Distributed PD – Getting Teachers the Support They Need When They Need It

So you’re implementing one (or more!) school change initiatives…

But what do you do when you hardly have any “everyone in the same room” professional development time available, and you don’t have enough tech integrators or learning coaches to go around, and you have a growing list of challenges and things you’re noticing your teachers don’t know how to do (because you haven’t taught them yet)…?

Under such circumstances, how do you support your educators?

The notion of needing some system of distributed professional development came while working in a district committed to not only implementing proficiency-based, customized learning for students, but also to reaping the benefits of learning through ubiquitous technology. Both required huge training and support efforts for our teachers and school leaders. Since these represented strategies and approaches that most of our educators had never experienced themselves as students, we felt a strong moral obligation to “support the heck out of them!” (or at least try to…)

We did realize that we weren’t alone in our efforts – other districts were working on the same initiatives we were, and had the same training and support needs. Maybe we could distribute the effort. Maybe there were ways we could support each other if we each took a piece of the load.

This led to the Distributed PD Project, working to, first, support teachers leveraging iPads for teaching and learning, and later, support teachers working to implement proficiency-based learning. The project includes establishing a professional learning curriculum, modules to deliver that curriculum, recruiting and certifying certifiers for those modules, and Digital Badges/micro-credentialing to acknowledge and document learning.

The work tried to reflect what we were growing to understand about proficiency-based professional development.

Learn more below.

Why a Distributed PD Project?

  • Because face-to-face trainings aren’t enough.
  • Because we can’t get enough time for all the face-to-face trainings we need.
  • Because we don’t just want teachers to attend trainings, but to go back to their classrooms and (successfully) implement new practices.
  • Because we are working on so many aspects of important initiatives at the same time.
  • Because we don’t have enough curriculum directors, tech integrators, and learning coaches to do it all.
  • Because we don’t want educators to have to wait long when they are ready for the next piece of training.
  • Because we want to model the (proficiency-based) learning we want for students in our professional learning with adults.
  • Because the professional development and support we need is too important to leave to chance.

Distributed PD

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Motivating Students: Focus on 6 Strategies

There are many children who seem undermotivated, disengaged, and underachieving.

Many educators are frustrated by such students; some educators as they struggle with finding ways to engage those students, and some because they believe it is up to those students to be motivated or not.

While it is true that the degree to which students are “self motivated” is a key factor of student academic success, the idea falls flat when it is accompanied with the assumption that there is nothing teachers can do to help students be more self motivated, when, in fact, there are strategies for creating the conditions for student to be self motivated.

Great teachers have always struggled with the persistent question, “How do I motivate all children to learn?” (Although, the question is probably better framed as, “How do I create the conditions for students to be self motivated?”) And you are probably one of the ones wondering how to reach them (or I doubt you’d be reading this post). You are not alone.

Six strategies for motivating students

The MEL Focus 5 Plus 1

One approach to reaching all students is Meaningful Engaged Learning’s Focus Five Plus 1, based on my research. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing six focus areas:

  • Inviting Schools
  • Learning by Doing
  • Higher Order Thinking
  • Student Voice & Choice
  • Real World Connections
  • Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools
Sometimes, it may seem like this has nothing to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the most important element to implement if you are to reach hard to teach students. I heard over and over again from the students I studied that they won’t learn from a teacher who doesn’t like them (and it doesn’t take much for a student to think the teacher doesn’t like her!). It’s important for everyone in the school to think about how to connect with students and how to create a positive climate and an emotionally and physically safe environment. Adult enthusiasm and humor go a long way and teachers are well served to remember that one “ah-shucks!” often wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys!”

Learning by Doing
When you realize that people learn naturally from the life they experience every day, it won’t surprise you that the brain is set up to learn better with active, hands-on endeavors. Many students request less bookwork and more hands-on activities. The students I studied were more willing to do bookwork if there was a project or activity as part of the lesson. Building models and displays, fieldtrips and fieldwork, hands-on experiments, and craft activities are all strategies that help students learn.

Higher Order Thinking
It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on memorizing facts actually makes it hard for students to recall the information later. That’s because the brain isn’t accustomed to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, within the New Bloom’s Taxonomy) requires that learners make connections between new concepts, skills, and knowledge and previous concepts, skills, and knowledge. These connections are critical for building deep understanding and for facilitating recall and transfer, especially to new contexts. Remembering things is important and a significant goal of education, but remembering is the product of higher order thinking, not the other way around. Involving students in comparing and contrasting, drama, and using metaphors and examples are strategies to move quickly into higher order thinking.

