Opinion | Learning Strategies

Coming This Summer: Powerful, Peer-Led Professional Development That Won’t Bore

By Dr. Todd Keruskin and Gregg Behr     Apr 29, 2017

Coming This Summer: Powerful, Peer-Led Professional Development That Won’t Bore

When was the last time you walked into a conference without an agenda? Or, for that matter, without the slightest idea of what you might learn?

For us, it was at EdFoo 2017, an un-conference of teachers, edtech gurus, funders and others gathered at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters for three days of spontaneous learning. EdFoo “campers” create the event’s agenda collaboratively and on the fly, organizing their ideas on a whiteboard as the conference begins. Some campers lead sessions in their respective fields, some join panel discussions, and others bounce from room to room according to their interests and needs. All of it makes for an organic, easygoing conference—one that ranks among our most powerful professional development experiences.

After 72 hours in Mountain View, Calif., we left exhausted yet remarkably recharged, having interacted with some of the world’s most innovative thinkers, tinkerers, and technologists. But we also recognized that it was EdFoo’s structure and the philosophy behind it that truly set the conference apart. By giving us total control over our own learning—and then allowing us to facilitate that learning in ways we deemed timely, practical, and engaging—each EdFoo camper had engaged in an active exchange of ideas.

It wasn’t a few hundred strangers sitting through workshops and absentmindedly checking their email; it was some 200 peers challenging, inspiring and pushing one another to new heights.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the model has gained traction among educators in recent years. Technology and new theories of learning have led to groundbreaking shifts in how we define and support great teaching, with educators themselves leading the charge. Increasingly, today’s teachers share their expertise in organic, peer-led sessions; spread best practices through formal and informal networks; and drive each other’s development with the kind of zeal that traditional, top-down PD has long failed to generate.

From left: Sunanna Chand (Remake Learning Council), Kathy Lewis-Long (Sprout Fund), Paul Gould (MAYA Design), Gregg Behr (Grable Foundation), Junlei Li, (Fred Rogers Center), Dr. Todd Keruskin (Elizabeth Forward School District)

Here in the Pittsburgh region, educators from the Remake Learning Network—a coalition of more than 250 schools, universities, libraries, startups, nonprofits, museums—offer several hundred peer-led programs, including workshops, peer networks, one-on-one mentorship programs, and summer seminars. Hosted in classrooms, virtual spaces, brick-and-mortar spaces, makerspaces and elsewhere, each program strives to do for educators what educators do for students: instill a sense of wonder, possibility, excitement and ownership.

In May, for example, Harvard University’s Project Zero will host its national Perspectives conference in Pittsburgh for the first time. The 50-year-old research consortium attempts to understand what learning is, how it develops, and where it thrives, bringing educators together to rethink what true learning looks like in their classrooms.

“We start without an answer, but we go on a journey together in an attempt to figure it out as peers,” says Jeff Evancho, and educator at the Quaker Valley School District, which has served as a hub for Project Zero initiatives since 2015. Organized around three keynote speakers who will frame each day’s ideas (making, innovating, and learning), the Perspectives conference will feature dozens of local teachers leading interactive breakout groups focused on translating theory to practice.

Just a few days later marks the beginning of Remake Learning Days, the world’s largest open house for teaching and learning. Designed to showcase education’s newest, most experimental technology and innovations, the 12-day festival is expected to draw at least 30,000 attendees to more than 350 events across the Pittsburgh region.

One such event is EdCampPGH—perhaps the ultimate example of peer-led PD. Embracing the belief that educators themselves provide the most valuable PD for their colleagues, EdCamps began in Philadelphia in 2010 and have since been replicated more than 700 times around the world. In many ways, they’re a sort of spiritual cousin to EdFoo: Organized and hosted entirely by volunteers, each EdCamp is free to participants, who develop the agenda together to create a conference tailored to their specific needs.

“Teachers can focus on the topics and issues that they’re grappling with today, rather than in traditional PD, where they deal with issues that may be important but not top-of-mind,” says educator and EdCampPGH organizer Norton Gusky. “The more that PD addresses teachers’ immediate needs, the more buy-in there is.” (EdCampPGH is just one of more than 45 peer-led professional development events supporting educators during Remake Learning Days.)

And the opportunities for educators don’t stop there. This summer, teachers from the Avonworth School District will host “Studio A: Designing Creative K-12 Project-Based Learning,” a three-day conference on creating project-based learning experiences steeped in human-centered design and the arts. The South Fayette School District, meanwhile, will host its fifth STEAM Innovation Summer Institute, where teachers from around the country build skills in computer programming, 3D modeling, robotics, game design, multimedia, and more. Then there’s the Elizabeth Forward School District’s Pittsburgh Fab Institute, where participants work together on interdisciplinary projects that incorporate art, science, and technology.

The list goes on and on. It’s a far cry from 2012, when then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told teachers, “At the federal level, we spend $2.5 billion a year on professional development. As I go out [and] talk to great teachers around the country, when I ask them how much is that money improving their job or development, they either laugh or they cry. They are not feeling it.”

That was then. Now, with more and more teachers designing and facilitating their own programs, the peer-led PD revolution is clearly underway. It’s up to the rest of us to support their efforts as they lead students—and each other—into the future of teaching and learning.

