Why We Learn

Thoughts on educational psychology, instructional design, and the integration of technology in educational settings.

Professional Development – CFG + PLN = D&M?

An Overview

Professional development can be a sticky topic, sometimes bleeding into areas such as contractual obligations and monetary reimbursement. There is, however, lurking below the surface, a more implicit and problematic dissonance. Not all professional educators are consciously aware of this disconnect, but the contempt with which some view staff-wide professional development indicates that they “sense” its existence. I’m referring to the incongruity between how we ask our instructors to teach, and how we ask them to learn. The premise of this post is that the combination of Critical Friends Groups and Personal Learning Networks has the potential to offer deep and meaningful professional development.

Differentiated instruction is a term that is used to describe the instructional strategies / philosophy aimed at reaching the needs of every student. That is to say that the teacher takes into account a student’s

academic abilities, learning styles, personalities, interests, background knowledge and experiences, and levels of motivation for learning.

(No, I’m not going to comment on learning styles, but I’m aware of their unsubstantiated nature.) Thus, differentiation refers mostly to pedagogy – how we teach. But, at a more abstract level, aren’t teachers being asked to cater to the individualized / idiosyncratic needs of each student? And, does staff-wide professional development do the same? (Not typically.) Opportunities for instructors to attend workshops and conferences outside of the building are often better in this regard, but such opportunities aren’t frequent enough to cultivate intellectual growth.


Alternatives to structured, staff-wide professional development exist. Two such possibilities are Critical Friends Groups and Personal Learning Networks. These entities might be best described as “communities”, and differ in the relationship of the individual to the group, ranging from central (the focus) to the periphery. This vocabulary is derived from Lave & Wenger’s communities of practice, specifically the term ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. Their idea was that individuals move from the periphery towards the center as they become comfortable with the community and, to a lesser extent, the content / information. As an aside, these ideas have been around since the Middle-Ages and find their roots in the ideas of apprenticeship.

Critical Friends Groups were developed by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in 1994. They focus on creating a professional learning community in which “teachers talk to teachers about teaching”. These discussions are led by trained practitioners who follow protocols (strategies) specific to the topic of deliberation. Marnie Curry’s 2008 work, entitled Critical Friends Groups: The Possibilities and Limitations Embedded in Teacher Professional Communities Aimed at Instructional Improvement and School Reform examines one school’s implementation of the CFG framework. A visual representation of her findings is below. Clicking on the image will produce the full sized version.


Curry’s judgement is that the ambitious nature of CFGs hampers their overall effectiveness. Further, she refers to them as “politicized entities” in which “in-depth attention to subject matter is unlikely” (p. 770). As such, she recommends careful considerations of the inherent constraints of the CFG framework. One can see from the visual representation of Curry’s findings that the strengths of the framework lie in its ability to cultivate community and a shared understanding (of school-wide initiatives), while it mechanistic and diverse nature impedes in-depth discussion of both subject-specific and emergent issues.

A Personal Learning Network, according to David Warlick:

involves an individual’s topic oriented goal, a set of practices or techniques aimed at attracting or organizing a variety of relevant content sources, selected for their value, to help the owner accomplish a professional goal or personal interest.

Kate Klingensmith identifies the potential components of PLNs. Her list includes the following technologies.

  • Social networking sites
  • Microblogging
  • Professional profiles
  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • RSS Reader
  • Nings
  • Social bookmarking
  • Webinars
  • Backchanneling of conferences

It’s interesting to note that Kate doesn’t include face-to-face conversations with colleagues, as I would have. I think it’s unwise to exclude those with whom we interact everyday, especially if they are related to our topic of interest (our co-workers, for example). What is most interesting about PLNs is how they shift the locus of control completely towards the learner. This shift, combined with the corresponding sense of autonomy should, research tells us, lead to an increased desire (motivation) to learn. It’s important to note that contributing is a fundamental piece of the PLN. That is to say that the majority of the components listed by Klingensmith allow for both the consumption and creation of content/knowledge. Individuals who take PLNs seriously participate in this way.

