People Create Change, Not Products

Professional Development

People Create Change, Not Products

A manifesto for professional development that lasts

By Ben Wilkoff     Apr 16, 2014

People Create Change, Not Products

This article is part of the guide: How Teachers Are Learning: Professional Development Remix.

No matter how amazing the tool for PD (and there are quite a few amazing tools), it is the people implementing that tool that make or break it. Using these tools, our teachers and leaders can have a huge impact on student achievement with seemingly small changes in practice, or they can squander years of research the edtech company put into developing that product. Therefore, one tradeoff I’m never willing to make when it comes to PD are people. For me, people come before any process or tool.

In my experience, there is only one type of PD that actually brings about change and allows for the professional learning to be transformative. This PD is not focused on the content and nor on the tools. The focus is not on where to click or how to log in. Rather, the focus is on the people themselves and connecting them together in meaningful ways. This is at the heart of my work as Director of Personalized Professional Learning at Denver Public Schools.

Teachers are a network of colleagues created within a building. When it comes to getting help, there is nothing quite as simple as walking down the hallway and ducking into a friend’s classroom to ask a question or observe a lesson. These relationships make up the central nervous system of any school. The time spent talking and sharing knowledge from one teacher to the next are the moments that create change. And, any PD that does not either leverage or endeavor to recreate these types of relationships as a primary goal should be abolished (or so says research and PD based upon research).

Knowing who to turn to with a question is more important than knowing an answer.

Having someone to work with on a project is better than having a tool to implement alone in your classroom.

Learning WITH will always trump learning FROM.

My experience creating Online Communities of Practice in Denver Public Schools has shown this time and time again. When I concentrate on the tool itself (most typically Google+ because of communities like this), the connections are not made and people lose purpose for wanting to take part.

But, if I make these trainings about the people and the connections, then I see huge spikes in engagement and brand new communities popping up all over my district. The excitement to create these new communities comes from both the shared purpose for connecting educators that we established in our PD sessions, as well as the ease in which those educators can branch off and create their own groups. Using a simple series of reflective questions, each of these new “community managers” are able to establish their guidelines for contributing to, and working within, a community. In doing so, they are able to concentrate on the people rather than the platform and connect learners across a district.

Concretely, this means that teachers join communities on specific topics they want to learn more about. They can (and do) write messages back and forth to ask questions and engage with one another, getting notifications each a comment is made. They have regular live video conversations with panels experts within these communities. In them, they ask their questions in real-time and connect to educators from around the world.

While this may sound far-reaching and like it would require a lot of “click by click” PD just to get off the ground, we have flipped the majority of our “tools” PD into interactive “How-To” docs so we can focus more on what really matters: The People.

The social capital we create ensures we are reaching for change and not merely action. It is the social capital, and not the tools, that connects us to the work. The late night banging your head against the wall at a piece of technology will not make you want to use it more. But, the late night shared with fellow teachers or leaders in planning a great lesson or some new and innovative practice in the classroom, will bring you further understanding and a willingness to try new things.

When I look at every new PD experience I create, I start to consider something I learned from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This document was the result of a group of people getting together and finding the trade-offs for any truly great product in need of development. They decided which trade-offs to make. One such trade-off I have based all of my PD strategy around: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

I think it is time that we consider our own set of trade-offs in PD. I think it is time we create our own manifesto for PD Development. For the moment, I think they should go something like this:

  • Community over Content
  • Friends over Features
  • Conversation over Credit
  • People over Products

It isn’t that the right side of the trade-off isn’t important, but rather that is important only when you have considered the left side first. What sorts of trade-offs are you making in PD? What would you add to this manifesto?

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