Of all of my ISTE 2016 experiences, the most unusual was “Fear the Sitting Dead” run by Steve Dembo and Adam Bellow. And, please do not read “unusual” as anything other than out of the ordinary, which was not only extraordinary, but was also exactly their point. I also want to underscore that selecting this session is yet another example of my “luck” at ISTE 2016. Walking into the room I had no clue who Steve and Adam are. Now, I do, and I have a much better sense why hundreds of us would pack ourselves tightly into every available seat in the room. I have the feeling that if the Colorado Convention Center would have been legally able to allow “standing room” spectators that we would have had two to three times the number of people in the room. Steve Dembo is Discovery Education’s Director of Social Media Strategy and Online Community, as well as a former Kindergarten Teacher and Director of Technology at a school. He is also an author, a high recognized and awarded national speaker, and the creator of the Discovery Educator Network. Basically, he knows his stuff when it comes to educational technology, how to use it, and how to help teachers and students engage with it. Adam Bellow is the founder and president of eduTeacher and eduClipper, a former classroom English teacher and Technology Training Specialist, a nationally recognized and awarded teacher and technologist, and the new CEO of Breakout EDU (yeah, that Breakout EDU). In other words, both of them are a big deal. Having seen them in action, their accolades are absolutely deserved, and I cannot wait for my next opportunity to see either one. But, now, on to the session and it’s brilliant insights into improving professional development.
Steve and Adam opened the session with a couple examples to illustrate the sessions title (“Fear the Sitting Dead”). The first was covert footage from an extremely painful training session where the teachers being trained were forced to repeated aloud the trainers instructions — some times one word at a time. The room collectively cringed in pain. The second was lovely poster/meme featuring a quote that expresses what so many educators have thought at one time or another, “If I die, I hope it is during a staff meeting because the transition to death would be so subtle.” The laughter that ensued was only mildly tinged with sadness and regret because we all knew that more than a kernel of truth was expressed in the statement. Steve and Adam then called us to realize and/or remember that good professional development should not be “done to” an individual, instead it needs to be actionable (just like the transformations we are all working to bring about in classrooms for our students). More than anything, Steve and Adam wanted us to see that educators need to be engaged and invested in what they are learning (and doing) just like students. And,as they would remind us throughout the session, one of the easiest ways to do that with professional development is to make it “different,” to catch the audience off guard, to disrupt their expectations — basically, to introduce change.
It was at that moment that Steve and Adam opened the floodgates, even with an enormous audience, to engage us with a wide array of possibilities. Their first offering was tremendous — allourideas.com — and it was nearly a complete failure. The site provides a “hot or not” format for ideas, and it provides a quick way both to engage learners and to have them help select the direction of an activity, lesson, or session. The problem for Steve and Adam was that wireless infrastructure at the Colorado Convention Center was not ready for 200+ users to be simultaneously attempting to access the same website in real time (and I would guess that 200+ people trying to hit the same survey, at the same time, was also taxing the allourideas.com servers). Not only did Steve and Adam handle the technology problem with impressive aplomb, but also the site’s brilliance and impact was obvious even with only a moments interaction. The few seconds I had interacting with the site convinced me, and I will definitely use it with my teachers. I will also encourage them to consider using it with their students because everything that Steve and Adam shared was applicable to professional development work and daily classroom lessons.
Steve and Adam transitioned from digital idea input to a kinesthetic, analog example. Although many of us lacked a key element for the activity (paper, of all things), Steve and Adam introduced us to the “Snowball Fight.” Basically, participants are asked to write an idea or suggestion on a piece of paper. The paper is then wadded into a ball and is thrown in the direction of another person. Each person then picks up a “snowball” that someone else has thrown in their vicinity and adds to that person’s idea or suggest — maybe fleshing it out, maybe asking a question, etc. Once the new material has been added, the paper is rewadded and thrown again. Depending on time and the facilitator’s end goal, the process is repeated until declared done. While Steve and Adam did note that a “Snowball Fight” can be difficult to curtail (as wadded paper continued to be tossed for at least 60 seconds after they had transitioned out of the activity), they clarified that soliciting the ideas and input was only half of the activity’s goal. The other half was the physical engagement by the audience. It not only provides a way to break up monotony, but also it radically shifts expectations (who goes to a PD session expecting to throw wadded paper), and it injects purposeful humor and fun.