A Hybrid Model

Administrators must prioritize their objectives as they consider professional development initiatives. An honest assessment of school-wide professional development workshops should make it clear that a significant percentage of staff don’t participate therefore making their experience meaningless. The interpretation of this reality is pivotal. Either (a.) the supervisor blames these staff members for their inattentiveness (often the case, I assume), or (b.) the supervisor blames his or herself for providing a “one size fits all” learning opportunity. If he or she chooses the latter, than a “community” approach might be considered in place of the traditional didactic conference.

At the end of Curry’s paper, she alludes to a potential solution to the inherent constraints of CFGs.

Instead, solutions may have to come from elsewhere, perhaps in the form of multiple and complementary CFG-like professional development opportunities in subject matter departments and academies (p. 770).

What if PLNs are used in conjunction with CFGs? The primary advantages of CFGs is the sense of community and an awareness of school-wide initiatives/events that they promote. Certainly, their ability to debate pedagogy in a general sense is a powerful attribute and an advantage as well. But, it is one that could be replaced via an instructor’s PLN, which would have the added benefit, if correctly constructed, of addressing subject-specific pedagogy, a weakness of the CFG. Combining these two constructs might allow the school to run abbreviated versions of the CFGs, focusing specifically on cultivating a sense of community through conversation of school-wide initiatives and individuals “reporting out” on their work with their PLN.

In summary, the suggested model is based on 3 tenets.

  • A member’s CFG is the foundation of their PLN
  • Individual’s learning objective(s) with (outside/online) PLN are determined by the individual
  • CFG gatherings focus on tying each member’s outside PLN experience to the group and to the school as a whole

It is assumed that meetings with the CFG would lead, periodically, to revision of individual learning objectives. Comments/critiques are welcome.

Hybridized Online Learning – More (But Could be Even More?) Effective

Benjamin S. Bloom has two works from which to draw when interpreting the results of a new study by Carnegie Mellon. The key finding, related to the efficiency of this design, is summarized in the following quotation.

By combining the open-learning software with two weekly 50-minute class sessions in an intro-level statistics course, they found that they could get students to learn the same amount of material in half the time.

Essentially, the inclusion of this intelligent tutoring system allows the professor to discuss more nuanced and/or complex aspects of the content, and do so in one less class period. Bloom might infer that the observed improvements were due to an increase in the amount of time spent analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating, i.e., at the higher levels of “his” taxonomy, while in class. Alternatively, he could point to his work on tutoring, and its corresponding “2 Sigma Problem”, which suggests that one can expect to observe a difference of +2 standard deviations when students work with a teacher in a one-to-one setting.

I’m inclined to agree with both of these hypothetical conclusions. I’m also reminded of Ewan McIntosh’s recent response to Will Richardson’s post commenting on an image of a lecture hall filled with (mostly Apple) computers. McIntosh’s critique, in he differentiates between curriculum and pedagogy, noting that teachers can control pedagogy but not curriculum, culminates with the following assertion.

The reason the picture presents a dubious message is that neither curriculum nor pedagogy have changed an iota in this learning space: it’s about the same layout – with as many apples on laps – as a Victorian classroom would have appeared.

I wonder how instructional design fits, as Carnegie Mellon’s design offloads the mundane, didactic portions of instruction to technological entities, thus freeing up space and time for the instructor/professor to do the sorts of things that are much harder for computers, even “intelligent” systems, to replicate. This is a good start, but can we go further?

The program’s efforts to maximize the contributions of technology are impressive. They’ve applied adaptive algorithms similar to those that are used in the GRE, which monitor and subsequently respond to students understanding. This is one of the first times this technology has been used outside of the assessment arena. (The article refers to its use as “novel”.) What needs to be considered, however, is a design that manufactures or generates time for face-to-face. That is to say that although the tutoring aspect of Bloom’s research is (partially) present in the form of the intelligent tutoring system, the potential of human tutoring is greater.

This is not the first time that I’ve considered using technology to offload the sort of lower level tasks of instruction. My presentation, entitled “A Shift in Focus: Designing for Face-to-Face” can be found here. Comments/critiques are welcome.

