PD as learning

KNotI’m conducting a professional development (PD) workshop on instructional strategies for our elementary science department, sharing some of the great ideas I learned at a conference.  The teachers all know each other, so we don’t need the usual ice-breaker. I thought about opening by asking them to describe an effective learning experience they have had and why it worked for them. I could then refer to their input during the session. Do you have an experience to share as an example?
—Joyce from Rhode Island

I’ve played various roles in professional development workshops for teachers, as an attendee, a planner, and a presenter. I think you have a good idea— an introductory activity relating to the goals of the workshop can provide a frame of reference and give you some background information on the participants. I can share a memorable PD experience I had, but it was in a non-classroom setting.

I was taking a canoeing and water safety course. We spent time on the lake and then moved on to knot tying. I remembered a few knots from my Girl Scout days, but one in particular was challenging. The instructor gave verbal directions with no diagrams or modeling. Instead, he said, over and over again, something about a rabbit coming out of a hole and hopping around a tree. This made no sense to me as I sat there holding a piece of rope. When I raised my hand to ask him to explain, he gave me a condescending look, told me to pay closer attention, and repeated the hopping rabbit story in a louder and slower voice. Still confused, I asked him if he could demonstrate the process using my rope. He did so— once—and then asked “Any questions? Good.” He moved on to the next knot without giving those of us who were finally catching on time to practice.

After the class, I fumed with frustration. I vowed to never tie another knot again, even to keep my canoe from drifting away.  Then I took a deep breath and thought about the role reversal. I was the student trying to learn something new from a teacher who already knew the process.  He had one way to “teach” the skill (the rabbit story) and when some students did not get it right away, he assumed it was our fault for not listening.

It occurred to me that my frustrations were probably similar to those of my students when they were learning something new. I wondered how much more frustrated I would be if he had given the instructions in a language I did not understand. I thought about how I could have made the knot tying lesson much better.  I vowed to remember this experience and always have a variety of strategies up my sleeve to help students. For example, while the verbal instructions worked for some students in the knot class, others needed something more visual. I also vowed to give students time to ask questions, practice, and think about what they were learning.

Even negative experiences can have positive results!

Graphic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whatindienights/6008244447/sizes/s/in/photostream/

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