It is well known that the best schools invest in professional development for their staff, and the most effective teachers are often those who have made a thoughtful long-term investment in their professional learning.
By professional learning I don’t just mean attending courses and conferences, but a blend of activities, such as endorsed programmes, professional reading, online learning activities, developing the skills of enquiry, and attending national, regional and local events.
In the time of Covid-19, professional learning is more important than ever before, and many teachers in Scotland – where I have worked for much of my professional life – will be on a steep learning curve as they transition to the challenges of distance education.
It is important to remember two things. Firstly, everyone is on that steep learning curve and the most important thing at this stage is finding an appropriate pace and rhythm.
Secondly, professional learning activities during these times should go beyond the "survival" upskilling that just gets you through to the next day.
In recent weeks, the internet has become flooded with advice on "what you need to do" or "how to use a tool". Unfortunately, much advice is either superficial or bloated, and only very rarely can you find something that really hits the mark.
It is certainly easy for teachers to feel very overwhelmed at the moment. Firstly, because most people don’t have a filter for assessing the quality of online learning activities.
Secondly, much of the advice online is about the functionality of a tool or service, rather than pedagogy.
Lastly, most teachers haven't experienced quality structured online learning themselves, and this makes it difficult to imagine what "good", "very good" and "excellent" look like.
The simple solutions are the most effective, but also the hardest to find in stressful situations.
A useful filter for online activities to think about what a quality learning experience looks like in the physical world, then translate that to the online l world.
I believe that there are five strong characteristics to an excellent lesson – relevant to both the online world and the physical environment, and the fuzzy space in between.
- Experiences that are joyful for children, often containing what Seymour Papert famously described as "hard fun".
- Experiences that help children find meaning in what they are doing by being culturally relevant to the learner and their surroundings.
- Experiences that are actively engaging, often project-based and purposefully open-ended to create a state of mental immersion where children are able to stay self-focused.
- Experiences that involve iterative thinking, such as experimentation and hypothesis testing.
- Experiences that are socially interactive.
Although the latter needs to be reimagined at a time of social distancing, it is still possible through simple things like sharing work and successes on the "www" (the World Wide Wall display) and through the formation of virtual teams (there is no reason for group work to stop due to distance education).
Many years ago at a Scottish international summer school in Edinburgh, a keynote speaker, Cliff Dennett, introduced me to the phrase, "the solution is in the problem".
This springs to mind when I think about the other two problems that I have outlined above.
I believe it is possible to become good at facilitating distance-learning activities by participating in a more structured, formal way, rather than just grazing on ideas that pop up online.
Let me recommend three high-quality online learning experiences from my good friends at MIT Media Lab, the Tinkering Studio and Future Learn that will help you do this and by participating in them you will help solve our final challenge: moving beyond learning about the functionality of a tool or service, to one that improves your pedagogical approach. All of these experiences are available at my favourite price – for free.
- Learning Creative Learning – the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab – have been developing new technologies, activities and environments (such as Scratch and Computer Clubhouses) to engage all children, from all backgrounds, in creative learning. Learning Creative Learning (LCL) is their effort to connect and share ideas globally with people who have similar goals, visions and values. LCL is organised as a six-week online course. Each week you will be offered online videos, readings, and hands-on activities. You’ll be able go through this material at your own pace, spending as much time as you like watching, reading, making, sharing, reflecting and discussing.
- Tinkering Fundamentals: a constructionist approach to STEM learning. The Tinkering Studio has a number of really popular online six-week courses (through Coursera) where they share their approach to designing activities, practising facilitation, and setting up environments conducive to learning about science and art, through tinkering.
The course involves six circuit-based activities: Circuit Boards, Scribbling Machines, Paper Circuits, Sewn Circuits, Toy Take Apart, and Makey Makey.
- How To Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students. Future Learn from the Open University has some great courses but this one is extremely popular at the moment.
By learning to assess the quality of online tools and services and participating in evidence-based courses aligned to distance learning approaches, I truly believe that we can start to upskill professionally and offer higher-quality distance experiences – both now and in the future.
Ollie Bray is former headteacher of Kingussie High School in Scotland and now director within the global programmes team at the LEGO Foundation, where he leads the Foundations work on Tech & Play, School Improvement and their Covid-19 Response for Distance Learning. He tweets @olliebray