Steve and Adam then elaborated more on the importance of breaking professional development paradigms. They offered that the best way to improve engagement (whether working with faculty or in a classroom with students) is doing the unexpected. Things that trip up expectations put people on the edge of their seat, and when they are on the edge of their seat, they are more aware and more engaged. Steve and Adam did stress that one still wants to provide a comfortable, safe space for the audience, but the idea should be to balance the comfortable with the uncomfortable. We all learn best when we have some level of discomfort because we do pay better attention to what is happening around us. Steve and Adam then shared a litany of ideas as to how we could achieve that discomfort. One suggestion they made was to build “touring” into the professional development session (or class time). That could range from purposefully moving to another area in the building to observe something or to perform a specific task. Or, it could be an actual “field trip” to another location. While the end result of relocating does need to connect to the overall content of the session or class, the primary reason for the movement is to disrupt expectations and the”normal” routine. Another idea that Steve and Adam put forward would be to make half of the day an “unconference” (an edcamp) where the structure is decidedly informal and relies on the teachers (or students) deciding the topics of discussion and the format of the various interactions. By combining a more traditional morning, with a far less structured afternoon, a balanced level of creative discomfort can be achieved. Next, they suggested using Periscope or a similar app/service to “drop in” on a class, not only broadcasting it unreal time, but also allowing participants in the training (or class) to engage in a Q&A exchange with the teacher and the students. The idea is outlandish, more than a little unsettling, and completely brilliant. What better way to understand the importance of transforming education than to watch a classroom live and to engage with its participants. And, as Steve and Adam continued to stress, doing that would most certainly disrupt the usual patterns of educational professional development.
The idea of introducing digital aspects to teacher training led Steve and Adam to other “online” suggestions. Adam suggested involving teachers in Twitter Chats using Participate Learning, a service that helps educators participate and post in Twitter Chats. It organizes the chat and all of its resources, as well as allowing the user to compose tweets within it. It even adds the appropriate hashtags for the user. While the concept of a Twitter Chat is daunting for many educators, Participate Learning suddenly makes the idea not only possible, but even sensible. Steve then offered Slack as an internal way to create digital training resources, especially Slack’s ability to generate an endless series of “rooms” where specific information can be placed for select group while still keeping everything interconnected. He even added that Discovery Education had made extensive use of Slack with the White House. And, beyond what Slack can do on its own, the service can also be integrated with Twitter, Google Drive, and numerous other tools. A “slackbot” can even be used for essential information — Steve used the example of a guest wifi password that changed weekly. More than anything, Slack provides a means for both real time and asynchronous chats that can provide an entirely new way to deliver individualized professional development.
Steve and Adam then shifted into high gear and peppered the audience with even more ideas. They revisited the idea of an unconference/edcamp as a way to create and emphasize a team culture that fundamentally shifts engagement in training. They followed that with a “Rocks” versus “Sucks” continuum (Steve did own that at Discovery Education the word sucks is not used, but numerous terms could be substituted for it). The idea is that a question or idea is put forth, and then the participants vote with their feet placing themselves somewhere on the continuum passed in the strengths of their convictions. Once everyone has stopped moving, the participants are asked to discuss for a set period of time why they placed themselves in that spot. Then, the participants are told to reposition themselves if their opinion has shifted at all. And, then, another discussion ensues. By combining movement, physical proximity, and reiterative dialogues, the training becomes more interactive and foments more “buy in” from the audience. Another idea they offered was “Spotlight on Strategies” — a controversial statement is made, and those who agree with it are asked to stand. They are then asked to discuss with someone sitting why they stood up, and the person who remained seated is then asked to explain her or his position. We did a two-minute version using the statement, “Students are smarter because of the Internet.” The discussions that ensued were interesting and eye-opening, and we were merely practicing the idea. Steve and Adam then raised the idea of “speed-geeking” where a broad group of teachers (or students) would be asked to give short rapid presentations (5-10 minutes max) to provide others just a taste of the topic, idea, or digital tool — much in the model of TEDx. The audience would then self-select and rotate from presenter to presenter during a set period of time. A variation on that is pechaflickr which based on a single keyword pulls 20 (unfiltered) images from Flickr and then cycles through them putting each image up for 20 seconds. After watching this random collection of images, participants in the professional development would be asked to discuss what they saw and their reactions to it. They did note that a pechaflickr is one thing that should not be used with students (due to the unfiltered nature of the images). Their next suggestion was hosting a CoffeeEdu (a one-hour unconference at a coffee shop conceived of by Alice Keeler). Its quick, unstructured nature would definitely redefine the nature of teacher training. A more elaborate idea would be a DINE session, which is a four course and four question meal. The four questions would grow out of the acronym — Digging in, Integrating tech, Not sure where to start, and Every student every day. The idea is wildly radical, and yet intensely appealing. Not only would having a professional development session during a good meal be fun, but also it would definitely make others want to be a part of the session.
