Although teachers can often apply familiar best practices to unfamiliar contexts, the integration of Customized Learning is often a paradigm shift for teachers, involving practices they are not familiar with. Rarely have teachers experienced Customized Learning themselves, and, collectively, Maine Cohort for Customized Learning districts are early enough in their implementation that many teachers have still received very little training.
Educators who effectively help teachers shift paradigms recognize that it requires more than sharing information and formal workshops.
Schema theory sheds the best light on how to structure professional development for large-scale change: provide models and experiences. Or as some school change experts say, “Teachers can’t do what they haven’t experienced.” Teachers are more often stumped with implementing an initiative by that lack of knowing what it looks like, feels like, tastes like – that not having a mental model of what it is like in action – than by any lack of technical information.
We are using a couple approaches to provide modeling to let teachers experience Customized Learning:
Visiting Classrooms: When teachers don’t have a lot of experience with an innovation, one way to get them that experience is by having them visit other teachers who are successfully doing similar work. Cohort districts are working to make sure that other teachers can come to visit classrooms so they can begin to expand their experience (although school leaders are trying to be careful how they schedule and manage such visits as not to distract too much from the learning that is supposed to be their first order of business!).
Vicarious Classroom Visits: Getting out to other classrooms, especially those in other districts, isn't always practical. Alternately, teachers can visit classrooms vicariously through videos or stories. Teachers can set up a Skype (or some other video conference) during their class so other teachers can see what is happening. Various videos are online. And teachers can read articles about Customized Learning classrooms – but not descriptive articles, so much as those that tell the story and paint a picture for the reader (remember, this is not about information, it is about experience).
Connecting with other Educators: A different approach to helping teachers and program leaders build models is to provide them opportunities to communicate with educators who are doing similar work. Networking is a powerful way for teachers to develop their own practice while helping colleagues (often in different states or countries!) to develop theirs. School leaders encourage teachers to consider tweeting or blogging about their experiences, since it can help build a diverse professional learning network for the teachers who do (although few teachers have taken on these options to date – Cohort teachers seem more eager to connect with teachers in more traditional ways: on the phone or via email).
These strategies are not limited to Customized Learning. These are Professional Development for Paradigm Shift strategies that schools can apply to any large-scale school change, any change that most teachers have not yet experienced themselves.