Education is not merely about transferring information. It is about contextualizing that information in the real life experiences of the learners, and in relation with the experiences of other learners…It is the relationships among people and sharing contextualized experiences that create emergent knowledge that is the basis of education.Mark Federman

One of the things that has been bothering me about my own work of late is the inherent limitations of the current conference workshop or district in-service day structures that I find myself a part of more often than not. I really feel like when people ask me to do a keynote or a general presentation that my job is to inspire, cajole, provide some cognitive dissonance or start conversations. And I am happy to try to do that. But the workshops are a different story. In the best case, they are a full day of one or two particular tools. In the worst case, they are one or two hours on a lot of tools. Either way, the experience usually serves to overwhelm, and at the end of the day (or hour) the participants head back to the craziness of their teaching lives where I’m guessing much of what they have “learned” fails to take root. Now that may be my fault to some extent, but it’s also a direct result of the “drive by” nature of much of what we call professional development. There’s little if anything to support the experience after it’s over. It’s a little better at conferences where people by and large choose to be there, but the larger point is that motivated at the moment or not, there is rarely time for contextualizing the skills and connecting and sharing those experiences after the fact.

Yet, that is the inherent power of these tools, the connections they allow us to create. And in those connections and the networks we can build around them, we begin to seriously challenge many of the traditional constructs of how we do our business. Take conferences, for example. The truth is that the vast majority of what will be offered at NECC this year can be had online, in a community, when you need it or want it. Sure, there will be some sessions that will inspire and push our thinking, but most of the folks who spent time in the Blogger’s Cafe last year will be heading to San Antonio with other priorities than skill building or presentations of papers. We’ll be in San Antonio to push forward the conversations that we’ve been engaged in all year long since Atlanta, to make our networks physical which in turn deepens the virtual. We’ll be there to do what we do in our online community which looks nothing like sitting in rows quietly watching presentations in rooms filled with people.

And the pd part of our business has to change too. These tools support the need for the relationships and the sharing of real-life experiences around the information transfer so that the “learning” isn’t done in relative isolation. We can create community around the experience, community that is not dependent on time and place but is instead available to the learner when needed or wanted. The tools give us opportunities to add value to the face to face, but only, and here’s the rub, if we know how to use the tools. And that’s why workshops feel so stressed, so mind-numbing. Because the way we approach it right now, we have to get it all in one sitting and then hope for the best.

So what about doing it differently? What about doing long-term, job embedded, relationship and network building professional development that blends the best of face to face with the “Fifteen Minutes” model that Carolyn Foote writes about? What about giving teachers new to these technologies just enough to get them started and then take the school year (or more) to immerse them in the tools and networked learning environments where they can learn at their own pace (with some appropriate nudging and guidance from time to time)?

Well, that’s the “different” approach I’ve been taking of late with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, whose knowledge and passion for this work I grow to respect more each day. Working off of the model Sheryl helped develop in Alabama, we’re currently in the midst of six-month long professional development programs with a couple of hundred educators from around the country, leading them through a process that we hope will allow these concepts and skills to really take root in their own learning practice. And it is focused on their own learning, not teaching, not classrooms, not kids. That’s hugely important to us, that these educators be selfish about the learning. No doubt, many of them struggle to approach this process with anything but a teaching lens. But both Sheryl and I feel strongly that what will really create meaningful change in schools and classrooms are teachers who personally understand the potentials of these connections. Already, the most powerful piece of these cohorts to me is that in the process, we’re collectively beginning to build the relationships and share contextualized experiences “that create emergent knowledge that is the basis of education.” The connections are deepening.

Sheryl is fond of saying “This is business as ‘un’usual” and I agree. But it shouldn’t be, should it? While there will always be a role for time and place, physical space, face to face learning, there are other ways and, in some instances, better ways to do workshops and conferences and professional development, ways that definitely do a better job of helping us understand what it means to create and sustain the types of personal learning networks that are now possible. The same types of learning networks, both physical and virtual, we want our own children to master in their own practice.

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