Building The Basics of Personalized Professional Learning (Part I)

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Personalization is hard--but not for the reasons that you may be thinking. Choosing the right content and software is daunting. Creating adaptive paths for learning is extremely complex. Developing sets of competencies for your learners is an arduous task. But, none of these are the truly hard part.

The hard part is understanding the “person” in personalization. The person is more than just the needs that you have identified and are trying to “fix”. The person is more than just a means to getting better student assessment scores. Seeing this person clearly is hard. But, it is also essential.

So, let’s start by seeing the whole teacher or leader, the things that make someone truly unique and worth personalizing for. Ultimately, this comes down to identifying the four core areas of a Professional Learning Profile: Strengths, Needs, Interests, and Constraints (SNIC).

While this profile is important to identify, it is even more important to show that it is not static. It is also not a personality test or entirely subjective. Rather, this profile should be developed in conjunction with data from observation and feedback as well as self-reflection. Let’s dive in more deeply into each component of the profile to better understand why they are essential for personalization.

Strengths

Traditionally, as designers and facilitators of professional learning, we have not cared what a teacher is good at. In fact, most of the time, we have forgotten that they have any expertise at all. We are working on their weaknesses--we don’t have time to bring their strengths into the equation.

There is a huge flaw in this logic. It assumes that we, as those leading professional learning or at least setting up the structures for it, are the holders of all knowledge. It is dependant upon the fallacy that we know what great teaching looks like, and that those who are in the classroom do not. But, not only is this not true, but it is also dangerous thinking. We are not the only experts in the room. Ever.

In any room of teachers, the sheer number of years of expertise is overwhelming. The depth of experience is so vast that to not rely on it is criminal. If we deny the strengths of each of the teachers before us, we are denying their ability to take what they know and apply it to something new. We are disallowing their ability to become a community of teachers and learners. We are cutting them off from the part of themselves that is most competent in favor of the part that feels most weak. This cannot happen.

Sources:

  • Student Performance Data
  • Teacher Evaluation Data
  • Peer feedback
  • Self-Reporting/Self-Reflection

Needs

This is the one that we tend to focus on most in Professional Learning, but we have such a narrow definition of need that is squeezes out the actual teacher or leader in the process. Most of the time we define “the need” as the outcome that we have determined the teacher must reach. Whether it is in writing a better Student Learning Objective or in doing better student data analysis, the need we identify is typically generic and sterile. The needs we see can apply to a vast array of teachers, rather than any one teacher in particular. We have to stop doing this.

When asked, the needs that most teachers identify are specific to their own classrooms. They are even specific to the kids that are in front of them THIS YEAR. This is not a failure to see the big picture. This is the big picture. These kids are the ones that are important, right now.

So let’s find solutions for teachers and leaders. Let’s build PD that helps them to learn better. Let’s listen to the problems that are being encountered in the classroom and not to a fictionalized version of them that we have created as an amalgam of all the teachers we have worked with. We should do this because just like teaching to the middle doesn’t work with kids, it certainly doesn’t work with adults.

Sources:

  • Student Performance Data
  • Teacher Evaluation Data
  • Self-Reporting/Self-Reflection

Interests

We typically ignore personal interests in designing professional learning for teachers and leaders. As an educator, your interests for bee keeping may lay outside of the discipline you are paid to teach. Or, your interests for oxford-style debates may present a unique approach for tackling your given subject. It is these interests, though, that make up the passion projects from your classroom. They are the core of your engagement and provide the best path forward for choosing the right way for you to learn.

It is by engaging these interests that we, as designers and facilitators of professional learning, see “the why” of our work. The greater purpose of teaching is bound up in the interests and passions of teachers and leaders. They became educators for a reason, and it is this reason that can continue to fuel their growth within professional learning.

Sources:

  • Educational Transcripts (including certificates and other PD offerings)
  • Self-Reporting/Self-Reflection
  • Mentorship or Observation from others

Constraints

We almost never consider the teacher or leader’s ability to engage as a factor for how much they can learn or change. We don’t consider what is going on at home or the many other responsibilities that they have during the school day. This is a mistake.

A Teacher or Leader’s capacity for change is immense, but it is not infinite. Defining the barriers to entry is just as important as providing the resources to overcome them.

The limits I most often see are actually around identifying the priorities within the school and/or district. By forgetting to outline the many different goals and strategies at play, we tend to overload teachers with competing or disjointed professional learning. It is well within our control to help teachers to recognize all of the initiatives that are competing for their attention and to plot a course through them or align them in the pursuit of growth.

Sources:

  • Governance and Leadership Model Information
  • “Initiative” Data
  • Self-Reporting/Self-Reflection
  • Observations by Mentors/Coaches

The process of creating a Professional Learning Profile (using the SNIC model) is something that helps us see teachers and leaders more clearly, and provide supports that better match where they are. This is a collaborative process and requires us to iterate upon it as growth occurs, but this is only the beginning of how we ensure a true framework for Personalized Professional Learning.

Deeply personalized professional learning has the power to change practice in exponential ways. By starting with the whole “Person” and determining the Strengths, Needs, Interests and Constraints (SNIC), the learning can be fully owned by the learner. This “Personalization Profile” is an entry point for professional learning, but in order to fully support the learner, we must consider the ways teachers and leaders engage in professional learning through their Choice, Transparency, and Reflection. These are the three pillars of Professionalized Professional Learning, and it is by understanding them that we can start to build a system that supports the growth of all of our teachers and leaders.

This is the first article in a two part series by Ben Wilkoff on how to build a framework for personalized professional learning. Stay tuned for the second part in this series next week where he will dive deeper into how teachers and leaders will engage. 

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