Thanks to the Common Core State standards, which most states and the District of Columbia have adopted, teachers today find themselves drawing on some unexpected resources for professional learning. We're talking YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) — and teachers are definitely collaborating among themselves as they explore a universe of technology that was a distant galaxy just a generation ago.
"[It's an] explosion of sharing and adapting instructional materials, some on specific platforms but many through the broader use of [popular] technologies," says NCLE's write-up.
The gift of time
The survey, "Remodeling Literacy Learning Together: Paths to Standards Implementation," was designed to indicate where we are nationally in terms of opportunities for educators to learn about the new standards, the most powerful professional learning approaches to it, and how involved teachers are in their districts' transition to the standards. Not surprisingly, the survey pinpointed the dearth of allotted learning time as a major challenge for the Common Core.
Kent Williamson, who serves as executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English and the NCLE, says organizations such as Learning Forward can assist districts in developing more efficient time blocks for on-site professional learning. The website also offers a deep reservoir of workbooks and guidelines for download to help strengthen and develop professional learning policies, many with an emphasis on Common Core standards implementation.
Williamson suggests that examples of improved on-site time management include a rearrangement of the school day, where teachers of the same grade levels can collaborate while other staff members work with students on projects. The overall idea, says Williamson, is to lessen the time teachers spend in instruction mode to allow collaborative and individual research time.
The survey notes, "The best school systems in the world design their schools so that teachers spend substantial portions of their day working alongside other educators to think through challenges together. In most other developed countries, classroom instruction takes up less than half a teacher's work day. The rest of the day is spent on activities designed to make that classroom instruction more powerful, such as preparing lessons, planning with colleagues, observing peers and analyzing student work."
Williamson believes a "quiet revolution" is occurring as districts revamp school time and decision-making, and that successful learning comes from how an educator's expertise is developed and delivered, rather than simply from content of the standards. "We need to treat teachers like professionals who solve problems, just like architects and doctors," he explains. "The teacher is no longer the lone hero in front of the student. It is now a group responsibility. And teachers across disciplines are realizing literacy will depend on technology. These days [a student] must be able to read like a scientist and a mathematician. Literacy is not just about English."
With the Common Core State Standards gearing up students to collaborate and analyze evidence that crosses disciplinary lines, it makes sense that teachers, too, would spend time together in multiple disciplines, according to the NCLE survey.
Another valuable resource the NCLE offers is the Literacy in Learning Exchange, where a plethora of information related to professional learning is available online, including scheduled Twitter chats and group discussions. The website also features articles, blogs and online groups formed by teachers, coaches, librarians and others willing to share their expertise and accept contributions from outside the group.
ISTE Chief Innovation Officer Wendy Drexler points out that ISTE is highly effective in connecting teachers with channels that include webinars, online courses, consulting services and, of course, the annual ISTE Conference & Expo. Often, when conference attendees meet colleagues from other areas, they arrange to connect later virtually and in person for deeper group discussions.
For those unable to attend an annual conference, ISTE provides professional networking avenues. And, Drexler notes, just as students work with other students in faraway lands using Skype as their communication tool, teachers can converse similarly with peers by using a Twitter account and following #EdTech, where educators from every corner of the world share information.
"We need to model for the student what 21st century learning looks like," she says. "What I'm feeling now is a tipping point," she says. "Ask any teacher what they need and they always say time.' They are so overwhelmed. They want to know how they can do one more thing when they barely have time for what they do now. We are all in this together. We can learn so much by collaborative research. ISTE is trying to provide as many opportunities as possible."
Drexler stresses that teachers are at different levels in terms of digital learning, so no one solution fits all. "We have teachers who are not using technology at all," she says. She points to a resource produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology (College of Education) at the University of South Florida called the Technology Integration Matrix . It charts the progress of five meaningful learning environments and their five levels of technology integration. The matrix provides a step-by-step illustration, complete with video links, to demonstrate how teachers at different levels of adoption can use technology to enhance learning for K-12 students.
Nancy Fichtman Dana has a distinguished career in education and education research. She is a professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida and is a co-author of "Inquiring into the Common Core," published in 2013, among other books and publications. She has witnessed the evolution of teacher professional learning from the traditional "sit-and-get" inservice days to the more powerful job-embedded and collaborative approaches.
