Follow the Leader: A Path to Quality Professional Learning
A little self-assessment goes a long way in education. Schools need to take a close look at their practices with regard for using technology in teaching and ask, are we leading or following? How do we know our great ideas about education are, in fact great ideas? Some schools and school systems are truly technology innovators. They are led by people who take risks even when little or no evidence supports their ideas. For these schools, forging into the future is their mission. They are often creating the learning-norms that move technology use in daily life into everyday use in the classroom. These schools are often the subject of research.
Others rely heavily on proven strategies to steer their efforts; they are followers. Regardless of the why, schools who use research can feel confident in their teaching until research comes along to change the status quo. Society needs both leaders and followers, and schools need to decide on which side of the fence they stand. This poses an interesting challenge in some school environments where the freedom to teach in innovative ways lies in the hands of classroom teachers, and the standards upon which to teach can be altered or even ignored by administration. How do they know their great ideas about education are, in fact great ideas? Sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error.
Professional Learning in Catholic Education: Doing what’s best
It’s nearly impossible to prove what works best in education. Every school culture, community, and country is unique. Catholic education across the world strives to build an academic system around a faith-based lifestyle. Where does technology fit in? How should Catholic schools prepare teachers when the focus of the school is so divided? Locally, in the state of Alabama, the resources for supporting Catholic education are meager. Funding in Catholic schools comes from families who contribute directly, through tuition or donations to Parish churches which in turn, pay for the technology in the schools (Schuttloffel, 2012; Robison & Smarick, 2016).
The Catholic schools in Alabama are not centralized, meaning the Diocese is not equivalent to a school district, from which curriculum is mandated and professional learning (PL) provided. Instead, many individual Catholic schools in Alabama are responsible for their own technology, choice of curriculum, and professional learning. In this situation, Catholic schools can neither lead nor follow.
Professional learning therefore becomes a key component of each school’s continued success as it competes with wealthier school systems. PL is the unifying factor that prepares teacher to use technology in teaching and demonstrate to students how to use it for learning. Cultural expectations found in each Catholic school determine the degree to which administrators promote use of technology in the classroom. Unlike public schools, Catholic school leaders must walk a fine line in promoting the formation of student character inherent in traditional Catholic education, and encouraging teachers and students to demonstrate that character (while using technology) in modern American society.
No end to improving professional learning
Prince of Peace Catholic School in Hoover, Alabama ( a K-8 school) seeks to prepare teachers and students for using technology appropriately as a learning tool, and as a venue for demonstrating strong Catholic values in their digital lives. The school serves as an example of how professional learning gradually helps teachers grow in their knowledge, skill, and use of technology-for those purposes.
Prince of Peace has recent adopted the “This is IT” campaign to promote its PL plan, which is based in part on Gulamhussein’s PL report at, www.centerofpubliceducation.org (2013). The report is evidence that providing adequate time to learn, technical and personal support and teacher mentors, grade specific guidance in developing quality lessons, and creating an authentic environment for technology use, is, in fact effectively bringing together faith and function in the classroom.
The first round of feedback from teachers has been positive, as teachers expressed great appreciation for the ongoing, specific learning sessions of which teacher may choose a tool that best suites their teaching needs. To date, nothing in the existing PL plan isn’t working as expected. That is not to say it could not be improved.
The PL plan, deployed over three years will accomplish several goals. First, the plan will allow teachers to become confident in their own skill using technology in the classroom. Next, the plan will engage teachers in identifying and developing custom lessons founded on standards for teaching at each grade level, that are inclusive of technology as a scaffold in the development of students’ understanding, knowledge, and application of information. Finally, the plan leads teachers to connect technology as a tool for learning with the elements of character, and the virtues of the Catholic tradition.
The plan will be adapted to the needs and changes in the school’s environment. Trial and error remain a viable method for the PL plan which uses COVA (Harapnuik, 2016) as a learning platform, is at its core. COVA (choice, ownership, voice, and authenticity) allow teachers and administrators to review what works and doesn’t and modify the PL plan as it progresses, by gathering feedback often. Administrators also rely on research to enhance how the plan is administered and what it contains.
Several important changes have already been made after only a few months worth of feedback. The school has evaluated PL in schools across the globe to identify how it can improve the plan. Research revealed the need to include direct instruction about the importance of standards-based lessons as the cornerstone of using technology in education. Heightening the awareness to evidence that success in the classroom is more likely when teachers add appropriate technology to existing standards-based lessons (Cameron, 2015) will help teachers avoid setting expectation that technology in itself has influence on student performance. Research suggests it will not (Bell & Whitfield, 2016).
Also, the plan will be adapted to focus more specifically on identifying age appropriate technology use in lower elementary grades. Research suggests that teachers should choose technology that is easy to use by students, and in direct support of the students’ development at each grade level (Cameron, 2015). Finally, the school is taking a closer look at research that points to effective ways to develop higher order thinking skills in upper and middle school grades by incorporating effective technology-rich lessons that meet learning standards in all types of courses. Also, additional research will be conducted on PL that effectively develops teaching practices which include technology (pedagogy) that are student-centered.
Changes in the PL plan will incorporate research and feedback as each new element is tested and reviewed. As teachers and students become accustomed to using technology as an effective tool in teaching and learning, administrators expect more emphasis will be placed on connecting technology use to building and demonstrating quality Catholic character, in both students and teachers, alike.
Bell, M. C., Simone, P. M., & Whitfield, L. C. (2016). Evaluation of ‘out-of-the-box’ textbook technology supplements on student learning. Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning In Psychology, 2(2), 112-124. doi:10.1037/stl0000057
Cameron, A. L. C. (2015). Opening doors: A collective case study of integrating technology in the preschool through 3rd grade classroom in a developmentally appropriate way. Pepperdine University. Retrieved from: http://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1728737551.html?FMT=ABS
Gulamhussein, A. (2013) Teaching the Teachers Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability. Center for Public Education. Retrieved from: http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Nenu/Staffingstudents/Teaching-the-teachers-effective-professional-development-in-an-era-of-high-stakes-accountability/teaching-the-teachers-Full-Report.pdf.
Harapnuik, D. (2016). What if we gave students enough time to learn. It’s About Learning: Creating Significant Learning Environments. Retrieved from: http://www.harapnuik.org/?tag=authenticity
Schuttloffel, M. J. (2012) Catholic Identity: The Heart of Catholic Education Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 1, September 2012, 148-154. Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B-rrcM9tiXNCbUU4cWY0LU9oam8.
Robison, K., Smarick, A. (2016). Innovation in Catholic Education. Education Next. Retrieved from: http://educationnext.org/innovation-in-catholic-education-instruction-governance/