Some Thoughts On Professional Development (upon rolling out iPads to Grade 9 students)

“But there is another reason why people abhor the idea of children learning what they want to learn when they want to learn it. They won’t all learn the same things!”

“The people who are horrified by (this idea) have not accepted the very elementary psychological fact that people (all people, of every age) remember the things that are important to them — the things they need to know — and forget the rest.”

Will Richardson / Freedom to Learn

The 21CL team at HWDSB recently completed 18 separate Professional Development sessions for Grade Nine teachers across the board. Everything else took a back seat to these sessions, and my inbox is still glaring at me like an unwalked dog. “Done” is the wrong word though. We’ve only just started on this learning journey.

We built the days to offer choice. We offered 6-10 different sessions (depending on the department) from which the participants could select three they felt would be particularly helpful in the immediate future. Our mandate to attendees was to find one thing they could take back and use, sometimes referred to as your “next best learning move” (Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack).

I strongly believe in the concept of offering choice in PD. I suppose that it may not always be possible, but every time I’m involved in PD that prescribes the content — or forces participants to attend sessions that won’t be immediately beneficial — something feels off. The quote from Will Richardson above — although stated in the context of classrooms and children — highlights this pointedly, wherein we acknowledge that learning we can’t immediately apply, or that doesn’t seem immediately useful, is quickly forgotten.

I wonder what PD would look like if this became the backbone of all planning: an acknowledgement that you can’t possibly force everyone to learn all the same things at the same time, so planning PD in which one linear agenda reigns is inherently foolish. What does professional learning look like where everyone gets what they need to move forward. What changes when we stop teaching content, and start teaching people?

There were moments of anxiety; moments of passionate conversation about the vision, and the implementation of that vision in schools.

Some participants felt they had not been properly prepared for the 1:1 project now unfolding in their Grade 9 classrooms. I think this stems from a desire to be perfect out of the gate (we are our own worst critics). To this end, we hope it is clearly understood that “the learning is the work” (Fullan). Any prior training specifically addressing a 1:1 classroom full of students connected to outside expertise, able to collaborate asynchronously, and able to create authentically, without the laboratory environment of your classroom available to immediately test that new learning with students, would most likely not be retained. Now that you have the proper tools, you can begin to implement their effective usage within your classroom.

There were some instances where teachers indicated that the students didn’t want to use technology within the classroom. I think there are a few different things potentially going on here.

Depending on their experience in school, by Grade Nine we’ve indoctrinated students in the pencil and paper way of doing things. Many have learned how to play the “game of school”. The shift in responsibility when the technology in the classroom is effectively used to allow students to “lead their own learning” is new, is challenging. Real learning happens outside of our comfort zone. It shouldn’t surprise us when students — who have been focused on content, and now suddenly find themselves being asked to perform richer tasks — express some discomfort. Fullan talks about this shift, and the additional expectations placed on students, in A Rich Seam:

Teaching shifts from focusing on covering all required content to focusing on the learning process, developing students’ ability to lead their own learning and to do things with their learning. Teachers are partners with students in deep learning tasks characterised by exploration, connectedness and broader, real-world purposes. (See Page 7)

As students become more engaged in the learning, this discomfort should abate. We are changing the “game”, we need to give them (and ourselves) time to learn the new rules.

I think backlash may also exist when students’ previous experiences use technology in trivial ways. The pedagogical usefulness of listening to a teacher lecture while copying notes off the blackboard would be made only more arduous if that note had to be taken on the small keyboard of an iPad Mini. Give me a pencil and a piece of paper for that task (if the practice can’t be abolished altogether).

Blended learning is a hybrid of the best facets of face-to-face learning, and elearning. We need to understand when technology is the best tool for the job; but then when it begins to feel like we are trying to hammer a screw into the wall with a wrench, we should put that technology aside and find better tools.