Student Voice & Choice
Few people like being told what to do, but in reality, we all have things we have to do that may not be interesting to us or that we would not choose to do on our own. Nowhere is this truer than for children in school. So, how can we entice people to do these things? We often resort to rewards or punishments when we don’t know what else to do, but these have been repeatedly shown to be counterproductive and highly ineffective (Kohn, 1993). Instead, provide students voice and choice. Let them decide how they will do those things. This doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but it means giving them choices (“Which of these three novels about the Great Depression would you like to read during this unit?”). Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, and make decisions about their learning.

Real World Connections
This focus area is often a missing motivator for students. Schools have long had the bad habit of teaching content out of context. Unfortunately, this approach produces isolated islands of learning, and often makes it easy to recall information learned only when they are in that particular classroom at that time of day; they are not as able to apply the information in day-to-day life. When learning is done in context, people can much more easily recall and apply knowledge in new situations (transfer). Making real world connections isn’t telling students how the content they are studying is used in the “outside world.” It’s about students using the knowledge the way people use the knowledge outside of school. Effective strategies include finding community connections, giving students real work to do, and finding authentic audiences for work (think project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning).

Continuous Improvement
Continuous Improvement takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, and monitoring of progress. Learners need to know what they are aiming at (clear picture of the learning target), and to see fairly immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance. Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn (and, therefore, need opportunities for next turns!), and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn’t about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve their performance.

These six focus areas aren’t new material; they are a synthesis of what we’ve known about good learning for a long time. The model is comprehensive, developed from education research, learning theories, teaching craft, and the voices of underachieving students.

But it is important to keep in mind that students need some critical mass of these strategies to be motivated. Teachers sometimes get discouraged when they introduce a single strategy and it doesn’t seem to impact their students’ motivation. The trick then isn’t to give up, but rather to introduce more of the strategies.

(NOTE: this is an updated version of the original Focus Five. “Continuous Improvement” was added as Focus Area while working in a district implementing proficiency-based, customized learning. Continuous Improvement had come up a little in the original research as “success breeds success,” but, without proficiency-based systems where teachers continue to work with students until they demonstrate some level of competency with a learning target, students don’t really notice – in a research study based on their perspective – the impact and importance of ongoing feedback and coaching, and success breeds success/continuous improvement didn’t rise to the level of a Focus Area at the time.)

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Not All At Once: Breaking Your Initiative Into Phases

Leading large-scale school change is a challenge. These kinds of initiatives are often complex and include numerous parts and components. Further, the initiative often includes practices educators, the folks responsible for implementing the initiative, have never experienced themselves as learners. Such initiatives often seem overwhelming to teachers!

While I was with Auburn schools, one lesson we learned from working with other districts further along implementing Customized Learning (proficiency-based learning) than we were was “not all at once!” Although there are many components to this school reform effort, following a certain sequence seemed to lead to successful implementation more often than other processes or approaches.

We teased out those lessons about sequence into phases for implementing Customized Learning and started applying them to plans for training and supporting teachers, as well as plans for implementing a statewide requirement for a proficiency-based diploma.

Seeing the practical benefits of breaking our proficiency-based learning work into phases led us to also consider our work around learning through technology within a 1to1 environment, and we created phases for implementing technology for learning, as well.

Although there is flexibility in how districts implement each phase, or even in how they might break an implementation into phases, there seems to be real, practical advantages to thinking of a complex initiative in phases. Each phase focuses on building the capacity of teachers to implement the key components of a complex initiative, but by making the transition manageable by breaking it down into doable steps.

The Power of Breaking an Initiative into Phases (as viewed from the example of Proficiency-Based Learning)

The Phases – Customized Learning

The Phases – Technology for Learning

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12 Professional Learning Curriculum Buckets for Teaching and Learning with Tech

(NOTE: this was originally posted at the More Verbs, Fewer Nouns Blog)

As we think about our teachers becoming highly skilled at using technology in the classroom, we could certainly generate a very long list of skills, approaches, tools, apps, strategies, and other competences we’d like them to get good at.

But there are certain behaviors/professional learning that MLTI would like to promote and encourage because they have been linked to fostering a quality, learning-focused 1to1 technology initiative (of course many of those items from the first list would fall nicely into these categories!). These become our 12 buckets that would make up our professional learning curriculum for teachers.

Teacher Professional Learning BucketsFour of those buckets focus on teachers’ being able to use the technology themselves and create the conditions in the classroom for students to use the technology for learning.

  1. Personal Use: Can teachers use the device themselves as their own productivity and learning tool?
  2. Classroom Management for Tech: How can teachers insure that students are focused and on-task when using technology in the classroom (especially when every student has a device in front of them!)?
  3. Student Motivation & Engagement: How do teachers ensure that students are mentally and physically engaged? How can teachers create the conditions for student self-motivation?
  4. Teaching Digital Citizenship: How do (all) teachers help students learn how to use technology safely and appropriately? (This isn’t just the responsibility of the computer teacher!)

