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Many teachers attend workshops and immediately apply the concepts they learn in their classrooms.
"What we would rather do is have them own it through their own personal learning, see how it works, begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses, and then start to apply it in the classroom,” she said.
Through long-term, job-embedded professional development, educators around the world work together to change their learning before they change their instruction.
During the academic year, 20 teams of five educators each join a learning cohort with PLP. The school or district-level teams work with 10 PLP fellows from participating districts. They also work with co-founders Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson, and community leaders including Alec Couros, Karl Fisch and Dean Shareski.
This type of professional development allows them to learn in a virtual space and make international connections, Richardson said.
“We’re trying to help educators really understand the types of learning communities that exist on a global scale because of the technology."
Two face-to-face workshops, five online webinars and a combination of professional learning communities, communities of practice and personal learning networks help them learn. The educators work together in local school teams, virtually connect with other teams in a close-knit community and network online with people outside their community, Nussbaum-Beach said.
“The big takeaway for me was that as educators, we have to continue to be learners first," he said, "and we really have to own that leadership before we can give it away to our kids or our colleagues."
By sending teams to a learning cohort for a third year, the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools hopes it can build a critical mass of teacher-leaders to change their schools, said Executive Director Barbara Kraus-Blackney. The association provides professional development opportunities for 140 Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania schools.
“Some real leaders emerged who weren’t the folks that you would typically expect to be leaders,” she said. “By participating in this online community year-round, it’s a whole different way of being able to communicate and show leadership and take the lead, both within school teams and within the wider cohort community among school teams.”
Without the context and experience of interacting in learning communities, it's hard to understand the implications of social, online learning tools, Richardson said. The majority of teachers use blogs and wikis to publish class essays in a different form. Instead, they should help kids understand learning networks and communities through those tools.
“Tools are easy, but the implications of the tools are pretty hard," he said, "and that’s why we try to spend some time at the beginning making sure people understand those shifts.”
Anyone can learn about tools on their own or have someone teach them, Nussbaum-Beach said. Tools will change, and while they don't have magic, they do make collaboration simple and economical.
At the first face-to-face meeting of teams from Ontario, Michigan and New York, educators talked about how they could infuse online tools into learning, said Mark Carbone, chief information officer for the Waterloo Region District School Board in Kitchener, Ontario.
“It’s not teaching about technology," Carbone said. "It’s using technology seamlessly as part of a natural learning process, and then recognizing that there’s, of course, lots of components to doing that well.”
The learning process for kids should not be limited by time, place or space, said Baldasaro, the New Hampshire leader. He has three kids under the age of 10 and wants to make sure they learn outside the walls of their classrooms.
“I want them to know that learning is a constant process that includes periods of reflection, periods of unlearning, and periods of relearning," he said. "Especially now with information being changed, added to and remixed so much these days, I want our kids to know that they can’t afford to stop learning.”
The Waterloo district wants to create a culture where going online and using a variety of tools to support inquiry-based learning, problem-solving and critical thinking is commonplace, Carbone said. Through the Futures Forum project, high school sophomores in four classes will take an integrated course of English (or history), civics and careers that will last half the school day.
He and other project steering committee members finished a learning cohort in June. This year, four teachers involved in the project will join a cohort, and in Feburary 2011, will start teaching the new classes.
Through a new wireless network, students will be able to use laptops, netbooks and other tools in the learning process.
“The focus is on improving student learning," he said, "and that’s what we’re trying to do here. That’s always the goal."
In a sixth-grade classroom at Weaver Lake Elementary, learning and instruction looked different once the principal, library media specialist, science curriculum coordinator, tech coordinator and sixth-grade teacher participated in a learning cohort, said Tech Coordinator Laurie Toll. The team members immersed themselves in their professional development, then applied what they learned in the classroom.
Through the cohorts, they learned to contribute to their network instead of just consuming information, and they passed that knowledge on to their students. During a Gobstopper investigation, the sixth-graders dropped the candy in separate containers of water and lemon juice to see how fast it dissolved.
Using mobile devices, they timed the investigation, recorded the results in a Google Doc and interacted with educators in other states on Twiducate, a social network for schools. The teacher projected the results of each group's investigation in the classroom.
“It wasn’t about the teacher at all," Toll said. "It was the kids generating this data, and they could see right away if there was an outlier or if somehow they had made a mistake because it was just so obvious, so visual.”
For an insect field ecology project, three kids studied the Madagascar hissing cockroach. One of them used a map app on his iPod Touch to look up the location of Madagascar. Another kid researched the cockroach on a computer, and a girl with a cell phone used texts to take notes.
“It just completely changed how we did the instruction," Toll said, "and it gave the kids much more responsibility for structuring their own learning.”
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