Priorities for Positive Professional Development

This month marks workshop season for me. I’ve had the chance to facilitate three workshops in total in the last two weeks (2 versions of one plus a stand alone event). Every time I finish I feel grateful, satisfied and also a little wiser. I’ve been designing and facilitating workshops for at least 7 or 8 years, often for educator conferences in Europe and once in the US. My favorite topics revolve around effective communication and collaborative work.

image by Spelic

One of the things I have learned about myself in this process is how critical it is for me to see myself in my participants. I know what easily bores, tires or frustrates me in a professional learning environment and I take measures to avoid those habits when planning each event. Whatever the specific topic, I have established certain priorities in designing experiences that participants will ideally find stimulating, relevant, and worthwhile. These are:

  • high levels of participant activity – Whether talking, moving, writing, thinking, keeping participants actively engaged in the topic requires a steady diet of activity throughout a session. Sitting and listening may be good for a while but we all need brief breaks to process and digest what we are taking in.
  • Movement – I like to have participants physically move, by walking, standing, switching partners, perhaps even dancing or playing a short game. Movement injects energy into the space and offers a change of pace. Depending on the group’s needs, with movement you can slow things down or shake them up, calm the waters or stir the pot and it can loosen the atmosphere and allow participants to experience each other in a different light.
  • Experience over content. In an adult learning environment we often assume that content is what people are after. My experience tells that this is a “Yes, and” proposition. People want content – skills, tips, tools, ideas that they can use and apply in their specific context AND they want an experience which will help them connect with and retain this precious content. For this reason, I think of the content as a vehicle for creating a meaningful learning experience for participants. This means that processing time, practice and reflection are built into the plan. Being a realist, this priority has helped me see the need for the next:
  • Doing less.  In order to balance content sharing with high participation, I usually decide to cover less content. In my design I allocate the time that participants will need to share their experiences or  think carefully about a subject. Rushing folks through multiple activities is of little use if participants feel stressed and pressured as a result. I strive to be clear about my priorities and plan accordingly.
  • Being present to what the group needs and offers.  This is a broad, catchall way of saying, have an agenda and be flexible enough to tweak or alter it, if the needs of the group demand it. It is also a reminder to be open to the wisdom and experience that resides in the group and seek ways to tap into it – for ultimately, this is the reason we come together at all.
  • Designing a learning experience that I will like.  So far I have enjoyed the privilege of creating the learning experiences that I value. I have not had to deliver anyone else’s message or curriculum. So when I create a plan, I do so with my audience in mind as well as considering which content and methods excite me as the facilitator.

When I manage to pay attention to and recognize these priorities from the design stage through to the workshop’s conclusion, the results for participants and me are remarkably positive.  What has also become apparent to me when I work with adults is how important validation and recognition are. My teaching roots are in physical education, an arena where different people can feel inadequate and lacking at different times and the sentiment is often quite visible. So much of my work is grounded in cultivating an atmosphere in which all skill levels can feel welcome and free to express themselves. In my workshops, a similar frame of mind is critical. Creating a safe environment where participants feel encouraged to share and bring their whole selves to the learning lays the foundation of the work I aim to accomplish with any group.

To this end, I invest time and energy thinking carefully about the language, both verbal and body, that I use to communicate my essential values. I say, Thank you, after nearly every interaction. I try to listen without interrupting. I use an invitational tone of voice. I move around as I speak. I laugh at my own mistakes. These are habits which express who I am and they also represent a conscious and deliberate way of  “showing up” for participants and clients in these special learning spaces.

In my most recent workshops, participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And while the content was certainly of interest, what people most often acknowledged was how they felt as a result. Following a workshop on inclusion activities, the room did not empty until 15 minutes later as participants were still deeply engaged in conversation. Inclusion took place. In fact, one participant offered me the best facilitator feedback I believe I can ever hope to receive: “You practice what you preach.”

 

A hat tip to Laura Thomas (@CriticalSkills1), a facilitator over at Edutopia, who sparked my interest with this post on a recent experience she had with a group of educators. Let there be more positive professional development experiences for educators. We deserve them!

 

A Programmable Future

CC pixabay.com

CC pixabay.com

I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.

The post helped me see what I was not seeing.

To recognize what I have been avoiding.

To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.

The post  I read was  “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.

The first point that got under my skin was this:

Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…

…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.

YES! Content is always at the center, of course.  And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience.  I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.

Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”

The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.

This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:

One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.

WHAT?

As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.

Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.

Boom!

We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]

and then this:

Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.

That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case  to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed:  I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects.  That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have  kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.

I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote.  Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.