And 8 of those buckets are the pedagogical approaches that make up “Powerful Uses of Technology” (notice that they focus on educational goals, not technology tools):

  1. Tech for Foundational Knowledge: How can we help students learn the basics?
  2. Tech for Practice and Deepening Understanding: What tools and resources help students develop some fluency with those basics?
  3. Tech for Using Knowledge: How can we contextualize learning and make learning engaging and meaningful? How can students use their knowledge? What is the role for creating and creativity, and for project-based learning.
  4. Tech for Learning Progress Management: How do we keep track of student learning? Promote a transparent curriculum? Make learning progressions clear? Help students navigate their learning? Maintain evidence of mastery?
  5. Tech for Personalizing Learning: How does technology help us tailor the learning to the student?
  6. Tech for Supporting Independent Learning: How can technology help the student do more on their own and need the teacher less?
  7. Tech for Assessment and Evidence of Learning: How can technology help us capture what students know and can do?
  8. Tech for Home/School Connection: How can technology help us stay better connected to parents?
Posted in Doing 1to1 Right, Professional Development, Technology for Learning

Working With A Diverse Staff: The Complete Series

This series is for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change.

Your success depends not just on your technical knowledge about the initiative, but also how well you understand the three kinds of staff in your school (Yahoos, Yes Buts, and NFWs) and how their support needs differ.

The Yahoos are those folks who are always excited about new and interesting practices, programs and resources and were anxious to try them out in their own classroom.

The Yes Buts seem hesitant and skeptical of the initiatives with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?”

The NFWs are the folks who look a little like Yes Buts with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?” but who are really saying to themselves and their fellow NFWs, “No freaking way am I doing this!”

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How to Best Support NFWs

This post is part of a series for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change. The NFWs are the folks who look a little like Yes Buts with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?” but who are really saying to themselves and their fellow NFWs, “No freaking way am I doing this!”

This post focuses on how to best support NFWs.

The best way to support NFWs is to begin by acknowledging who they are and how they are likely to respond to the initiative. Ironically, acknowledging that you will likely have little control over the NFWs in relation to the initiative is very freeing. Frustration is when reality doesn’t match expectations. But when you know what to expect from NFWs, you can let go of the frustration, making it much easier to be patient with them. Simply let them be who they are, and take pride in the effort and energy you are putting into the Yes Buts.

Respond to NFWs inquiries (patiently) with the same legitimate answers that you’d give Yes Buts, and don’t react when they throw  up the next question. Offer them all the same resources and professional learning opportunities (that are within reason and are practical) that you would the Yes Buts.  But don’t get too hung up on responding to their every request and concern. Be polite, be patient, but don’t engage or get drawn into a debate.

Don’t put any more than 10% of your energy and effort into NFWs. They are not the ones who will help you move the needle. Sometimes NFWs will eventually come along, but generally only after they realize “the train has left the station.” That only happens when enough of the Yes Buts have changed their practice to have really moved the needle for the school.

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What We Misunderstand about NFWs

This post is part of a series for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change. The NFWs are the folks who look a little like Yes Buts with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?” but who are really saying to themselves and their fellow NFWs, “No freaking way am I doing this!”

This post focuses on how we misunderstand NFWs.


Sometimes, when we are new to school change work, or when we are new to working with a particular staff, we will misidentify an NFW as being a Yes But. That is because they raise the same kind of objections. But we must remember that NFWs have a different objective. The Yes Buts honestly want to know about the objection and can be appeased when they receive a response they view as legitimate.

On the other hand, with the NFWs, if you address their concern, they will quickly respond, “Well, maybe. But what about this?” and throw up another objection. Their motivation in asking is not the same as Yes Buts. The NFWs’ objective is to avoid doing something they don’t want to do. Generally, they are not really concerned about the question they asked, they just think maybe it will be the “legitimate” thing that will get you to say, “Well, I guess we shouldn’t do it then…”

Don’t worry. You will quickly start to tell the Yes But questioners from the NFW questioners.

The much larger problem than misidentifying NFWs is that we think we can or should change their minds about the work.

I have worked with wonderful, caring Learning Coaches and Technology Integrators who so believed in the work what they ended up putting most of their time and energy into trying to get the NFWs to do a better job with the initiative. The problem of course, is that they forgot that, by definition, these educators were going to do everything in their power NOT to implement the initiative in anything other than some superficial “check list” approach. The travesty, of course, is that all that high quality time and energy from the Coaches and Integrators went into a black hole, instead of working with the Yes Buts, where it would have made a difference.


Next in the series: How to best support NFWs.

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