My Wish for Professional Development

Harnessing the power of autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Daniel Pink at PopTech 2007, Camden, ME by kris krüg

Over the last couple days, I’ve been reading Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level. In addition to considering how all this is going to change my classroom, I’ve been thinking how it can impact teacher professional development.

At the beginning of Chapter 2, Don tells you to put down the book and check out Daniel Pink’s TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation. In it, Pink explains how “there is a disconnect between what science knows and what business does.” Long story short, business still relies on a combination of carrots and sticks to motivate workers. As it turns out, this actually produces the worst results when it comes to complex, 21st century tasks. These management techniques come to us from a much earlier era, the age of the assembly line. The better approach, Pink argues, is to create conditions that allow employees to experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I’m going to take a page out of Don’s playbook and ask you to watch Pink’s video right now as well.

Daniel Pink’s talk reminded me of another, much older idea I’d encountered, that of Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y from his book The Human Side of Enterprise (1960). Both theories represent beliefs of managers about their employees, beliefs that tend to become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Theory X presumes that employees are lazy, unmotivated, and resistant to change. Theory Y supposes the opposite: employees are passionate, motivated, and desire to make a difference. The only reason they may not seem that way is that the assumptions of a Theory X work environment are so pervasive and systemic that workers eventually behave accordingly.

Theory Y proposes that “the essential task of management is to arrange organizational conditions so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing their efforts toward organizational rewards” [italics added].

No wonder we’re stuck in a curriculum developed by the Committee of Ten during the Second Industrial Age: those are only kind of tasks we can coerce and cajole people to do.

McGregor’s and Pink’s theories have obvious connections to the way we do school. Late penalties, zeroes, no retakes/redos function as sticks. Extra credit and participation points serve as carrots. No wonder we’re stuck in a curriculum developed by the Committee of Ten during the Second Industrial Age: those are only kind of tasks we can coerce and cajole people to do.

Complex, 21st-century tasks don’t respond to those levers.

It’s not hard to see how this approach can often dictate district provided professional development. In this post, I use the lens of these theories to outline a continuum of professional development from its least autonomous, least distributed form to its most autonomous, most distributed form.

Like Daniel Pink, I believe we need to move in the direction of more autonomy. We can’t afford to have the majority of our teachers sitting in the stands as passive spectators. With the challenges we face in education, we need everyone’s genius. We need everyone on the court!

Here’s the continuum:

  1. One size fits all
  2. Menu of teacher-led sessions
  3. Genius hour

1. One Size Fits All

Teachers file into the large cinder block room and glance up at the PowerPoint (sorry, Google Slides now!) projected on the screen at the front. Sometimes the agenda is displayed; other times it’s something funny or inspirational. If you’re lucky, there are some good gluten-rich snacks to keep your glycemic levels spiked for the duration of the session.

The best option here is that we’ve done our research and found something that everyone’s collectively interested about. That might have been done using an online form earlier in the month. Maybe we’ve even tracked down an expert with unassailable credentials. But buckle in, the session is about to begin. Norms about side conversations, correcting papers, checking our devices, and knitting(!) ensure that we are all focused on the task at hand.

I grant that there is considerable benefit to having all teachers on the same page, learning the same language, skills, or concepts so as to put them into practice with consistency and fidelity. It makes sense that we devote time to pulling in the same direction, all of us learning how to do the same thing. Additionally, in most cases, the school improvement team member or outside expert really does have more knowledge than you, and that knowledge may very well transform your classroom for the better. I have had plenty of these kinds of experiences.

After all, this is exactly what Daniel Pink is doing at the beginning of this blog post. If Daniel Pink is presenting, I can guarantee I won’t be trying to catch up on my knitting!

Hopefully, it’s not just bullet points or tables. Some in-service days have been particularly good, usually because they hit on something useful and employ high-quality instruction. Often, this type of PD can be substantially improved by getting people moving, doing, talking, collaborating, and demonstrating their learning.

But somewhere in the one-size-fits-all approach is the assumption that you are too tired, too lazy, and too unmotivated to go learn something new that will benefit the school as a whole. All too often, the instructional techniques in these sessions run counter to what we tell teachers to do in the classroom. All too often, we are just passive observers, receptacles to be filled.

While in its best form, this is a perfectly valid and appropriate type of PD, it is the least autonomous and the most passive. If used too much, it can utterly sap motivation, leading to the self-fulfilling prophesy: these people are too unmotivated to direct their own learning!

