3 steps to collaborative professional learning

By Drew Polly 2/29/2016

Free web-based resources that allow people to easily create, collaborate and publish have the potential to transform K-12 education, not just for students but for teachers as well. A few years ago, our intermediate school received an IMPACT technology grant from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The grant paid for laptops and software and allowed us to create a comprehensive professional development program designed to improve student achievement and higher-order thinking skills through effective use of educational technology.

The three-step process we implemented was designed to address the needs that teachers, administrators or content area coaches identified. The professional learning opportunities allowed teachers to create artifacts, evaluate resources and analyze processes related to learning and teaching as laid out in the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy and the ISTE Standards for Teachers.

Our three-step process works like this:

Step 1: Create a curriculum map. At our school we have more than 30 fifth and sixth teachers, so we needed to first create a system for collaborative planning. Teachers, content area coaches (literacy and mathematics), the technology facilitator and administrators used Google Sheets to collaboratively create a curriculum map that would ensure rigorous courses grounded in the state standards with the primary goal of developing students’ higher-order thinking skills.

Faculty paced out the curriculum for the year and wrote essential questions that addressed the deep thinking and learning we aimed for. Further, faculty unpacked the state standards by including both essential knowledge and processes. We were very specific; for example, we outlined an indicator that fifth graders in North Carolina must be able to distinguish quadrilaterals by the properties of their diagonals.
The cloud-based document allowed everyone to work on the curriculum map simultaneously. At times, faculty worked on separate parts, but most of the time teachers worked together.

Step 2: Compiling instructional resources. After we developed the curriculum map, we needed to create a repository for effective instructional resources aligned to both the state standards and the essential questions.

We use Google Drive to store the resources in the repository and organize it by essential question. For every question on the curriculum map, teachers listed activities and resources, which they then analyzed and evaluated to ensure they aligned to the state standards and helped address higher-order thinking skills. Those that didn’t, weren’t included. 
Step 3: Engaging in digital conversations. We recognize that many of our students are using technology to create artifacts, evaluate information and analyze concepts. But these tech skills don’t always come naturally to all teachers. Therefore, our technology coordinator and teacher leaders facilitated book studies during the summer. Topics included project-based learning, integrating digital images into the classroom and addressing students’ higher-order thinking skills. Teachers who chose to participate read a book and participated in an online discussion forum using Gaggle, a digital learning environment. This tool allowed teachers from multiple schools to participate as well as those traveling out of town.

Tips for supporting teacher learning

This three-step approach allowed teachers to collaborate with each other while creating and evaluating resources in a way that we’d never done before. Planning meetings became far more collaborative and efficient because teachers could access the resource list anytime, anywhere from their laptops.
Starting with the curriculum map and essential questions helped provide a framework far better than the previous approach of searching for resources and activities without any way to collaboratively organize and share them.

If your team is ready to embark on a collaborative approach to professional learning, here are some things to keep in mind:

Set clear, consistent goals. Our group struggled at times to stay focused on the goal. Make sure at least one person is ready to redirect the group toward the goal if they got off track.

Ensure that the technology enhances the learning experience. One of the primary criticisms about technology is that it isn’t always used in a way that enhances traditional approaches. The technology should allow for more collaboration, dialogue, better organization and higher order thinking.

Be supportive of teachers’ learning preferences. While some teachers were immediately drawn to using Gaggle for digital conversations about the book studies, others were not. We made these books studies optional for those who didn’t enjoy this format. Had this been mandated, there may have been more teacher resistance.

Explicitly connect teacher learning to classroom activities. Educators are more likely to embrace learning opportunities if they see an explicit connection to their daily work in their classroom. While all of our planning activities occurred during the summer, the process was relevant and applicable to their work, so they were motivated to participate.

Focus on higher-order thinking skills. Make sure you give your staff opportunities to create artifacts, evaluate resources and analyze both content and processes related to learning and teaching. Although the curriculum map and Google Sheet could have been created by teachers working independently, the experience was more beneficial as a collaborative project. While it is easy to see how technology could support more independent activities, digital tools should support collaborative work.

Tools such as Google Apps and online discussion forums provide rich opportunities to support teachers’ professional learning. By allowing teachers to create and compile resources that align with state standards and promote higher-order thinking, the use of these resources increases the likelihood that student learning will also improve.

Drew Polly is a teacher, professional development facilitator and educational researcher in the elementary education program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His work focuses on supporting teachers' use of learner-centered pedagogies and learning technologies in various subjects.

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