"There is nothing wrong with having a speaker [at an event], but often teachers return to the classroom without help to synthesize the information into instruction," she said. "Teachers engaging in their own research have a chance to ask questions about a topic and to analyze, to share with other professionals at their school sites or within the district."
The collaborative approach Dana describes is natural for ISTE conference attendees, many of whom are part of passionate learning communities that discuss and synthesize the information from conference speakers, panels and training sessions to support improved learning and teaching, Drexler notes.
Dana also is a strong proponent of the work and resources Learning Forward provides, adding, "Technology creates many rich opportunities [for educators] to connect with each other. They have generated lots of knowledge, and technology creates greater opportunities to share." Dana also acknowledges that what works for one does not necessarily work for everyone.
That's why providing a variety of professional learning opportunities is important. Like students, not all teachers learn in the same way, and some even find they prefer the traditional speaker. "In many districts, the speaker style is pervasive. What is important is the inclusion of teacher voices. They need to be heard and understand how Common Core will impact student learning."
She encourages professional learning settings where groups can share successes and engage in activities that use a protocol of "pushing each other's thinking."
In California, where Gov. Jerry Brown approved a one-time $1.25 billion grant in 2013 for schools to use for professional learning, technology and resources for Common Core implementation, education leaders are asking for more in 2014. In a recent survey conducted by the Association of California School Administrators members overwhelmingly listed professional learning and technology as the highest priority in new funding.
Respondents cited a need for coaches to work with teachers and staff, time for teachers to work collaboratively, and more powerful infrastructure and computers to meet the demands of digital learning under Common Core.
Step up, policymakers
Last February, Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, called upon state and school district policymakers to ramp up meaningful, effective professional learning as the Common Core State Standards are implemented, warning, "Without high-quality professional learning, adopting standards becomes an empty promise."
After all, as policies increase the expectations for students and educators, Hirsh stresses, districts also must transform their expectations for professional learning. In other words, she'd like to put meat on skeletal policies currently in place for professional learning. In a Feb. 12, 2014, blog post titled "Seven Policy Shifts That Improve Professional Learning" at edweek.org , she provides a checklist for policymakers to determine if sufficient strategies are in place to ensure high-quality professional learning opportunities.
"When I advocate to policymakers, I tell them, 'This is your way to tell teachers you want them to experience quality professional learning,'" she says.
One of her recommendations is to invest significantly in resources and support to implement those priorities. Other suggestions include requiring educators to collect evidence demonstrating improved practice and student results following professional learning engagement, establishing stringent requirements so third-party professional learning providers use evidence to demonstrate the impact of their services, and, finally, establishing formal feedback and advisory systems to tap expertise and insights of educators following input from stakeholders. Accountability must be built into new policy structure.
Collaborating with peers at the school site should be the first order of business in professional learning for educators, according to Hirsh. She feels districts should assess which resources and expertise are available among school site personnel before looking outside for additional help.
"Too frequently, educators look outside first, and it should be the reverse. Work that occurs among teachers who talk about their students' performance and how to support them should come first. Then if expertise doesn't reside in their group, they should look outside, often using technology," she says.
Hirsh's advice parallels some of the recommendations offered in the 2013 NCLE survey, where support from all stakeholders — including parents and community, school site leaders, school board members, local leaders and state and federal policymakers — is encouraged. Those recommendations offer a "how-to" list for each group to follow.
Former ISTE board member Eileen Lento, worldwide director of strategy and marketing for Intel Education, an ISTE corporate member, believes institutional changes must occur in this new world of universal connectivity. Without broad change — and not just in professional learning — education will suffer, she says.
"There are structural obstacles. Institutions have built structures that are brittle in the world we live in now," Lento says. She is talking about a new way of doing business, replacing the old model of schooling, making significant time for professional learning and looking at a vision of a successful student in today's world. Lento wants education leaders to think in terms of "a system change lens" where all stakeholders, including parents and the community, are part of the transition.
"If we stay the same, we will constantly be playing catch up," she predicts. "We need to embrace a system that encourages collaboration. The days of isolation are over." Lento also points out that the sense of not having sufficient time to accomplish tasks is a common complaint in a world that "is always on" due to advances in technology. "There are more and more consultants to guide the workplace in time management. It is universal and not limited to education," she explains. "Educators are realizing we must change to the world around us. This is the world our children will live and work in."