I spent the last two weeks reading, re-reading, and revising chapter four of my thesis. The version I have now, while certainly not perfect, emphasizes the fact that professional development in this age of networked learning is crucial. When I first narrowed down my focus and started the study, I had no idea that professional development or, specifically, the role of the teacher in a blogging classroom, would play such an important role in the thesis. Once I began, it quickly became obvious that the community my students were building online would have a very big impact on my own role in the classroom and my views on professional development. Needless to say, I've been thinking about professional development a lot lately and the following is an attempt to verbalize some of my (still largely incoherent) thoughts on this matter.
The past five years helped me understand that teacher professional development can no longer rely solely on conferences and scholarly journals. While those two sources can still play an important role in helping us become better educators, it is the power of networks that can be especially beneficial.
However, I am not too enthusiastic about the recent emergence of online communities for educators, such as Classroom 2.0, School 2.0, or Library 2.0. Frankly, much like David Warlick, I really don't get it. I think I'm in favour of building networks, not getting stuck in communities.
I contemplated adding my name to one or more of these communities but it seems to me that they are nothing but containers, systems where the name threatens to define or even pre-define the discussions within. I thought the whole point of what we are experiencing now, educationally speaking, was to get away from boxes, systems, and containers. Now, it seems, we are building more. It is interesting that, instead of building our own networks using rss, for example, instead of charting our own paths as professionals and educators, we prefer to confine ourselves to pre-defined boxes.
However, according to Steve Hargadon, who created Classroom 2.0, professional development today can greatly benefit from social networking. He is right when he says that it is much easier for a novice to join a social community than start his or her own blog. Anyone who has ever tried to encourage a colleague to blog or start a Bloglines account knows that the task can be difficult because the technology, as perceived by the novice, can seem daunting. It makes a lot of sense to encourage someone who is new to this complex world of blogs, wikis, and RSS to first try interacting in a contained and user-friendly space.
And yet, I keep thinking that these social networking sites are essentially classrooms for grown-ups, places where the conversation is likely to be dominated by only a few individuals, and not necessarily those who have the most to communicate. Are they really places where I can learn from others and develop deep understanding of my professional practice? In the words of Christopher Sessums, "does participation in social media networks that support professional development result in better outcomes for educators?"
I think his notion of "Communities for Practice" is a good start. "Can an online community for practice environment," he asks, "be designed to track what and how teachers learn, how they use what they have learned, and to what effect?"
I think that a community for practice would have to be a place that supports deep meaningful reflection. In other words, we need personal places where discussion is not pre-defined by the very name of the community but where every participant can reflect and build upon his or her own practice. (A careful reading of the entries within all these new "2.0" communities shows that most posts revolve around technology, not deep reflections about practice). We need places that can support a culture of teacher-researchers where narrative inquiry is the backbone of our development as educators. We need spaces to create our own narratives because they are both phenomena that emerge from reflection and the method through which we reflect. We need to tell stories and we need places that support that. As Diamond and Mullen remind us, we need to constantly monitor our own practices and "resist easy endings and narrative unity"(1999, p. 49). We need a stronger emphasis on action research. Teachers cannot implement constructs developed by others but need to engage in the process of constantly reflecting upon and redefining our work. (This is not professional development. This is).
We need to be constantly engaged in reflective thought because it provides us with opportunities to generate connections between theory and practice, come to a deeper understanding of our beliefs and previous experiences, adopt new perspectives, and learn how to use reflection as a problem-solving process that involves weighing competing viewpoints (Risko at al, 2002). Teachers need direction that comes from within and is based on serious personal reflection that can acknowledge previous experience and practice and help us travel beyond our current places of professional complacency.
So, much like Christopher, I am interested in how much learning takes place in these online communities. Sure, one could argue that by participating in a community I will learn about the potential educational applications of wikis. One could also argue, much like Steve Hargadon does, that these communities will help me gradually learn about all the tools that I may sooner or later decide to use. I think the question I should really be asking myself, however, is whether or not I need to use these tools and, if so, am I ready to implement this technology in my own classroom. Without a close engagement with my practice, without a close analysis of who I am as an educator, I am going to find it rather difficult to understand how this new tool can enrich my practice. I will also need to reflect on its presence once I start using it. Can a community of teachers help me accomplish that? Do they want to listen to my experiences and reflections? Are they interested in supporting my journey of professional development? Should I try to enlist their support?
Probably not, and that's why I believe in mentoring. I do not need 700 educators to help me understand what is happening in my classroom. I need two or three solid mentors or partners who can help me reflect. I need someone who will find the time to look carefully at the artifacts that I have accumulated - videotaped lessons, field notes, blog entries, curricula I've created - and help me engage in action research. I need someone who can help me weave the many strands of my practice into a path that will lead me towards new goals and help chart new courses and avoid complacency. That's why I believe that I need my own place where I can collect all of these artifacts and engage in whatever thought processes I need in order to become better at what I do and in order to better understand the students who enter my classroom every day.
Let's take a look at a vision suggested by Dave Tosh and Ben Werdmuller in 2004. They argue that an electronic portfolio can be "a platform for learning reflection" where "the learner builds and maintains a digital repository of artefacts, which they can use to demonstrate competence and reflect on their learning. Having access to their records, digital repository, feedback and reflection students can achieve a greater understanding of their individual growth, career planning, and CV building." Tosh and Werdmuller did not devise this approach specifically for teacher professional development, but I think it would be interesting to use it for that purpose. Of course, it would be a challenge because most of us find it difficult to look at ourselves as learners. Perhaps that's why we tend to enter communities of practice where we can practice what we already know and not aspire to reflect on how we know and what we do. Communities for practice, on the other hand, could be places where we engage with all the elements of our teacher lives, all our artifacts, and where we are supported in that process by a handful of mentors.
Giving education new names (or numbers) is not going to change schools. Teachers can change schools. I think we need to begin by learning to understand who we are and what we do. We need more autobiographical practices.
In other words, according to C.T.Patrick Diamond, teacher education should focus on "struggling towards a personally negotiated coherence and charting its eventual redirection." This is because a teaching life consists of
a creativity cycle, a continuous progression of provisional supposition and experiment, exploration and explication, surmise and closure, looseness and tightness, of learning and re-learning, of incumbent and challenging hypotheses. Such a life consists of successive formation and transformation, composition and decomposition, of dominant and tonic.(Diamond, 1991, p.123).
Diamond, P.C.T. (1991). Teacher education as transformation. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Diamond, C., & Mullen, C. (1999). The postmodern educator. Frankfurt Am Main: P. Lang.
Risko, V.J. et al. (2002). Preparing teachers for reflective practice: Intentions, contradictions, and possibilities. Language Arts. 80(2).