by Amber Walraven
You've all read them: articles, blogs, and tweets about how important it is for teachers to pay attention to so-called 21st century skills, digital literacy, it-skills, media literacy, and so on. I've authored some of these articles, blogs, and tweets myself. A common reaction from teachers is: I'm too busy getting "the old stuff" done, don't have time for new things. Or: it's not my task—I'm not a language/reading/writing teacher.
Reactions from others in the educational field often go like this: you can't expect a teacher to teach what he hasn’t been taught. Teachers first need to be educated in anything digital before they can teach it. My answer to comments of both groups is simple: teacher design teams. In this post I'd like to share my experience with this form of professional development.
In a teacher design team, teachers create new materials or adapt existing curriculum materials in collaboration with each other, and often with experts such as educational design experts, educational researchers, and domain experts. The process of (re-)design provides opportunities for teachers to reflect on the curriculum starting from their personal knowledge and beliefs, their practice, and their goals for student learning. The interaction with other teachers and experts may deepen and challenge their reflections. Because (re-)designing curriculum results in concrete artifacts—
curriculum materials—teachers are not only exposed to the new practice, but they actively shape their own practice. Participation in well-scaffolded collaborative curriculum design processes therefore has the potential to contribute to the professional development of the teachers involved and to the production of materials which are valid and feasible in view of both teaching practice and the intended curriculum.
In my research, I have been working with both primary teachers and secondary teachers. All the projects aimed at integrating ICT, or instruction in information/media skills, into the core curriculum. We aimed at (re)designing a course, or a lesson series by keeping the course content, adding content on media literacy/information skills and (slightly) changing the mode of instruction. In primary education, this resulted in the integration of media literacy in the common curriculum. For instance while teaching pupils about summarizing texts, teachers used (and let pupils use) Twitter to share summaries. And besides the actual learning to tweet, pupils were also taught about social media, privacy, and online behavior. An example from secondary education: instead of letting students read a textbook and instructing them about historical figures like Julius Caesar, teachers asked students to make a Facebook fan page about the historical figure of their choice. They had to post a biography, share some updates ("Today I conquered Germany"), find friends from the same time period and so on. Extra attention was paid to the sources students used for their page and learning to evaluate websites was an extra learning goal in this period. In this way, students learned history as well as information skills.
After working with 11 design teams, I come to the following conclusions:
- It is possible to integrate "new skills" in the common curriculum.
- Fear of students learning less when taught in this way is unnecessary. They score higher on a knowledge test on subject matter, and even gain extra skills.
- Teachers need to be given enough time and support for this form of PD.
- While designing these lessons, teachers develop knowledge and skills themselves.
- Working in a design team is not a suitable PD form for all teachers.
- Teachers are motivated when they can share ideas about their work with colleagues.
- Teachers become even more passionate about their job.
- Personal differences need to be solved before embarking on the design and PD journey.
- A design team needs to have a strong leader, and motivated members.
- Forcing teachers in a team, and having a team without a personal drive, is a recipe for disaster.
- Being in a design team is contagious; after going through the motions once, teachers tend to collaborate in this way more often.
I think this way of PD is the best and fastest way of getting all the important skills that are currently not in our curricula in our schools. We can’t afford to wait!
Amber Walraven is a senior researcher at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences (ITS), Radboud University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Her research includes information, media and digital literacy, educational innovation and teacher professional development.