A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be sitting in a boutique pub on the Fremantle docks having a beer with my mate Bryn Jones. It was actually the first time I had gotten to meet Bryn in person, although we had exchanged many discussions via the Ozteachers mailing list for a number of years prior to that. I happened to be visiting Perth to run some technology workshops and since Bryn was one of the few people I knew from WA I’d organised to catch up and meet him in person. Bryn is a well respected WA educator and was lecturing at Notre Dame University in Freo at the time, quite literally teaching teachers to teach. I met him at his place, we drove into Fremantle township and went for a wander down to this wonderful pub called Little Creatures, right on the edge of Fremantle Harbour, with incredible beers and one of the most interesting urinal troughs I’ve seen.
Naturally, we talked a lot about education. At the time, Bryn was deeply immersed in research into why some ICT professional development efforts with teachers worked better than others. It seemed clear enough to me that although we have poured literally millions of dollars into getting teachers “up to speed” with the use of ICTs in the classroom, the PD process was still very hit-and-miss, with large variations in how effectively it worked for different teachers in different situations. Bryn’s research at the time had been looking at the common ideas that led to effective PD, and had clearly identified some of the key factors. He was presenting his findings at the ECAWA State Conference in a few days time, so I felt very privileged when he asked me “Would you like like me to tell you what needs to happen for professional development in ICT to really work?” I nodded as he handed me a business card and said “Write this down”. We spent the next hour or so going through his 8 key factors for an effective ICT PD plan.
That was a few years ago, but today as I was going through some old boxes I happened to find that business card with the 8 factors scribbled on the back of it. They seem just as sensible now as they did when Bryn first shared them with me so allow me to share them with you too. So here, in my own words trying to echo Bryn’s original ideas, are 8 important factors that seem to make a big difference in delivering effective professional development in ICT …
1. Emotional Support
This might sound surprising, but the number one factor is a sense of emotional support. Teachers struggling with integrating ICTs into their classrooms just want to feel like they have people around them who understand their frustrations, empathise with their inadequacies, and will listen to them when they are doing their best. Like most of us, these teachers need to have someone to cheer them on when things are going right and someone who will pick them up when things are not working so well. Dealing with the implementation of ICTs, especially if it’s a bit of a struggle for you, is made a whole lot easier if you know that there are other people who are there to help you, who won’t make you feel like an idiot when you ask a “dumb question”, and who will share the excitement when you have that magic moment where it all comes together perfectly. Yes, everybody needs somebody sometime, but particularly when they are dealing with significant change. And for many teachers, having to integrate ICTs certainly represents significant change for them.
2. Pedagogical Understanding
It’s not enough to just be trained in how to use a computer or a particular piece of software. There are dozens of training organisations out there that can run a course in Word or Excel or Flash. But it’s not about just knowing which menu to click on or what button to press. For PD to be truly effective, it has to have a pedagogical underpinning to it. It has to be framed in an educational context that makes it really clear not just how to use the computers, but how to use the computers to enhance learning. There must be a sense of how the use of technology fits into the curriculum. If you’ve ever been to an educational presentation where the pitch is being made by salespeople rather than by teachers you will know exactly what we are talking about here. There is something about the way another educator can frame this stuff that simply cannot be done by a salesperson spouting the corporate mantra. So when PD is delivered, it really has to be done with a sense of educational reality by people who understand how kids and classrooms work. If it’s not, you can smell it a mile off.
3. A Constructivist Approach
Chalk and talk simply does not work when teaching teachers about the use of ICTs. They have to get in there, log on, make stuff, create work, and do it in a way that allows them to solve authentic problems. This is the basic premise behind constructivist learning, that learners should be able to identify authentic, relevant problems and then interact with the tools in such a way that they construct their own understanding of how to solve those problems. A constructivist approach is much more about learning than it is about teaching, so there has to be a real hands-on, explorative, personalised, individualised method for allowing teachers to build those understandings for themselves. It would be so much neater to just produce an instruction manual, guide people through it step by step, and expect them to just learn the required skills. Trouble is, that approach doesn’t really work. Learning is messy. Live with it.
4. At Least 4 Computers in a Classroom
This may sound surprising, but apparently once you train teachers with appropriate professional development, if they get back to their classrooms and can’t actually access any computers it is not very effective. You need an environment where the ideas and skills they learn as part of their PD can be put into practice on a regular basis. To do this, you need computers in your classroom. Computers that the kids can use, and they need to be constantly available. You don’t need to use them all the time, but they need to be always available. And having one computer is not enough. Nor is having two, or even three. To really start to see the professional development pay off in the classroom you need regular access to at least four computers in your classroom. More would be better but if you don’t have at least four you are doomed to fail. Oh, and they have to actually work and get used every day. Not just sit in the room and look impressive on parent-teacher days.
5. Just-in-Time Technology and Skill Support
The trouble with most PD efforts is that they take a just-in-case approach rather than a just-in-time approach. You learn a bunch of skills that don’t really matter to you, just-in-case you need them one day, and by the time you actually do need them you have generally forgotten them. For PD to be effective you need a way to be able to learn the skills you need just-in-time, accessing the answers to what you need when you actually need them. People wont read manuals or help files. They wont go back through training notes. They just want a quick zap with the specific skill to solve their specific problem so they can get on with doing what they want to do. That’s why “training courses” can be so ineffective sometimes, because they force people to sit through wads of stuff that they either already know, or don’t need to know, just to find the few useful bits they need. A great example of a just-in-time resource is Atomic Learning, an incredible library of short online video snippets explaining how to do just about anything with almost any piece of software you can imagine. Worth a look.
6. A Robust Infrastructure
You know this is true. If you try to run a lesson using technology, and it lets you down, you won’t be too keen to do it again. For those teachers who are already a bit wary of trying to implement ICTs into their lessons, to have the infrastructure let them down because the Internet was not working, the computers froze or the software behaved badly, it just becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. “See, I told you this computer stuff was a bad idea! I won’t be trying that again in a hurry!” Make sure the technology works, or you are fighting a losing battle before you even get started.
7. Assistance in Finding Resources
The Internet is a big place, and when you first start spending time there it can be a lot like visiting a new city. You know what it’s like when you are in a strange city… you don’t know where things are, you’re not sure how to find your way around, or what areas are safe, or where to buy a decent pizza. Over time, you will learn your way around and know where to find everything, but in the beginning it really helps to have a guide to show you the best places. I think you get the general idea of how that relates to newbie teachers… they need a bit of handholding just to get them started. But give them time… they’ll be fine.
8. Access to PD but not necessarily taking it!
This was the one that surprised me the most. According to Bryn, if you want teachers to engage with technology you need to offer all of these things to them. But you should not be surprised if they don’t actually use them. As teachers, we will work a lot of this stuff out on our own… after all, we are a pretty smart bunch. And we probably have enough of an ego about learning that we’d like to think we can figure out this stuff without too much help. And sometimes we can. But sometimes it’s nice to have a contingency plan. That’s why we need access to this stuff, even if we decide not to use all of it.
So there you have it. Bryn’s 8 point plan for effective PD in ICT. Bryn currently runs his own business helping teachers get to grips with all this stuff, appropriately called ictpd.net, so go visit his website and see what he’s up to. He has lots of good advice for teachers and can even help you out with a sneak peek at Atomic Learning too…
I hope you get something out of these ideas… they are retold to you exactly as Bryn explained them to me in the pub in Fremantle.
Mind you, I’d had several beers at the time.