Grassroots Professional Development

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Professional Development (6/8)

Heading to the Digital Frontier to Learn

K-12 professional development is changing and it’s driven by the people who consume it: Teachers

Edcamps in the US (‘10-’15)
Edcamps, a key example of teacher-created, teacher-driven PD, have occured 1,000 times in all 50 states and 26 countries

Att pd graph1Source: Edcamp

In 2010, Rafranz Davis was a high school math teacher in Texas. The professional development she remembers the most involved taking prescribed courses that did not meet her needs. These days, she directs professional learning for the Lufkin Independent School District in Texas, and she has a powerful message for teachers: yes, the district provides some PD but you might do better reaching out and grabbing what you need. “I did not want teachers to sit in front of a computer and ever say, ‘Is this all there is?’ I wanted them to be able to know that, yes, you have options here with us, and maybe we need to change what we’re teaching to meet your needs,” Davis says, “but also that you have the ability to connect outside and go learn elsewhere, and social media is critical to that.”

More and more teachers are driving their own professional development through a host of digital tools, from Twitter and Facebook to individual digital materials. And that trend could have enormous implications for the multibillion dollar industry of professional development.

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On an annual basis, according to the Gates Foundation, an estimated $18 billion is spent on professional development. According to a two-year study conducted by The New Teacher Project, the 50 largest school districts spend $8 billion a year on PD, or an estimated $18,000 per teacher per year. The study also concludes that much of that spending doesn’t help. “Most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year—even though many have not yet mastered critical skills,” the report says. PD options provided by districts are too sporadic and disconnected from what teachers need, says the report. Equally troubling is that districts frequently failed to “create enough trust” with teachers so that they can identify their own strengths and weaknesses and find ways to improve.

But teachers are motivated. The study also notes that teachers are pouring two to four times as much of their own time into PD than districts require.

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For some, that means showing up at Edcamps, loosely structured meetings where teachers come together and create their own agendas. More than 1,000 EdCamps have taken place since the first one occurred in 2010 (see data above). Other teachers rely heavily on social media channels including Twitter chats, Facebook, Pinterest, and so on. There are now over 1.3 million education pins per day on Pinterest and 349 twitter chats per week (up from 34 in 2010).

Unique Education Twitter Chats Per Week (‘10-’15)

The number of unique education-related Twitter chats has exploded by 10x over the past five years demonstrating the popularity of social media platforms

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2010Toggle left2015
Source: Education Chats

Like traditional PD, the grassroots variety has pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s (mostly) free, intensely immediate, and easily accessible. It puts teachers in touch with ideas and trends, and fosters collegiality among teachers. On the down side, it’s time consuming, fragmented, quality controls are limited, and while it supports tech savvy teachers, there is still a large number of teachers who are not engaged. “There has to be a better connection between the informal learning, the grassroots learning networks, and then the formal institutions that are trying to codify and share with everyone else,” says The Learning Accelerator’s Beth Rabbitt. “Otherwise,” she notes, “the innovation doesn’t scale nearly as rapidly.”

DonorsChoose.org Professional Development

In 2015, DonorsChoose.org launched a pilot to help eligible teachers create DonorsChoose.org projects requesting materials and resources for their own professional development. Teachers were able to submit requests for professional development books, a conference or workshop registration, or even a certification to tackle. AT&T has supported DonorsChoose.org through “flash funds” of all projects in specific communities, as well as matching campaigns and employee giving.

Grassroots PD is still seeking ways to acknowledge and reward the effort that teachers put into improving their own skills—and that of others. Digital Promise, for example, provides teachers with competency-based micro-credentials, or digital badges, and edWeb provides members of online professional learning communities with certificates for participating in webinars. Others celebrate groups of teacher leaders through regional events such as EdCamps. A key component of bringing grassroots initiatives to scale, says edWeb CEO Lisa Schmucki, “is getting it to count.”

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Teachers

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MICHAEL HERNANDEZ
Cinema and Broadcast Journalism Teacher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach
“In our community, there has been a shift away from naysayers who say we don’t need technology. The community is shifting towards viewing devices as tools, not toys.”
Tweet here, Tweet Everywhere

Social media enabled this generation of educators to communicate, collaborate and connect in ways never possible before. For teachers, learning has become a 24/7 opportunity. Michael Hernandez, who teaches broadcast journalism at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, takes the initiative to learn everything he possibly can through social media. “For me, Twitter is huge. I have four different accounts for different things. I follow people and organizations that are tweeting interesting ideas, links to articles, sharing tips or leads on conferences or contests or awards that are out there.” Email newsletters are another important resource for him. “It’s like a curated bundle of ideas that’s delivered to your email box every day or every week.” The upshot? It’s tailored to fit his exact needs: “You make your own,” Hernandez says, “and you choose what you want to learn.”

Teacher voice amplified

As grassroots professional development attracts more and more teachers to connect through social media, teachers have leveraged the opportunities to use their voices on a larger stage. For some this means communicating needs, problems, and accomplishments directly with their district superintendents, like teachers do in districts such as Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia and the Harrington Park School District in New Jersey, to name a few. For others it means facilitating learning opportunities themselves, through EdCamps, edWeb or leading Twitter chats. As teachers leverage learning opportunities through social media, they have also started to tap into the power of their individual voices.

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