5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Travel for PD

This is Part Three of a three-part series. Part One, “Professional Learning as Construction Play,” makes the case for playful, nonlinear professional learning. Part Two, “Vision, Action, Reflection,” tells the story of two educators who did this work in online spaces. Here, we explore in-person learning environments.

Is this the kind of learning we should travel thousands of miles for?

In the age of the internet, why do we travel for professional development? Why do we take time out of our teaching schedules or our summers to travel to conferences and workshops? If so much great, free content is circulating on education websites, social media, and blogs, what is the value of in-person professional learning experiences?

Last month, I talked to four educators who attended GOA’s Summer Blended Learning Institute (BLI): Cody Miles of the Gilman School in Baltimore, MD, USA; and Lisa Similane, Mopati Morake, and Lebo Mothibatsela of African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Roodepoort, South Africa. More than three months after they attended the BLI, I wanted to find out what part of the experience had stayed with them, how they were applying their learning in their day-to-day work, and what feedback they had for me about the experience.

After talking with these wonderful teachers and thinking about the time they graciously gave us last summer, I thought to myself: what drives people to choose to travel thousands of miles for intensive professional learning experiences? What questions do they ask themselves in making this important decision?

Is the experience immersive?

In Part One of this series I wrote about how much Legos can teach us about learning, especially for adults. Legos are immersive: they engage our minds and our senses, and they leave room for creativity and learning through trial and error. Any in-person professional learning experience should make room for design and play, for making instead of consuming.

Both Cody and the ALA team came to the BLI with ideas for exciting projects; they wanted time, space, and support to bring them to life. For Cody, it was taking his chemistry courses to the next level. He was already moving content online, but he was eager to learn new strategies that would make those online spaces more interactive and his students more self-directed.

The ALA team was in the process of designing a new course called “Omang” (Identity) where they would weave together three of their school’s core classes — African Studies, Entrepreneurial Thinking, and Writing and Rhetoric — into one interdisciplinary, experiential course that would give students the time and space to design projects that would influence communities in South Africa and beyond.

In other words, they came to the BLI not just to absorb, but to apply. The BLI schedule is designed in a 50% absorb/50% apply format, introducing key concepts and strategies in interactive workshops, then providing teachers independent work time with colleagues and coaches to move forward on their projects.

Lisa said of being able to collaborate intensively with colleagues: “We came to understand each other, our strengths and weaknesses and how to support each other. The experience of being there and being engaged in a course gave us an excellent foundation to achieve success.”

Is the work hands-on and relevant?

More than three months after the BLI ended, the details of the experience are what participants remember: the practical tips they now use in their classrooms.

The ALA team uses the BLI format as a model for work they do with students. “A lot of the workshops the coaches ran at the BLI we pay homage to in our class,” Lisa said.

Mopati has begun experimenting with technology: the use of tools like Kahoot and EdPuzzle in BLI workshops inspired him to try them with students. “We had the students make presentations to the class, and they made all of us take Kahoot quizzes.” Seeing tools in action made translating them to his classroom easier.

Cody took the daily reflective work in the BLI and started weaving it into his classes. He’s broken his students into “learning groups” of three to four that use online spaces to tackle coursework at their own pace, but also to create time for reflection, either with Cody synchronously or asynchronously via tools like video.

Are there opportunities to know and learn from my fellow participants?

One of the best parts of in-person learning comes from the knowledge and experience participants bring. But how do you leverage that collective expertise? While we can assume conversations and relationships will sprout organically by virtue of sharing the same space, GOA intentionally positions participants as instructors and coaches.

Integrating non-traditional formats like an EdCamp, or cohorts for discussion, or opportunities for short demos of teacher work (“Quickfires”) into a program ensure that participants can play a number of roles: demonstrating a lesson, providing peer feedback, or leading discussions. As we know from working with students, taking on a role as active contributor increases engagment with the learning.

You might be surprised by the connections you make. Lisa ended up collaborating with Tina Bessias, a GOA faculty member who works at Durham Academy in North Carolina, USA, on a literature project, an online student discussion conducted thousands of miles apart. “I don’t think I ever would have thought to teach with someone on the other side of the world,” Lisa said. “Coming to the BLI pushed my practice forward.”

Is the environment inspiring?

So many in-person conferences look like this:

When professional learning experiences can look like this:

Ideally professional learning experiences model what we want teachers to design for students. It’s ironic that so many conferences are “sit and get” formats, with rows of chairs facing a single presenter, when the presentation topics often focus on rethinking traditional modes of teaching and learning.

What happens when you choose a school in a beautiful setting to host an event? Educators take advantage of the flexible space and collaborate more: “I really enjoyed meeting teachers from all over the world, and having the time and space where everyone is working on their own projects but we get to leverage the work and ideas of all people,” Mopati said.

How will this experience ensure I keep learning after it’s over?

We leave conferences with so much momentum: we’ve seen something exciting, met someone inspiring, heard an idea we want to use. But momentum can fade.

For Lebo and Cody, having their own sets of GOA’s Catalyst Cards, a design tool on whose strategies the BLI is built, allowed them to continue to think through how blended learning applies to their everyday work.

“They’ve been wonderful,” Cody said. “I have used them on the design side, especially the Designing Experiences cards, figuring out new questions that they pose, looking at prompts, and figuring out how to interpret them for myself.”

Lebo carries her set of cards in her bag at school so they are always within reach. “I’m more conscious of how to design experiences than before. Being able to prepare lessons so simply in just a few cards is so helpful.”

Just as teaching and learning are changing, so is professional learning.

We’re lucky to have so many choices when it comes to conferences, workshops, and other professional learning events. Yet most of us aren’t in the position to go to all of them: we have to choose wisely. Our time and money are valuable: what’s the best use of them? Where are the experiences that inspire us to think in new ways, that push us to try new things, and that model the kind of learning we know helps students thrive in our classrooms?