Gregg Behr (@greggbehr) is executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of Remake Learning

Dr. Todd Keruskin (@DrToddKeruskin) is assistant superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District

Opinion | Learning Strategies

Coming This Summer: Powerful, Peer-Led Professional Development That Won’t Bore

By Dr. Todd Keruskin and Gregg Behr     Apr 29, 2017

Coming This Summer: Powerful, Peer-Led Professional Development That Won’t Bore

When was the last time you walked into a conference without an agenda? Or, for that matter, without the slightest idea of what you might learn?

For us, it was at EdFoo 2017, an un-conference of teachers, edtech gurus, funders and others gathered at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters for three days of spontaneous learning. EdFoo “campers” create the event’s agenda collaboratively and on the fly, organizing their ideas on a whiteboard as the conference begins. Some campers lead sessions in their respective fields, some join panel discussions, and others bounce from room to room according to their interests and needs. All of it makes for an organic, easygoing conference—one that ranks among our most powerful professional development experiences.

After 72 hours in Mountain View, Calif., we left exhausted yet remarkably recharged, having interacted with some of the world’s most innovative thinkers, tinkerers, and technologists. But we also recognized that it was EdFoo’s structure and the philosophy behind it that truly set the conference apart. By giving us total control over our own learning—and then allowing us to facilitate that learning in ways we deemed timely, practical, and engaging—each EdFoo camper had engaged in an active exchange of ideas.

It wasn’t a few hundred strangers sitting through workshops and absentmindedly checking their email; it was some 200 peers challenging, inspiring and pushing one another to new heights.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the model has gained traction among educators in recent years. Technology and new theories of learning have led to groundbreaking shifts in how we define and support great teaching, with educators themselves leading the charge. Increasingly, today’s teachers share their expertise in organic, peer-led sessions; spread best practices through formal and informal networks; and drive each other’s development with the kind of zeal that traditional, top-down PD has long failed to generate.

From left: Sunanna Chand (Remake Learning Council), Kathy Lewis-Long (Sprout Fund), Paul Gould (MAYA Design), Gregg Behr (Grable Foundation), Junlei Li, (Fred Rogers Center), Dr. Todd Keruskin (Elizabeth Forward School District)

Here in the Pittsburgh region, educators from the Remake Learning Network—a coalition of more than 250 schools, universities, libraries, startups, nonprofits, museums—offer several hundred peer-led programs, including workshops, peer networks, one-on-one mentorship programs, and summer seminars. Hosted in classrooms, virtual spaces, brick-and-mortar spaces, makerspaces and elsewhere, each program strives to do for educators what educators do for students: instill a sense of wonder, possibility, excitement and ownership.

In May, for example, Harvard University’s Project Zero will host its national Perspectives conference in Pittsburgh for the first time. The 50-year-old research consortium attempts to understand what learning is, how it develops, and where it thrives, bringing educators together to rethink what true learning looks like in their classrooms.

“We start without an answer, but we go on a journey together in an attempt to figure it out as peers,” says Jeff Evancho, and educator at the Quaker Valley School District, which has served as a hub for Project Zero initiatives since 2015. Organized around three keynote speakers who will frame each day’s ideas (making, innovating, and learning), the Perspectives conference will feature dozens of local teachers leading interactive breakout groups focused on translating theory to practice.

Just a few days later marks the beginning of Remake Learning Days, the world’s largest open house for teaching and learning. Designed to showcase education’s newest, most experimental technology and innovations, the 12-day festival is expected to draw at least 30,000 attendees to more than 350 events across the Pittsburgh region.

One such event is EdCampPGH—perhaps the ultimate example of peer-led PD. Embracing the belief that educators themselves provide the most valuable PD for their colleagues, EdCamps began in Philadelphia in 2010 and have since been replicated more than 700 times around the world. In many ways, they’re a sort of spiritual cousin to EdFoo: Organized and hosted entirely by volunteers, each EdCamp is free to participants, who develop the agenda together to create a conference tailored to their specific needs.

“Teachers can focus on the topics and issues that they’re grappling with today, rather than in traditional PD, where they deal with issues that may be important but not top-of-mind,” says educator and EdCampPGH organizer Norton Gusky. “The more that PD addresses teachers’ immediate needs, the more buy-in there is.” (EdCampPGH is just one of more than 45 peer-led professional development events supporting educators during Remake Learning Days.)

And the opportunities for educators don’t stop there. This summer, teachers from the Avonworth School District will host “Studio A: Designing Creative K-12 Project-Based Learning,” a three-day conference on creating project-based learning experiences steeped in human-centered design and the arts. The South Fayette School District, meanwhile, will host its fifth STEAM Innovation Summer Institute, where teachers from around the country build skills in computer programming, 3D modeling, robotics, game design, multimedia, and more. Then there’s the Elizabeth Forward School District’s Pittsburgh Fab Institute, where participants work together on interdisciplinary projects that incorporate art, science, and technology.

The list goes on and on. It’s a far cry from 2012, when then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told teachers, “At the federal level, we spend $2.5 billion a year on professional development. As I go out [and] talk to great teachers around the country, when I ask them how much is that money improving their job or development, they either laugh or they cry. They are not feeling it.”

That was then. Now, with more and more teachers designing and facilitating their own programs, the peer-led PD revolution is clearly underway. It’s up to the rest of us to support their efforts as they lead students—and each other—into the future of teaching and learning.

Gregg Behr (@greggbehr) is executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of Remake Learning

Dr. Todd Keruskin (@DrToddKeruskin) is assistant superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District

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