Then, as if the ISTE session could get any weirder, Steve shared with us an experience he had in 2005. He attended Blog Walk in Chicago. The gathering’s purpose was to discuss and to explore the impacts that blogging was beginning to have in different areas of education. Things started with Post-It Note brainstorming. Folks then transitioned into small group discussions about the ideas generated during brainstorming. None of that was out of the ordinary, but at a set time, knowing that adults (like students) can only sit/focus for so long, everyone got up, put on their jackets, and went for a walk in the Chicago cold. Everyone was in groups of two or three, and they were given a topic to discuss on their walk. They repeated the process throughout the day, and those walks produced some of the best insights. Because exercise activates different areas of the brain and causes a rush of endorphins, we all think better when we are active. To illustrate this, Steve and Adam then told us (an audience of 200+ people crammed into the room) to “take a walk.” They actually sent us out of the room and asked us to discuss the success or failure of professional development at our own schools. Not only were the conversations lively and engaged, but also 98% of us re-entered the room (even though we had already gotten tons of great information). It was truly remarkable. The thought that struck me was that engaging in an intelligent conversation during a professional development walk is diametrically opposite of the idea of the “sitting dead.”
After our stroll, Steve and Adam closed the session with some of their coolest suggestions yet. They suggested not only promoting sketchnoting, but also asking sketchnoters in attendance to share their work. Steve even observed, “Imagine having notes or minutes that others actually want to read? When is the last time any of you ever encountered that?” Once again, that excellent idea could be applied at a training or in a classroom and would definitely reinforce any content discussed while reinvesting the participants. Next, Steve talked about a Discovery Education series of community nights that featured students doing the training and teaching. Beyond garnering tremendous interest and buy in from the adults in attendance, using student-led training provides a fantastic opportunity for the students to demonstrate and to prove mastery of their own learning. Steve even shared a recent experience where he attended a professional development conference in Mexico that not only featured student-led sessions, but also it was entirely run by students. Next, Steve and Adam shared that Northfield Community Middle School in Northfield, NJ has a daily EdCamp period where students completely structure and direct their own learning. This change is radically transforming their school into a far more engaged and far more passionate learning experiences for students and teachers. From there Steve and Adam shared that Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe, Michigan runs a school-based TEDx-like program allowing students to pursue passion projects during Genius Hour and then presenting them during Innovation Days. Both examples demonstrated the impact that learner-directed initiatives can have when it comes to increasing participant interest and engagement. And, Steve’s and Adam’s point in raise them was to underscore that if such passion-based ideas could make students so much more invested, imagine what it could do for teacher professional development training sessions. Finally, Adam offered up (quite humbly) Breakout EDU as an excellent tool to invigorate both teacher and student learning. Having a group work race against time to escape their room is a brilliant way to not only disrupt traditional expectations, but also to foster genuine collaboration and problem solving. Getting into the puzzle box requires creative thinking and innovative insights, and the participants start looking for radical solutions that energize them. When Steve and Adam asked us if any of us had done Breakout EDU about 75% of the room raised their hands, but what was more noticeable was the considerable spike in electric energy that ran through the crowd. Those folks had not only “done” Breakout EDU, but also they had been transformed by the experience, and it had clearly shifted a paradigm or two for each of them.
For their wrap up, Steve and Adam offered these thoughts:
- Professional development is important every day, not just on the scheduled days of the school calendar. Look for ways to integrate a culture of on-going learning.
- Professional development does not need to be complicated. Many of their examples simply involved getting a few people together and asking them to explore an area of mutual interest.
- Do something once, and it is easy to do it again.
- A single change in a school’s professional development “routine” will break expectations forever and will open all kinds of doors.
As I stated at the start, this 60 minute session was unusual and extraordinary. I left with my mind exploding with the ideas they had put forth. My biggest challenge now is making sure that I do not try to cram too much into the training sessions I am developing for my own faculty. I do not want to overwhelm them; I simply want to help them grow in the passions that they already have for learning and for students. Although many of the ideas that Steve and Adam put forth were not “new” or elaborate, that was exactly the point. Choosing to implement any of the suggestions that they made should be simple and straightforward, and it is fantastic to know that the idea has been successfully implemented elsewhere and has netted excellent results. Great professional development (and classroom teaching) needs to be engaging and inspirational, not horribly complex and overly convoluted. I look forward to sharing the successes (and failures) that will unfold as I implement some of these ideas, allowing me to ward off the dreaded “sitting dead.”