Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thinking about PD part 1 - Evolution not Revolution

Is it really a problem to repackage old ideas in a new way? I suppose it depends on what I mean by this. Technology Integration is the big buzz word that just won’t die. Most teachers think it can mean simply turning old overheads into PowerPoint presentations or replacing the overhead projector with an Elmo. I suppose they’d be correct to a degree, in both cases they’ve updated the technology. However, many people would contend that both of these “changes” would have little impact on learning. If the technology use stopped there these nay-sayers would be correct. For some teachers both of these would constitute a bit of a leap. In both cases they have a new piece of technology to learn about. They know what to do when the overhead isn’t quite working right, but what do you do when the Elmo isn’t showing up on the screen?

It seems like a small step to many, but for some it’s kind of a big step. But it’s a step and it’s a step in the right direction. When it comes to changing the practices of teachers who’ve been at this for awhile we need to stop thinking revolutionary and start thinking evolutionary. Big change is very scary. So scary in many cases we won’t even make the smallest step along the path. Small changes can still be scary, but we are more willing to take a step and see what happens. It’s really about degree of risk. Smaller risk means smaller reward, but it’s still a reward.

Evolution vs. revolution? How do we get there. With revolutionary change we start with the end point and then try to design professional development to get us there. There’s kind of a big problem with this. We want our students to own their education, but then we don’t seem to expect the same thing from our teachers. Shouldn't we let our teachers to "own the process". If so, should we tell them what the endpoint is? If we think evolution we don’t need to know the end point. In fact, every teacher may have their own distinctly different end point.

The other benefit of evolution vs. revolution is it can easily adapt to changing technologies and technology availability. When you have an end point and a plan to get there you lock yourself in. As new tools become available you either have to figure out how to shoehorn them into your plan or you have to ignore them. Not very satisfying in either case.

So how do we build PD that is evolutionary? First, remember we don’t need to know the end point before we start. It might be nice to have some ideas of where you’re going, but the environment is always changing. Work on picking up new skills that can be used to “increase fitness”.

Natural Selection - Darwinian selection is all about survival of the fittest, right? Well, that's actually an over simplification. What we’re really talking about is less grandiose than that. Traits that increase fitness lead individuals in a population to have more offspring before they die. This means those traits will have a higher frequency in the next generation.

So, what does “fitness” look like in education? That’s a good question. Ideally the “fittest” ideas would be ones that lead to increased learning. That said, there are two other ideas that should also be factored in when judging the “fitness” of a new trait. Any idea that leads to a decrease in workload without impacting student learning should have a selective advantage. In addition, any idea that causes student excitement and engagement without a decrease in learning is also advantageous.

All it takes are small changes accumulating over time to lead to big changes. It is important to remember that in nature most mutations are deleterious and lead to no change. You must try new things, but don't be afraid to cull these deleterious mutations from your practice quickly. This is the scary part. “How much time will I lose if it doesn’t work?” It is important to try, because without new traits evolution can’t happen.

Can you be successful without change? You will always have some crocodiles. Crocodiles haven’t really changed much in tens of millions of years. They inhabit the same ecological niches and they keep on living the way they’ve been living for millions of years. They seem to be getting the job done and they will continue to get the job done as long as their ecosystem doesn’t change. However, things always change.

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