The PLN and informal CPD

From the September edition of Teach Primary.

Professional development is changing. Once upon a time, when this was called ‘INSET’, we’d be sent on courses where someone would talk them through a ring-binder of material with an accompanying stack of PowerPoint slides; more often than not, the trainer had as little input into these materials as we participants did into the course content. Often the best bit was the chance to talk to fellow participants, sharing stories about what had worked well in our classrooms.

These days, perhaps thanks to the diminishing role of local authorities and ‘rarely cover’ policies, but thanks also to the Internet, the wealth of Web 2.0 user generated content, and social networking, we’re the ones taking responsibility for our development as professionals, and, I think, for the development of the profession itself.

Back in ’98, before Facebook, Twitter et al, Daniel Tobin captured the potential of such informal, networked CPD well:

“An important part of learning is to build your own personal learning network [PLN] — a group of people who can guide your learning, point you to learning opportunities, answer your questions, and give you the benefit of their own knowledge and experience.” 

How much of the craft of our teaching have we picked up from the practice of others in our schools, through staffroom conversations, shared planning, peer observation and team teaching? Etienne Wenger makes a number of suggestions for the sort of activities that strengthen communities of practice, including re-using resources, problem solving and sharing experiences, and school leadership can do much to promote this approach.

This sort of professional development need not be confined to a single school or even a local authority any more. The web has made it so easy for us to connect to other teachers, to learn from and with them and to work together on joint projects. The range of opportunities and tools available for professional knowledge sharing can be bewildering: whereas once professional identity was linked so closely with the school in which we work, now it might include membership of online communities and networks linked to our local authority, subject associations, national agencies, newspapers, social networks and our own presence on the open web.

Many local authorities provide a shared space for teachers, more often than not built using their preferred learning platform and offering a good opportunity for teachers to plan projects together, perhaps linking secondary schools with their feeder primaries or facilitating resource sharing. Subject associations, such as Naace and CAS, also typically use the Web and/or e-mail as a way for their members to keep in touch, and these can be really effective channels to keep up with new developments, get ideas and find answers to common problems.  Organisations like the National College and the STEM Centre provide a plethora of typically private groups and collaborative spaces for their own members and others. Both the TES and the Guardian host open networks for teachers to share resources, although neither have yet provided the space for teachers to collaborate on developing shared resources or plans; the TES host a large number of online discussion forums, allowing those posting to use pseudonyms, for good or ill.

These sort of facilitated tools and spaces undoubtedly have their place, but the ways teachers have re-purposed public tools are more interesting still. I suspect the friends lists many of us have in Facebook include plenty of fellow teachers, from our current school, previous employers, our PGCE or BEd cohort and others we’ve connected with through our work. Whilst the wall posts and messages of our friends are often social or personal rather than professional, these extended support networks play an important role in maintaining work-life balance. Many go beyond this, using Facebook to share and comment on education-related news or link to books and videos related to the subjects we teach or to teaching in general. Facebook’s Group feature is worth investigating at school level, or for collaboration and sharing beyond the school; see https://www.facebook.com/education for one example. I wonder if there are many schools where the staff have set up a Facebook group, and how many of these are used for informal, peer to peer, professional development.

No discussion of peer-to-peer professional development could be complete without a mention of Twitter. The 140 character limit of a tweet makes this an ideal medium to ask for help, to share links to news stories, and to point ‘followers’ in the direction of their or others’ blog posts or resources. Twitter’s role as a back-channel during conventional conference presentations, Thursday evening’s #ukedchat discussions and quick fire, public 1:1 conversations move things up a level, with some indication that participants are thinking about, reflecting on and, occasionally, changing their professional practice through discussion with their peers. As with any community of practice, it takes time and effort to move beyond ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, but the openness of the network helps – follow folk you know and follow the more interesting folk that they follow, or pick some of the more relevant tweeps from public lists, such as the one at https://twitter.com/#!/mberry/edtech/members that I ‘currate’ for Roehampton’s ICT Education students. Joining in conversations around ‘hashtags’ such as #ukedchat is a good way to develop a Twitter-based PLN too, as is replying to the more thought-provoking posts of those you follow. Twitter also offers a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning. Don’t just follow those doing the same job as you in a school similar to your own; follow folk teaching other subjects, in other phases and in other countries, and at least a few folk who have little if anything to do with education. Make room for synchronicity in your PLN.

The place for reflection in professional development can’t be underestimated, and I think many of us now realise how just much can be learnt through reading others’ considered reflections on their craft and on education. For this, 140 characters at a time really isn’t enough, but given the interest that we’re seeing now in pupil, class and school blogs, I’m hopeful that more and more of us will make the leap to writing a blog of our own, sharing our insights and experiences with a global, public audience, and reading and responding to one another’s posts.

Personal learning networks needn’t be only online, of course. The Teachmeet movement has facilitated the face to face sharing of practice for many teachers, based around the idea seven minute micro presentations grounded in classroom practice, and I think we’ll see other models of ‘unconference’, such as hackdays and barcamps, become part of teachers’ professional development portfolios as we, as a profession, become increasingly confident in taking charge of this responsibility for ourselves. None of this works well without some sort of active participation, and the more who participate, the better – to borrow Kennedy’s phrase, ‘ask not what CPD can do for you – ask what you can do for CPD.’

The above is © Teach Primary 2012. All rights reserved. It is reproduced here with permission.