  • That should translate into chart paper and post-it notes when that’s the best method of sharing; but then use the iPad to capture those ideas to be posted to a blog where the conversation can continue long after the post-it adhesive has relinquished its hold
  • Talk to each other; but then leverage the internet to back up those discussions with external sources
  • Solve math problems on whiteboards; but then capture the process through a screencasting app like Explain Everything
  • Don’t waste time graphing on paper when the iPad can do that for you, so you can move beyond rulers and protractors to the richer task of analyzing the data within that graph

Marc Prensky talks about the importance of using technology not to do old things in new ways, but to do new things. The intent of putting an iPad into every students’ hands isn’t that they should be using them 100% of the time. It’s a move to combat the prior model in which technology wasn’t at the point of learning, it was stored in a separate lab down the hall you could visit once a week. In a connected world, this should be seen as the assinine equivalent of sharing a set of 30 pencils with 500 students.

There were questions about the different tools we have available within the board.tooltime Some feel we have too many different choices. I can’t argue with that other that to say that eventually all the tools might come in handy. To push the toolbox metaphor a bit: you may not yet need half the tools in the toolkit, but as you become a more proficient, each one does meet a particular need. Some of us only need a few screwdrivers right now, but eventually you’ll want to perform a task that requires more power.

Hopefully school teams found an opportunity to meet back at their schools to consolidate the learning from the sessions. During the Phys. Ed. PD, success-sketchSandra Holmes and Sonia Tiller from Henderson shared the importance of connecting with a colleague who you can collaborate and learn with. Someone who you can fail with (things won’t always go perfectly.) Eric Lootsma shared this graphic regarding what success really looks like during his presentation at the Geography sessions. I think it’s fitting.

There were great, challenging conversations throughout. These days have exemplified the importance of creating opportunities for departments to share their practice and collaborate together.

We hope that the sessions were useful. We hope that the participants were able to take something from the sessions back to their classrooms and try something new with students. Thank you to all the participants, the presenters, and to the administrators who organized coverage so that Grade 9 teaching staff could attend. We learn about how to deliver effective PD from your feedback, the struggles you share, and the victories you celebrate.


3 Replies to “Some Thoughts On Professional Development (upon rolling out iPads to Grade 9 students)”

  1. Thank you for writing this, and supporting your thinking so well with your own reading and research.

    I agree that if we are going to see choice happen in classrooms, we have to model it in our strategies for professional learning.

    I think, though, that this f2f choice-based PD needs to be part of a larger plan. It is also important for educators to be involved in similar learning topics so that they can share and collaborate (inquiry, for example). I would also argue that all educators need to be involved in extensive self-directed learning in their PLN. As educators, our work is to move learning forward for every single student. We don’t do this alone. We have our entire world-wide PLN to turn to for support. But educators need to develop and cultivate this network.

    Learning is complex, for students and for educators. Our plans for professional learning need to recognize this and model it, and include all of those complexities in how we plan it.

    Imagine if all of your attendees now went back and openly shared (blogged, for example) how their learning impacted their practice, and colleagues in other schools and boards could also learn from your work. Powerful! We learn from each other, fact-to-face in formal and informal sessions, and asynchronously, just like I am doing right now by reading and commenting on your blog.

    Thank you for catalyzing my thinking this morning!

    1. “I think, though, that this f2f choice-based PD needs to be part of a larger plan.”

      I completely agree. This post didn’t go into our larger plan. These initial face to face meetings are planned with the hope that it helps create the connections that will foster a board PLN, which then leads to an understanding of the necessity of a globally connected PLN. Every teacher blogging would be amazing, and it’s part of the vision of the HWDSB Commons to allow for that kind of sharing. We have also opened up the membership of our team blog:, to allow for a Medium-esque posting experience for those not yet ready to embark on the creation of their own blog.

      We also promote the use of Yammer, an internal board social learning network, to allow for a gradual on-ramp to the public reflections you are referring to here.

      Where we have seen the most success, after these initial meetings, is at the school level, in lesson study formats. When teachers collaborate and plan together, and then invite each other into their classrooms to test their theories, and iterate on lessons. This tends to be a good first step into breaking down the silos that can exist in our schools, fostering that school PLN that can hopefully be cultivated to include colleagues from across the board, to colleagues from around the world.

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