Apple’s iPhone for School Administrators – Low Expectations?

Apple has added a document to their web site, published in early December of 2009, entitled iPod Touch/iPhone for Administrators. These sort of documents, put out by developers of technology, are interesting in that they shed some light on the way in which these companies perceive the educational domain, and more specifically how they think their product “fits” within that field. Apple typically does a nice job presenting information in a persuasive way, and they do a so here. However, my intent is to deduce what the information included in this piece tells us about Apple’s perception of the educational realm.

The text’s most glaring omission is the failure to acknowledge the potential inherent to the use of Web 2.0 and mobile technologies. Apple has included a section dedicated to Web 2.0, and includes brief overviews of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. These technologies are introduced by the following passage.

Today, more and more educators and students are using social networks to build relationships, meet new contacts, and market themselves. By embracing even just a few of these popular Web 2.0 tools using your iPod touch or iPhone, you can see how these technologies are changing the landscape of life in the 21st Century, grow as a professional, and learn about the world as they way our children are and will experience it later in life.

Two important points need to be made. First, Apple presents these technologies as tools that administrators can use to advance their career. Secondly, the last phrase (obviously a typo, and thus hard to decipher) straddles the fence if you will, indicating that “our children” are and will experience this world that administrators are to learn about through the use of this device. Are students to experience this world inside of school? Moreover, there is nothing here about pedagogy or curriculum. Rather, a focus on the potential to improving one’s position, and to increase one’s understanding of today’s students.

Is this a failure of Apple to understand the potential of their own device? Or, is it indicative of their unwillingness to jump into the debate about technology’s role in the classroom? Professional development is presented in a way that reinforces, in a fundamental way, the status quo, as Audible.com, podcasts, RSS, and iTunes U are discussed in some detail. These are certainly worthy inclusions. However, the common thread, present in all four, is that each presents or is a conduit for information. Apple is missing the point of Web 2.0 — to participate in the construction of our own (shared) understanding through collaborative exercises.

I will only mention one or two additional observations from reviewing this document. Basic productivity applications, Mail, Safari, iCal, and Address book are reviewed first. I might be reading into this a bit too much, but that tells me that Apple’s first prerogative is to allay any fears that one might have about the potential to do these sorts of things on the device, specifically the fears of those most comfortable using Microsoft Office products. The last applications reviewed reinforce this idea, addressing the ability to edit Microsoft Office files, check spelling, and share/exchange files. How is the reader to reconcile the focus on these sorts of tasks and the inclusion of the following phrase to early in the text?

On the pages that follow, you will see how the iPod touch or iPhone can be used by administrators in a variety of ways well beyond a simple PIM device or media player, become a fantastic tool to practice digital leadership!

What is “digital leadership”? This document implies that Apple imagines superintendents/principals/supervisors performing managerial tasks on a smaller, electronic device. Email, calendaring, web browsing, editing documents, and sharing/exchanging files are the principle focuses of this paper. What happened to “high expectations”? Digital leadership encompasses a wide range of tasks, most importantly modeling the ways in which technology can be used to increase students motivation via their participation in this great experiment that is unfolding online everyday. Apple, and other producers of technology, should be considering the iPod/iPhone’s potential to encourage students to think more and in more complex ways, rather than focusing on the automation/facilitation of administrative tasks.

Lastly, the section on data collection does a fair job of illustrating the iPod Touch/iPhone’s potential, although I wonder why things such as eInstruction’s student response system or FMTouch aren’t included. There are other alternatives to the walk-through software listed, and the application iObserve hasn’t been updated since October of 2008, i.e., I believe that it’s no longer being developed.

There is a disconnect between the way that Apple presents the iPod/iPhone to the educational community as a whole (see Mobile Learning with the iPod touch and Lessons on the goPhone for examples of more progressive presentations), and the way that they envision its use by administrators. Although I’ve been pretty tough on the particular resource, the existence of these other works suggests that it is not Apple’s naivety in terms of how they envision Web 2.0 technologies fitting into today’s classroom, but rather their uninspiring image of administrators role in this process.

