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Professional Learning is a Workout!

May 26, 2017 2017-05-26

By Lee Cook

The Workout—shown below—is a model I created for designing professional learning events related to technology integration with innovative teaching and learning. The Workout framework is effective for a variety of topics, such as digital storytelling, formative assessment, visual learning, global collaboration, anytime-anywhere communication, design thinking, blended learning, and problem-based learning.

Select a Theme/Analogy

The Workout is designed with a theme or analogy that permeates the learning environment and entire experience. For example, for the topic of formative assessment, I may select a sport such as yoga, boxing, or volleyball to make memorable analogies to the Workout topic. Making those connections helps participants construct knowledge and find meaning. The theme is referenced in all parts of the Workout, from the physical to digital environments.

The theme can also be used to engage participants in fun. Smiles and laughter make a difference in learning for all ages. Immersing participants in the theme with music, decorations, treats, and games helps the day's hassles fade away so everyone can focus on the Workout. I also greet participants at the entrance of a PD session in a theme-related costume and engage in energetic theme-related behavior to set a tone of risk-taking. For example, when I used dance as a theme I donned legwarmers, a Flashdance shirt, and ballet shoes to dance wildly around. The Workout is a model for professional learning that frequently requires participants to step outside of comfort zones, and so I guarantee them that there is nothing they can do during the session that could possibly look more foolish than my antics.

Consistent Elements

The three elements that should be incorporated in any Workout are the whys, collaboration, and differentiation.

The Whys
Directly addressing the whys can tie learning to the participant's own identity as an educator or human being, which is a powerful motivator for change and growth. Example whys I often incorporate are the following:

  • Why is this important in education?
  • Why is this something that matters for students?
  • Why might technology be helpful?
  • Why make the effort?

Passive sit-and-get PD feels comfortable for many of us, but it can make us couch potatoes. The Workout model requires action and interaction on the part of participants. The framework supports cooperative learning activities and ensures knowledge is constructed independently and collaboratively. To further facilitate collaboration, I reserve spots at every Workout for principals and library media specialists because they influence their school's culture and are the go-to support for embedded professional learning and collaboration.

When curating resources for the Workout, I provide choices for beginners through pros and the tech fearful to the tech savvy. I also choose flexible options for all grade levels and content areas, and perpetually affirm everyone may take away something different. Surveying participants in advance allows the instruction and resources of the Workout to be adapted for the audience.

Structural Outline

Every Workout progresses through a common introduction, time with resources, and reflection.

Common Introduction
Workout participants have a broad range of experiences and knowledge when they arrive. It's important to provide a baseline of common knowledge to build on independently and collaboratively. While I may briefly present information, participants uncover most of the content through hands-on activities or cooperative learning tasks.

Time with Resources
“Time” is the answer almost universally given by educators when asked about anything. Therefore, time must be part of the answer for professional learning. The Workout incorporates the sandbox method. Kyle Pace offers a definition of the sandbox method: “Sandbox time is giving the group time to play; time to explore, talk, and get comfortable; time to discover and create new ideas.”

For each Workout, I curate a collection of categorized resources that participants explore during timed rotations. A free choice rotation is included to revisit anything. I use Google Sites to organize the Workout experience.

The volume of resources available for learner-directed exploration can be overwhelming for participants unaccustomed to choice in professional learning. I emphasize that getting through everything available is not the goal. Finding one thing to actively pursue that intrigues or inspires and generates growth is success.

Digital space for reflection activities is always included at the end of a Workout. Written reflection gives participants a chance to absorb and synthesize their learning. Participants use it to hold themselves accountable for the changes they plan to implement. Example prompts for participants include the following:

  • What did you discover?
  • What did you dream up?
  • What surprised you?
  • What challenges are left to solve?
  • What energized you?
  • How did you succeed today?

Workout Starter List

If you are considering crafting professional learning using the Workout model, here is a to-do list to help you get started with the process:

  • Arrange for time
  • Arrange for participants with intentionality
  • Select a topic and spend time learning and thinking about it
  • Curate tools and resources that are differentiated by expertise, grade level, subject, and interest
  • Develop a site for tools/resources with long-term access
  • Presurvey participants and adapt instruction and resources accordingly
  • Develop introductory activities/information that include independent and cooperative learning pathways
  • Weave the theme with a spirit of fun: dress, music, treats, decor
  • Assign seating groups of three to four people and instigate collaboration
  • Determine schedule/approach for rotations through resources/activities
  • Circulate during rotations to guide, coach, and encourage
  • Be available in the future for further support

Professional learning is a workout. As educators, we are responsible for our own professional learning. We cannot wait passively to learn and grow stronger in our practice. We have to stretch, sweat, and move mentally when engaging in professional learning.

Lee Cook is the Instructional Technology Curriculum Coordinator for Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton, Illinois. As a founding member of the district's Future of Instruction and Technology (FIT) team, she is passionate about empowering change agents among the staff. She is the 2017 Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) Educator of the Year in the Technology Using Educator category. Connect with Lee on Twitter @MsLeeCook.

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