I attended my first Learning2 conference in 2010. While working in Nagoya, Japan, I convinced my school to send me to Learning2.010 in Shanghai. I was impressed by the format of the conference, and with the use of cohorts as well as extended sessions.
There is research on what works in professional development. I wrote my dissertation on that for my masters. I define effective professional development as that resulting in a change in practice or belief to align with best practices. The following are crucial elements of effective professional development.
- School leadership support
- Content and context focused
- A culture of collaboration
- Address teacher beliefs
- Individualized and responsive to teachers’ needs
- Ongoing long term PD
How well does Learning2 stack up against these 6 elements?
School leadership support – In a debrief session, a participant identified the need for getting more administrators as participants in Learning2 so that they can be true partners of change in schools, as opposed to cheering on the sideline.
Content and context focused – The host school is part of the planning for each Learning2 conference. This provides context about the state of education in the region and issues that are important to regional educators. This helps decide the structure of the conference (e.g. this conference had two teacher sessions each day instead of the typical single session). Each participant is also placed in self-selected cohorts directly related to their current or (near) future roles or content area. This provides opportunities to focus on content and context. However, individual participants should further curate their choices of sessions to match their context.
A culture of collaboration – Learning2 encourages cohorts to select platforms for collaboration during the conference as well as beyond. This is largely dependent on the individual cohort leaders and participants. Teachers may need to develop individual connections with presenters and other participants for just in time and one on one support. Social networks can be helpful in this, but there is no guarantee of it in the online world. A good model for schools to follow would be to send teams of teachers with common goals, so that they can support each other with implementation of new approaches and strategies when back at school. This may work well if the team has a particular focus or inquiry question before they come that they can use for filtering the content that they encounter. Another approach could be to decide the inquiry during a debrief after the conference is finished.
Address teacher beliefs – It is difficult for conference organizers to address teacher beliefs. This would fall on the presenters at individual workshops, and on members at the school. Learning2 has provided opportunities for exposure to different instructional strategies and student work through talks by educators and students, as well as through student presenters. In the sessions I attended, there were examples of student work. These could all potentially challenge teacher beliefs. Opportunities for reflection and teacher synthesis during sessions could also be helpful. A conference like Learning2 with is not tech focused but strongly tech infused often has many like minded people. It is important to consider how to draw a wide range of teachers from the field.
Individualized and responsive to teachers’ needs – Both cohorts and unconference sessions, as well as social events provide opportunities for personalized and responsive PD. The framework is provided; it is up to individual participants to engage in this process. It is also up to facilitators to make sure that a variety of voices are being heard and that individuals aren’t monopolizing the conversations.
Ongoing, long term PD – The extended sessions, which I think are the focus of the conference, provide a significant amount of time for the learning; I find 3 hours to be a comfortable length. For both extended sessions, the presenters had shared resources that participants could take with them for later support and further learning. Presenters of the teacher workshops also provided resources for further reference and use. While resources for extended sessions are available on the Learning2 site, those of teacher and student presentations are not. I think that this is an unfortunate oversight. The use of cohorts provide the opportunity for continued networking and professional learning beyond the conference. Participants can also connect with presenters on social networks for further conversations. One thing that I’ve intended to do when leading workshops is to highlight different types of instructional approaches as appropriate. As I reflect on the conference, I realize that I did not do that in my teacher workshop, and that presenters seldom do. The research shows that it’s helpful in PD to highlight appropriate instructional strategies, so perhaps that’s an area where presenters can all improve.
In general, Learning2 is a great model for professional learning. The benefit to the individual and to a school depends on the caliber of presenters, the planning and facilitation skills of the cohort leader, and the engagement of the individuals and school teams. These pieces interact with each other to provide an experience unique to each participant. Individual participants have great power (and responsibility) to determine what the impact of the conference will be in her professional life. In short, plan to participate in Learning2, be purposeful about what you participate in and how you do it, reflect after, create goals and next steps, and continue the conversation past the end of the conference. Do those things, and you’re sure to find that participating in Learning2 improves your teaching.