Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Improving Tech PD: A Challenge-Based Model

Very early on in the development of EdTechTeacher, Justin Reich and I realized that standing in front of the room for long stretches conducting “click-here-with-me” lectures was boring. Some teachers raced ahead and got lost. Some teachers fell behind and got confused. Progress was slow, and learning often dull.

So we developed a “challenge-based” model of teacher development. For us, a “challenge” is a set of ordered tasks, ideally leading towards a meaningful product, where the tasks are arranged to increase slowly in complexity. We don’t explain step-by-step how to do everything; we usually just create a list of things to do in an order that makes developmental sense.

For example, when I begin an introductory iPad workshop, I put a “warm-up challenge” on the screen. In short, I ask participants to complete some fundamental tasks to ensure they know some basic (and intermediate) iPad features.  Instead of me “teaching” iPad features, I instead ask participant to learn them on their own in 20 minutes.


I try to make participants understand that the goal is for them to learn through active exploration rather than through passive imitation. This can be hard for folks who are more accustomed to learning through direct instruction ("Can you give me a handout?") so we try to create an environment where people feel supported. Participants are placed in groups of 3-4 people to help each other. (But, I ask them not to touch their colleagues iPad.)  If groups get stuck, they should ask other groups for help. If groups finish early, I have additional challenges for them. Or I ask them to help others. If everyone seems to get stuck in the same place, we pause and I'll do a mini-lesson on a particular topic.



One of the benefits of challenge-based professional learning is that it averts contributing to a culture of dependency where teachers immediately turn to technology "experts" to "show-me-how-to-do-it." By completing even small challenges on their own, teachers gain a measure of confidence in their ability to tackle future challenges. 

Throughout this challenge and others, we expect the participants to make mistakes and fail. During a day workshop will make A LOT of mistakes. In many ways, learning technology is a messy adventure.  They (and we) cannot anticipate every problem that might occur when using technology. Yet, in the end, we expect everyone to succeed. Every participant-group is able to solve problems and surmount obstacles to learn, create, present.

It’s tempting to simply show teachers a whole lot about what they might do with an iPad or apps. ( I find that urge hard to resist.) Naturally, we provide teachers with examples of what other teachers are doing with iPads. Yet, at the same time, we are trying to nurture instructional creativity and not advance mimicry. Too often when we show examples of what teachers can do with an app, they often mimic exactly what we showed them. So, it’s a matter of finding a balance between showing teachers what’s possible and having them discover what’s possible.   


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