Time to Get REAL About Professional Development

Let’s talk about Relevant Engaging Applied Learning

GUEST COLUMN | by Ferdi Serim

Like it or not, ready or not, all of us working to transform traditional schools (the legacy model) that are designed to serve the needs of the past, into learning organizations that will serve our current and future needs, will succeed or fail based on whether or not Professional Development (PD) works.

How you react to the term “PD” varies with your role. While to the general public, it sounds like a great idea, to educators subjected to its common practices, PD is too often “cringe-worthy.” However, there is a more fundamental flaw than simply the archaic and draconian methods employed (decontextualized, “sit and git,” lecture-driven, “one-size-fits-all,” isolated events are typical indictments); the goals are the problem. PD is designed to “fix” the schools we have, rather than to help build the schools we need.

I began my teaching career in 1973 in Newark, NJ, in a building eight years older than the Statue of Liberty. While the coal-fired furnace and desks with inkwells that had chairs attached in front were a gold mine for antique dealers when they were replaced in my second year, the instructional practices have remained largely the same. Merely “tweaking” these practices or drilling students to death in order to improve test scores will not bring us a populace educated and prepared for complete inclusion, participation, and success in contemporary life.

For the past two decades, I’ve focused on what it would take to prepare the adults in the equation (not only teachers, but administrators, parents, and employers as well) to get out of the way of students and instead, give them the skills and tools that will enable them to sustain and accelerate their own growth.

Rather than focusing on “best practices” designed to yield incremental improvements in traditional practice, our goal is to discover and validate “next practices” designed to scale profound improvements in creating and sustaining healthy learning environments through the power of digital learning.

Many of us in the edtech universe are frustrated having witnessed and personally experienced the glacial pace of adoption of powerful learning strategies on a wider scale. I agree fully with Dr. Robert J. Marzano (www.marzanoresearch.com) who says, “It’s not a matter of knowing what to do; we have over 30 years of research about how people learn to guide us. It’s that we don’t have the will to do what we know will work.” More directly, I’ve heard Dr. Russ Quaglia (www.qisa.org) say, “It’s time for common sense to trump common practice.”

Applying All We Know to Get REAL

This summer, I decided, with the support of my colleagues at the Thornburg Center for Professional Development (www.tcpd.org), (David Thornburg, Sara Armstrong, and Lynell Burmark) along with Dave Master, John Perry, and Lisa Linn, to bring together everything I’ve learned as an educator; we call it, Get REAL. In this case REAL = Relevant Engaging Applied Learning. Remembering that it is the student who does the work of learning (no matter what we may do as teachers) means we must focus on people and what motivates them. Unless and until we focus on a student’s ability to apply their learning in ways that make a difference in their lives, we won’t reach our goals. This means teachers must be learners too, knowing that real learning is hard work, a fact often overlooked in “legacy model” PD programs that ask teachers to do nothing more than sit watching a screen or taking notes.

We must begin by applying what’s been learned through careful research. Thirty years ago, Dr. Russ Quaglia conducted studies to determine what aspect was the greatest determining factor of student success. Resilience surpassed the usual suspects of zip code, parental education, income levels, and even the presence of two parents in the household. Wanting to understand why this was so, and through further examination of the data, Dr. Quaglia and his team discovered eight conditions, grouped into three guiding principles that served two vital purposes. First, survey questions could quickly paint an accurate picture of the levels of key factors responsible for creating and sustaining healthy learning environments; second, monitoring efforts by students, teachers, and administrators working in concert to “move the needles” in a positive direction resulted in increased student achievement, especially for those groups of students least touched by “business as usual” approaches.

Here are the key components of Get REAL.

1) Let Educators Experience Professional Learning: Next Practice Learning Rounds

To bridge the gaps between research, policy, and practice, educators need access and connections to peers and colleagues who share a common language and framework in pursuit of their deep interest in better understanding teaching and learning. Next Practice Learning Rounds make sure that each educator has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring colleagues.

Drawing on the model of medical grand rounds, Next Practice Learning Rounds will take place simultaneously in sets of 10 cohort sites, for a half-day each month. Grand rounds in teaching hospitals are a cornerstone of career-long professional development for physicians. Case studies, focused presentations on research or new practices, and distributed expertise as participants discuss especially challenging problems are all part of that tradition. Common sense demands that we extend these benefits to educators.

Since research suggests that anything less than 49 hours of PD does not result in changes in classroom practice, our minimum engagement will be 49 hours, per year. Each participant will design and personalize the contents of their 49 hours to be most meaningful and productive starting from where they are right now (with our help).

