Look around at a typical PD session and you’ll often see laptops out with Facebook up, the guy working on his grocery list, and the blank, comatose stare that comes from (far) too many PowerPoint slides. A little harsh? Perhaps. But, I think we’ve all been there, haven’t we? (and some of us may possibly have presided over one of these infamous sessions, possibly?)

Professional development often gets a bad rap. And to be fair, many times teachers and other educators are subjected to passive learning experiences that consist of endless slide decks and content that may or may not be related to the opportunities and challenges they experience in their classrooms. “Active” sessions are not necessarily the answer, though. I think we’ve all been to sessions with lots of table talk or other activities that don’t necessarily contribute much to our understanding or learning.

Over the last year or so, I’ve learned some important lessons in PD – there is significant power in protocols. We typically think of protocols in diplomatic situations – the specific norms and rules that govern formal meetings and interactions. We can also think about protocols as specific systems or procedures designed to channel energy in pursuit of some goal. Several recent professional learning experiences I’ve participated in have opened my eyes to new protocols that we’ve integrated into our work in CILD.

Aspirations to Behaviors in School Retool

We’ve just successfully “graduated” our second Virginia cohort of school leaders in the School Retool fellowship program. Developed through a collaboration between global design firm, IDEO, and the Stanford University d.school, the 3-month fellowship experience is designed to empower principals and other school leaders to develop deeper learning aspirations for their schools and work toward them through a series of purposeful small steps or “hacks.” One of the core design principals in School Retool is a stepwise process of moving from aspirations to behaviors, onward to hacks, and then to uncommon measures of success.

This iterative design process is introduced and enacted through a protocol designed to walk participants through the process one step at a time with time and experiences built in to brainstorm, get feedback, prioritize, and zero in on the best version of their ideas. Through the protocol, participants tackle a challenging task in a way that is fun, supportive, fast-paced, and most importantly, highly productive.

Appreciative Inquiry to Build on Strengths

Many times, PD is introduced and positioned as a way to fix problems. While certainly helpful and informative, this approach can often lead to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, powerlessness, or discouragement. Appreciative inquiry takes a very different approach. Rather than starting from problems, AI encourages participants to approach challenges and opportunities from a position of strength. If, for example, the goal of a PD session is to jump-start PBL design in a high school, rather than starting with discussing all the challenges with implementing projects in a high stakes testing environment, participants begin by agreeing to initiate a process to build on their strengths as a school community. They then inquire together about positive experiences they’ve had as students and as teachers with projects through paired interviews. The group then identifies themes, visions, and aspirations to build towards. They then imagine what their school would look like if the aspirations they have surfaced have been fully realized through role playing or creating some type of creative product.

Finally, they begin to plan for how they can innovate to move from their current reality to their vision of a new reality.

Group Reflection and Affirmation

At the end of PD sessions, we often ask for feedback on what participants learned in the session, what activities or experiences resonated with them and how they might take the learning into their practice. Often times, this is done via a paper-based or digital questionnaire. Sometimes we also ask for participants to share out a few ideas. One protocol we’ve encountered in different programs that we now regularly use is, “I like, I learned, I wish, I wonder.” In this simple protocol, each participant is given four sticky notes, a marker, and the prompt to write down in short words or phrases what they liked in the session, what they learned that was new to them, what they wish we might have been able to do, and what they wonder about for the future. The group then circles up around a whiteboard or wall space with the four headings. One at a time, participants announce each reflection to the group and post their sticky notes in the appropriate categories. Many times, they share insightful, poignant, and revealing reflections that help to reinforce the concepts and ideas from the PD. Not only does this protocol give literal voice to each of the participants as they share, we also find that it is highly affirming and inspirational for the participants to hear from each other what they will take away and aspire to in their practice.

As we design new professional learning experiences for busy, ambitious educators, we recognize that it’s on us to create meaningful, productive experiences for them. While each PD experience is different, we find that drawing on these and other successful protocols helps us to really spark learning.

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Dr. Mark Hofer is Professor of Educational Technology and Co-Director for the Center for Innovation in Learning Design In the School of Education at the College of William & Mary. A former high school history teacher, he teaches undergraduate, Masters and doctoral courses focusing on curriculum-based technology integration and deeper learning in K-16 classrooms. Dr. Hofer has served as Co-PI on a number of grants, including a research grant through the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation to explore the School Retool innovation fellowship program for secondary principals. He explores teaching, learning and technology in higher education on his blog, Luminaris.link. He is also co-author of And Action! Directing Documentaries in the Social Studies Classroom. He regularly presents his work at the local, national, and international conferences and publishes his work in a variety of scholarly and practitioner journals.