and implementing such a project. As I reviewed these lower scores, then, I saw them not so much as a reflection on the workshop itself as much a reflection on the school contexts to which these teachers would return the next day.

I write this here not to speculate on any particular way to solve this problem, since we know the digital divide is still evident in all of our work, even in the most well endowed schools. Yet, I found it interesting that a group of engaged professionals who found the process of digital storytelling valuable and wanted to do it with their students felt, at the end of the day, as if this wouldn’t necessarily impact their classrooms due to these issues.

Moreover, I shouldn’t sound bleak, because I know that enacting professional development in the classroom is a long term-process. I wouldn’t be doing this kind of work if I didn’t believe in sustainable change over time.

Yet, these evaluations were a concrete reminder of the very real challenges that even the most motivated teachers will face. This might explain why, at a school that has nearly unlimited technology resources, Patrick Welsh explains why teacher morale is so low. He states:

Of course, the big question isn’t whether teachers like spending their time learning one new gizmo after another, but whether a parade of new technologies will help kids learn. From what I can see, that’s not the case.

A School That’s Too High on Gizmos – washingtonpost.com

I disagree with Welsh’s final claim. What I see is that technologies can help kids learn, if teachers are able to think critically about how to use them.

Yet, even with the time for professional development, sustained inquiry, and collaboration, they walk back into their classrooms with incredible demands on their time and attention that may make digital writing and digital teaching difficult, if not impossible, for them.

Apart from the idea that we give teachers more time or get more computers, what this raises for me is the idea that we have to do to shift our professional focus from “using the tools” to “engaging in literacy practices,” and all the subsequent shifts in teaching and learning that will result.

The problem, then, is how to continue that conversation, while still addressing the day-to-day needs of teaching.

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7 thoughts on “From Workshop to Classroom: The Problems of Enacting Professional Development”

  1. I also disagree with Welsh’s reason for teacher’s morale being so low. Apart from the brow beating we get to do better on “the test”, I think a lot of the technologies are presented to us with no way to follow up or share what you have done with them. Many have a great value in engaging students (big buzz word around eastern PA and I am sure most of the country). I expect to see something from every student in my class, the quiet ones, the talkative ones, the ones that need more time to process information, the student that was absent but catches up a few days later, etc. At my school, we are taking time at every inservice to share strategies (with or without technology) and get ideas from each other. There is a Professional Learning Community that meets regularly to continue that kind of conversation and coaches to help implement strategies. That’s a lot of support and time, but I think that is what will help teachers embrace new strategies. Of course the last step, reflecting on the process and it’s effectiveness, has to be emphasized as well.

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  2. Well, it is always a safe bet to cite “user error” when trying to establish a locus of blame for implementation of something new. This requires two specific (and often implicit) assumptions.

    1) The “new” thing is new enough to the user such that they use it in a manner that is inappropriate (or otherwise “not right”), resulting in poor outcomes.

    2) The means for measuring the outcomes by which the user’s performance was measured are adequate and proper.

    While it seems that you are arguing >withis< something to the argument that changing pedagogical tools/technologies in the classroom affects one’s ability to measure the learning (if not the nature of that learning) that takes place, then arguments like the one that Welsh puts forward just look incredibly reductive and simple-minded. Roughly, they are the equivalent of “back in my day, kids could learn just fine,” which does not take into consideration the complex interrelationships between human beings, social contexts, and technologies.

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  3. For some reason, your cite badly butchered my last paragraph after I submitted my comment – not sure why.
    Suffice it to say, you are arguing with Welsh on assumption #1, and I think there is something to be said for taking a look at assumption #2. At the very least, it is a bit more ethically generous to the teachers to not automatically assume they are either incompetent or sticks-in-the-mud. They get enough of those charges elsewhere…

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  4. Hi Donna,

    Thanks for offering your comments on this issue.

    It is good to know that your school offers you time in a PLC to pause and reflect, together, on how you are using technology to support student learning. Are you able to use that group to advocate for newer technologies, too? For instance, do you discuss why and how you might want a certain web tool unblocked or discuss purchasing for new equipment?

    That seems like it would be the next logical step — empowering you with the time is a start, and then adding the decision-making element would really allow for the conversations to turn into action.

    I hope that all is well with you and look forward to hearing about more of your work!

    Troy

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  5. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for commenting and you raise a good point about the means of the measurement being adequate. If I was sounding too much like the “teachers are sticks in the mud,” then I need to clarify. We know how they are measured (test scores), yet the newer literacies and technologies push reading, writing, and thinking in directions that do not conform to the tests.

    Thus, the means for measurement, if we believe that going digital is appropriate (as I assume the school does since it invested a billion dollars in infrastructure), then we also need to take into account what we are teaching, learning, and assessing. I think that this is the point that you are getting at and, if so, I agree.

    Mr. Welsh, far from being a stick in the mud, is working under a model of assessment that rewards certain kinds of performances — ones that are generally not in line with the kinds if divergent and critical thinking that a vision of newer literacies enables. So, in that case, his complaints are warranted.

    Now the trick is to see how we can take those complaints, layer in the idea that, yes, things are changing and all parts of the system — teaching, learning, assessment, infrastructure, administration, curriculum, professional development, etc. — need to keep (or catch) up.

    Troy

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  6. I just received feedback in the mail from a conference I presented at back in October – there was a question on the survey “How useful will the information covered in the session be in your classroom?” On a 1-4 scale, the answer to this question (for all presenters and topics) was low – compared to higher marks for general interest/enjoyment of the sessions. Then, I run across your post! I am conflicted on how to respond to the issue..it is not something I want to ignore…I’m just not sure how to respond yet.

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  7. Hi Leigh,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. In a way, it is the elephant in the room, isn’t it? On the one hand, we want teachers to learn about and integrate technology. On the other hand, we know that the institutional constraints — both social and from infrastructure — will prevent them from doing much of what is we are coming to see as “new literacies.”

    I am not sure there is “an answer” here so much as it is crucial that we keep raising the question, addressing it head on in professional development, and then giving teachers options to think about so they can talk knowledgeably about them when they return to school. Perhaps that is the best we can do? Perhaps they are best suited to raise the issue on their own once they have the knowledge, and we just need to give them that extra nudge?

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