2. Menu of Teacher-Led Sessions

I’ve been seeing this EdCamp-style option crop up more and more in recent years. Basically, the providers of PD put a call out for submissions, and teachers are chosen to share their expertise on an array of topics. Then, the non-presenting teachers get to choose between sessions.

This is a big improvement over the former type of PD because teachers can choose a session that is more closely related to their personal interests. Implicit in this form is that teachers are qualified to make these kinds of choices for themselves and that the organization benefits, not only from collectively learning about one, district-sponsored area, but from the commitment and empowerment that comes from being able to direct one’s own learning. Again, this experience can be further improved by presenters finding ways to break up the monotony of sit and get.

Even if most teachers didn’t want to present, it’s important to consider the central idea behind McGregor’s theories: our beliefs are self-fulfilling prophesies.

Along with this, presenting teachers are given the opportunity to lead, to share their expertise and passions. The process of preparing for an authentic audience of peers motivates these teachers to learn the material deeply.

Again, though, this expansion of autonomy, mastery, and purpose is not shared equally. For one, not everyone’s proposed session is chosen. Also, being able to choose between sessions is a relatively modest gain compared the benefit enjoyed by presenting teachers. Even if most teachers didn’t want to present, it’s important to consider the central idea behind McGregor’s theories: our beliefs are self-fulfilling prophesies. How did these teachers become so unmotivated, unaware of their own passions and interests?

If we believe that only certain teachers have genius worth discovering and sharing, then those teachers will be the ones who consistently present. Although this may create a virtuous feedback cycle for them, it creates vicious cycle for all those who never sign up or are not chosen.

3. Genius Hour

According to expert A.J. Juliani, Genius Hour “gives learners time in class to create their own learning path.” In the context of an employee’s or student’s 5-day week, this is sometimes called 20% Time.

This model, embraced by innovative companies and increasingly by classroom teachers, fully unleashes the power of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, benefiting the individual and the organization alike. In the context of teachers’ professional development, it would mean allowing teachers — individually or in groups — to direct their own learning, to work on their own projects, and then to share those results with the rest of the organization. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that everyone has genius to discover and share.

Although it may look a little messier than the other options, this isn’t a free for all.

With the myriad of challenges facing schools, can we afford to have the vast majority of teachers passively learning from their more motivated peers? With inquiry- and passion-driven education so firmly on our radar, shouldn’t we be modeling, practicing, and troubleshooting this approach ourselves?

Although it may look a little messier than the other options, this isn’t a free for all. Protocols for pitching, researching, creating, sharing, and documenting one’s learning and results need to be agreed upon and put in place. Many such protocols have already been thoroughly researched and developed for student use, such A.J. Juliani’s Beginners Guide to 20% Time and John Spencer’s LAUNCH Cycle.

Daniel Pink’s research aside, I salivate at the thought of one day having professional development like this. What would people be doing?

  • Watching and discussing videos from TED Talks’ Education Channel, Edutopia, or the Teaching Channel?
  • Perusing educator blogs, surfing educational hashtags on Twitter, curating and sharing bookmarks with LiveBinder, Diigo, or Symbaloo?
  • Blogging, vlogging, or preparing a presentation about what you’re learning, discovering, or trying in your classroom?
  • Connecting with educators, students, and experts from around the globe on Skype or Google Hangouts?
  • Preparing and putting on an entire conference, like my friends Aric and Megan over in Armada, Michigan?

Once teachers are following their own learning paths, it’s important to include meaningful ways of sharing results, not only within the organization, but with the world at large. Let’s face it: we tend to get a little slovenly working with one another year after year. Opening up the conversation to the outside world, collaborating with educators and experts outside our circle, ups the ante, making us want to take our game to the next level.

Interestingly, this approach to PD would probably still include teacher-led sessions in that teachers will continually be seeking a forum to share their learning and results. From time to time, we may also benefit from a one-size-fits-all learning experience. Perhaps at first, we can only allot 20% of our professional learning to this approach.

Ultimately, however, if we want to build a culture of innovation like the one outlined in Wettrick’s book, we need to get serious about empowering and expecting genius from all teachers. With the challenges facing education, can we afford anything less?

If you like what you’ve read, please share and click the heart so more people get to see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

This post is also crossposted at my website.

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