A couple of days ago, Miami-Dade County’s Superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, wrote an impassioned call to action for our schools to embrace the needs of today’s learners and today’s world. He explains, "Children are not widgets, and schools cannot be assembly lines of knowledge." I commend him for this stand and also for the great work so many other districts are doing to build next generation learning opportunities.
Developing 21st century learning is a challenge every school and every district must now confront. We have reached the convergence of three critical factors: 1) the world and workforce demands new skills, 2) many of our students have already embraced a digital world already there, and 3) the technology and tools required are now widely available. This is truly an exciting time in education.
For any of this change to happen at scale, one piece is absolutely critical, but continues to lag --the development of the teachers as practitioners of next generation teaching and learning.
When we speak of a reinvention of learning, an amazing vision is painted for students complete with new devices, “personalized” learning, and increased student engagement. However, in order to actualize this vision, we have a significant bridge to build for teachers in becoming 21st century practitioners.
As this new school year begins in most school districts, hundreds of teachers will be gathered into large rooms, auditoriums, classrooms, cafeterias, where they will sit and listen to lectures. The lucky ones will do some small group work; maybe the even luckier ones will be involved in some interactive activities. This will happen in many cases for five straight days while teachers itch to start the really important work of getting their classrooms ready for the year.
Indeed, one of the biggest problems confronting education today is that these teachers are actually right. A recent study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that only 29% of teachers are highly satisfied with current professional development offerings and a large majority of teachers do not believe that professional development is helping to prepare them for the changing nature of their jobs. If we are going to expect teachers to help students become 21st century learners, they must become 21st century learners themselves. How can someone teach something that they themselves do not know? Teachers, like students, are not widgets, but we are still running them through factories.
Students across the country are coming into technology-equipped classrooms ready for next generation learning, sitting in front of teachers ill-prepared for modern teaching. In my work with numerous districts attempting to build 21st century classrooms, the issue of teacher preparedness has consistently emerged as a central challenge. School leaders are trying hard to meet this demand but are struggling to find effective ways to scale high-quality professional development.
This struggle is understandable. There are very real constraints to actually developing teachers effectively at scale. It is costly, the expertise is often not available, and teachers are extremely busy with hundreds of other competing priorities. The fundamental structure that we have adopted for teacher training is broken. But we do not know a better way nor did we have a better way….until now.
This is my plea to districts, stop wasting your teachers’ time! If you are serious about the education revolution for students, then we must become serious about the education revolution for teachers. My company, Redbird Advanced Learning, an outgrowth of Stanford University’s research in K-12 digital learning, has recently collaborated with researchers at the Graduate School of Education to develop tools and approaches that better support teacher professional development. Not surprisingly, the preliminary findings have been pretty straightforward and deployable.
Effective Professional Development has been shown to have:
- Active learning and simulations of practice,
- Opportunities for ongoing coaching and collaboration, and
- Duration and Distribution over time, meaning teachers learn best over extended periods of time.
This can now be accomplished at scale based upon preliminary findings that that when well designed, online and technology based learning can, in certain instances, be even more effective than in-person learning. (Fishman, et al, 2013, Powell, et al, 2010).
We are far from a learning revolution. When you walk into most schools today, there are a handful of classrooms where learning is being redefined. This is a great start. These are the early adopters. Reaching critical mass requires a system overhaul in how we are working with our teachers. That is when we can start talking about a true revolution in education. We have begun contemplating this and creating solutions for system-wide transformation. Our students are ready for a new world of learning. Now our teachers need to be.