Friday’s Revolutionary ASCD PD Pilot: Four Takeaways

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On Friday, March 27th, five ASCD affiliates simultaneously held a blended learning professional development event, bringing in Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey of FIT teaching fame from San Diego, California, right into their states for educators eager to learn more. But this wasn’t just about the delivery of Fisher & Frey’s high quality content. It was also about providing a context for like-minded educators to learn from one another. The combinations of content and collaboration, virtually and face-to-face, is a powerful new model that ASCD and its affiliates partnered together to pilot…and the results are powerful.

Maine educators collaborating in between sessions with Fisher & Frey

Maine educators collaborating in between sessions with Fisher & Frey

First of all, not only were there event sites on the ground in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont; Rhode Island hosted two sites and New York filled three. And all that was in play before two campuses of Instituto San Roberto in Mexico contacted Rhode Island ASCD to attend remotely from their facilities. First takeaway: blended learning can reach multiple groups of educators in different locations at the same time.

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Then there was Fisher and Frey’s ability to share their work virtually live from their school during a normal school day. They spoke casually and confidently about their program, openly fielding questions and interacting with all ten locations, genuinely sharing their vision and its practical applications with students. “It was like they were right in the room with us….it didn’t feel any different than when I was in Houston last week sitting in the third row enjoying exchanges with big name presenters at ASCD’s annual conference,” one Massachusetts attendee shared. Second takeaway: blended learning works best with subject matter experts who come across authentically online.

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And then there was the ASCD EdSpace unconferencing format. Each opportunity for work with colleagues throughout the day provided for collaboration across common needs and interests working with the FIT teaching framework. Attendees self-selected pairings and groupings to learn from one another and build understandings, strategies and processes that can be immediately implementable in classrooms and offices first thing this coming Monday morning. No down time. No sit and get. No seat hours. Just pure what’s-in-it-for-me professional development. Third takeaway: unconferencing couched in rich, purposeful content provides powerful learning and networking that far surpasses traditional PD formats.

Massachusetts educators discussing purpose and culture in the FIT teaching framework.

Massachusetts educators discussing purpose and culture in the FIT teaching framework.

Finally, there was the virtual cross-pollination of ideas. At the end of a full day, affiliates all came back together online to showcase their takeaways from the day, after two solid hours of localized unconferencing that allowed each affiliate to work within their unique state context. This virtual sharing was a powerful wrap up to a powerful day. State after state offered attendees coming up to the camera to share the meaningful learning they had experienced. Fourth takeaway: collaboration can happen in multiple dimensions within a single professional development experience.

New York educators welcoming everyone to the big event virtually Friday morning.

New York educators welcoming everyone to the big event virtually Friday morning.

What is most rewarding is that given the success of this weekend’s pilot, each of these affiliates has expressed interest and enthusiasm for delivering more blended learning PD. The seed has been planted, from which many more possibilities can blossom. How about you and your corner of the world? Are you ready to open up professional development to whole new dimensions and possibilities? Are you willing to bring what you have to offer to interested educators remotely around the world? Are you receptive to meeting the needs of different and diverse cadres of educators who will make their own meaning from what you provide? If your answers are “Yes!” then join ASCD and its affiliates in continuing to push the boundaries on what effective PD can be for educators everywhere.

Taking charge of their professional development locally and across the northeast and Mexico.

Taking charge of their professional development locally and across the northeast and Mexico.

Petri Dish PD

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I’ve been to professional development events that follow a variety of formats: assemblies, braindumps, cattle calls, chats, computer camps, conferences, convocations, deliberations, dine-and-discusses, edcamps, flockings, forums, gabfests, groupthinks, hangouts, huddles, make-it-and-take-its, meet-and-greets, meetings, peer-coachings, podcasts, powwows, retreats, roasts, scrums, seminars, summits, symposia, think-ins, train-the-trainers, tweet-ups, unconferences and webinars. Almost any way you can re-package professionals getting together to interact and exchange, I’ve been there and done that.

And now I can add Petri Dish Professional Development: PDPD.

Since I joined the ASCD team in 2010, the Leader to Leader (L2L) conference has evolved from content-and-connections to, this past weekend, Petri Dish PD. Morphing to become more and more leader-driven, we broke new ground last year by including an inaugural (albeit more structured than naught) unconference experience around KnowledgeWorks’ Recombinant Education concepts. The leader work that resulted from that experience was energy-charged and forward-thinking.

So this year we opened up L2L even more, giving our leaders the floor to identify concepts, initiatives, frameworks, models, programs – whatever they deemed worthy of their focus – that they developed over the past three days and are now taking back to implement with educators on the ground wherever they lead. We encouraged all of our leaders: affiliate, connected community, emerging, professional interest community and student chapter, to self-select groups across their leadership roles and find common ground upon which they could develop their ideas.

This was not only the least-structured L2L ever, it was a Petri dish containing the natural diversity of age, agendas, attitudes, experience, expertise, ideas, skills, values and vision. It was a raw, messy, unpredictable petri dish of potential. Individuals were attracted by big ideas to form groups large and small. Some leaders found it difficult to break away from the teams that defined them back home. Others struggled with the lack of structure. Some groups took off like a shot, with enthusiasm and definite ideas of where they wanted to go. Others charted a trajectory but found it difficult to break free of gravity. Groups formed and reformed, collaborated across groupings, and thrived on the resulting synergy. Regardless they engaged in exhausting work and got the job done.

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As staff preparing for and hosting this loosely structured L2L, it was the most collaborative experience we have ever had. You can only plan so much for the unknown. What is the right tone to set for optimal outcomes? How many groups will form? What ideas will emerge? How can we anticipate all the possible scenarios so we can be agile and responsive? How much content is enough content? How much process is too much? What kind of support will leaders need to keep the focus on developing their ideas and not the trappings of catchy presentations? How will we emphasize the value of input, feedback and reflection? We put in place the tools and parameters we thought would foster ideation and collaboration, and went into this year’s L2L feeling out of our own comfort zone, too. It has been the most nerve-racking, exhausting, rewarding L2L yet….for both staff and leaders in attendance.

What do you get when you place such a natural diversity of matter into a Petri dish and stand back to watch it combine and react? You get unleashed energy and potential. And assuming you are not repeating a familiar professional development trial with already known outcomes, you get unanticipated results. Could it have blown up in a combustible cloud? Anything is possible. But when you are working with the best and the brightest leaders in education, you have faith that they will show you the way to new and dynamic teaching, learning and leading.

PDPD is not for the faint of heart. I have not worked with another organization of ASCD’s size and reach that has offered this level of high-caliber open-ended professional development. It impacts everyone involved; we all learn and come out better for having had the experience. What is the future of L2L?  Who knows? PDPD is not predictable or prescribed. But one thing is for sure. The projects and initiatives our leaders took with them out into the field now have the ability to impact education far beyond our Petri dish, and we look forward to learning the results of their implementation in the coming months ahead.

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