A blended model that allows teachers to work online (applying the current lessons from “flipping the classroom” to PD) and then gathering to discuss and collaborate face to face, could provide sufficient intensity and duration to reach this mark, even as schools cancel professional development days to meet shrinking budgets. We know how to do this, so let’s Get REAL!

2) Build Internal Capacity: “Grow Your Own” Human Capital

If districts are to move beyond depending on a steady flow of outside consultants, they must be helped to develop internal capacity. Therefore, we are focusing on the top 5% of educators who want to take an active role in transforming learning, and in serving as the foundation for building the human capital required to move schools from the “legacy model” to the schools we need to prepare for real life today.  This demands honoring of adult learning through an approach of Andragogy (including elements shown below), rather than subjecting educators to the methods of pedagogy that have contributed to flat-line results.

Modeling how to differentiate by allowing each educator to select what they will focus on for their first 49 hours of blended model PD is the approach we’re using in our programs in the coming year, to “walk the talk” and Get REAL.

3) Use a Flight School Model

We are preparing people who want to rise to the next levels of learning by experiencing it themselves in order to help others experience it. We are not aiming at all teachers or the average teacher. Since both students and teachers are required to rise to higher levels than ever before, the flight school model provides powerful metaphors. First, “Flight Time” vs. “Seat Time” helps frame the 49 hours as “deliberate practice,” guided by one who is fully qualified, taking place when we are actually applying what we’re learning. This is contrasted with “contact hours” where all that matters is where your seat is. Second, you can’t learn to fly on the ground. Even simulators only take you so far–the real learning happens in flight. Third, you don’t want to go up without: having done a flight check each time; having a flight plan and monitoring where you are; assessing the conditions along the way, and then reacting accordingly. Finally, no one flies without a team (both in the air and on the ground, working together). Our model supports learners to soar to new heights, whether they are teachers or students.

4) Use Aspirations to Create Opportunities for Applied Learning

“When students have high aspirations, they have the ability to dream about the future, while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams.” – Dr. Russell J. Quaglia

When the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) come fully into play in 2014, students at every grade level will be expected to perform at levels that are two years beyond the grade-level skills of students today. This demands performances that are more like Olympians and less like the flat-line results seen so far from three decades of tinkering at the edges of education reform.

Instead, we must get to the heart of the matter. Both teachers and students are being asked to work harder and reach higher than ever before. Mandating that they “try harder” when most are already using all they know is silly. Aspirations work can unlock the internal motivational energy needed by both Olympians and scholars. The changes we want to see in terms of deeper learning and engagement can only take place in healthy learning environments, and finally we are at a moment where we can apply what we know to create and sustain such environments.

Olympians train for years before the global events, working every day on a personalized plan, supported by highly skilled professionals, monitoring their results and adjusting whatever is required to help them attain their goals. Everything in their learning environment is designed for their success; our professional educators deserve no less because in real life, their performances are more important. We must Get REAL in our efforts to upgrade the people, processes, and products of our learning organizations.


Ferdi Serim helps people become more effective in “real life” by incorporating the power of digital learning communities focused on talent development. He has worked in many venues: Board Member of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), Innovate+Educate, and Education360; the New Mexico Public Education Department’s EdTech Director; director of the Online Internet Institute (OII); Associate of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development (and jazz musician). Ferdi is the author of four books: Digital Learning: Strengthening and Assessing 21st Century Skills, now available from Jossey-Bass, as well as NetLearning: Why Teachers Use the Internet; From Computers to Community: Unlocking the Potentials of the Wired Classroom; and Information Technology for Learning: No School Left Behind.

One comment

  1. This is a great model. My state recently discarded something similar for teacher certification and replaced it with a data-driven model that makes it easier to pick out administrators in a crowd–they’re all clicking away at rubrics on RTTT iPads, with a 140 page instruction model. I like this model–and Farb Nivi’s–much better. “Just learn, learn well, learn socially.” Educators need to be self-motivated and inspired. As far as traditional “professional development,” vs certification-development, you are right. I cringe. I’d love to see something that adds value to real issues, like cohorts–but self-designed cohorts of innovators, not simply, “Department XXX.”

    I loved your graphic on “experience” allowing room for failure–fear has entered the educational equation in excess. You can’t innovate PD if people are afraid to try it because they have to hit “their numbers.” That’s not the way it works in business or in life.

Leave a Reply