Teachers as Early Adopters

As we engage in discussions regarding the integration of technology, arguments inevitably arise. Deliberating how to allocate of funds can be a contentious process. The merits of the multiple positions that one might take with regards to these conversations is not the focus of this post. Instead, I would like to consider the precursor to any such dialogue. Isn’t the quality of instruction, face-to-face or online, most directly related to the teacher and his or her way of being? And if so, how do we reconcile the use of Web 2.0 technologies with such a assertion?

I find it difficult to accept arguments that emphasize technology over pedagogy. However, if we accept the premise that the effectiveness of classroom instruction is most directly we related to the teacher, mustn’t we also consider the role of the student. That is to say that we might choose to identify the nature/quality of both participants the individuals, and their “way of being” with each other, as the preeminent predictors of the degree to which the desired objectives are achieved. For a thorough conversation on the topic, see Rogoff and her idea of “intersubjectivity”. This is where technology comes into play. The collaborative and communicative powers of technology and online media are impressive. Thus, these interactions can be carried on after class has ended.

The combination of the Internet and cellular, or mobile technology renders both time and space inconsequential. At a time where the performance of America’s schools is being questioned daily, in a world in which other countries send their youth to school more often and for longer duration, the (un)willingness of public educators to shift from a 8-to-4 mindset to one of continual or ongoing discussion is, or should be, a concern. The discussions do not have to end, they can continue. Teachers must make themselves available to their students, via SMS, their mobile phones, and a plethora of Web 2.0 tools, before and after school.

There is a problem, I think, with the way we talk about technology. It may not be as big of a problem with our younger generation of teachers, but it’s critically important that we think about how we discuss, or “represent” technology in front of veteran educators. Technology is not one thing, but it is often represented as such (see Learning Management Systems). Communicating now is very different than it was only 15 years ago, when essentially three forms of media, the written word, the telephone, and television existed. Educators must understand that the growth, the modification the evolution of technology is rapid. If an individual feels that they “have got it”, they are wrong, regardless of their degree of understanding at that point in time.

More than anything teachers must be encouraged to buy into the idea that there is an exciting, engaging, collaborative exercise unfolding minute by minute online. They are leaders of a group of young people that, as a whole, can add to this ongoing construction of artifacts, tools, and virtual documentation. The idea is for them to pass this excitement onto their students. The degree to which they buy into this idea is directly related to their ability to use these collaborative, constructive, online activities as motivational rationale. One would think that contributing to something meaningful and real is a much more attractive exercise than the sort of repetitive, managerial tasks that are so often observed in today’s classrooms. Today’s youth are the early adopters of new technology. If they are to be allowed to use it as they see fit, then those individuals who must assess their “contributions” (teachers) must be comfortable using such technology.

Each new school year will present teachers with new students prepared, through their experiences outside of school, to implement technology the latest way. The teacher’s options are to either force their students to adopt technology he or she is most comfortable using, or to adapt themselves. The progressive educator, the innovator who embraces the rapid evolution inherent to the Web, will be most comfortable (possibly energized) by the later possibility. Research related to motivation, goal orientation, and locus of control, have a place in this conversation. If we choose to integrate technology in a way that allows students to interact with their teachers when they want and in the way that they want, that permits their demonstration of knowledge, skills, and efforts using the tools they want, we are essentially shifting the locus of control towards them. This allows students to operate more autonomously which has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation, or motivation from within. However, adopting this approach requires much more, in terms of time/accessibility and technological proficiency, from the instructor.

Christmas 2009

As I write this, the boys are up trying to figure out which presents are theirs, and Gracie is having a bottle with mommy, who is desperately trying to sleep. (I would have giving Gracie the bottle, but she wanted mommy.) It’s Christmas morning in the Cerniglia house, and it’s been quite a year. We lost papa, we bought a house, Jude started kindergarten, I got promoted, we went to Disney World, and Gracie started to talk. So much good, and a little bit of sad.

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