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Model What You Preach: Pedagogy at the Heart of Professional Learning

When I began speaking ten years ago, almost all of my keynotes and presentations consisted of me just speaking at the audience. I was still a high school principal and not a trained speaker and presenter. Thus, I basically just shared what my teachers and students were doing at New Milford High School (NJ) and the evidence that showed how our implementations of innovative ideas were improving student outcomes as well as teaching, learning, and leadership practices. Basically, I felt very comfortable delivering a lecture and talking at people for up to an hour and sometimes more. I even received validation and praise, which only led to me becoming even more comfortable with both my preparation and delivery.

My style remained unchanged for a few years until I began to receive excellent feedback, some of which was critical, that pushed me to rethink how I planned and organized my presentations. Part of this shift came when I started to facilitate workshops that consisted of anywhere from a half-day to multiple days. The bottom line is that I had to go back to my teacher roots and view the adults as learners in a classroom. If the expectation is for teachers and administrators to leave a learning experience with practical, ready to use strategies, then anyone who is leading the professional learning should incorporate a mix of modeling, hands-on activities, and performance tasks (i.e., developing assessments, creating an action plan, learning how to use edtech tools, etc.) in settings that emulate a classroom or school.

Now, I still enjoy the opportunity to keynote. Over the years, I have tried really hard to combine varying emotions, and evidence-based practices all weaved into a coherent story that leaves attendees with tangible action steps. However, this type of presentation doesn’t really emulate what we want to see take place in classrooms or online spaces. Its primary purpose is to articulate why we need to either rethink our practice or embrace new ideas. So, what am I trying to get at? The “why” gets people fired up, but the “how” actually empowers educators to transform their practice. The latter is where anyone who talks the talk relishes the opportunity to walk the walk in the form facilitating professional learning that is not only reflective of what educators in the trenches face.

It all comes down to the importance and power of modeling. When you think about the most impactful presentations and workshops, what they typically have in common is a facilitator who models to a certain extent the pedagogy, instructional strategies, and conditions that a teacher or administrator will experience. I try really hard to do this. For example, in virtually every workshop on digital pedagogy, I outline the following strategies that are tried and true:
  • Anticipatory set
  • Do-Now
  • Review of prior learning
  • Checking for understanding
  • Guided and independent practice
  • Monitoring
  • Application of learning
  • Assessment
  • Feedback
  • Closure
With all of the above items, I either model the practice or show a specific example from one of my former teachers or one of the many classrooms I work in as a coach. In other cases, I give the participants time to discuss and then use a digital tool to respond. With longer presentations and workshops, opportunities are provided to create lessons, activities, action plans, and assessments, or learn how to use specific technology resources. Learning happens with the right combination of content, instruction, time to apply to practice what has been learned, feedback, and reflection.

Recently I was facilitating a session that was set up as a cooperative learning activity using the jigsaw method, which is described below.
The jigsaw technique is a method of organizing classroom activity that makes students dependent on each other to succeed. It breaks everyone into groups and breaks assignments into pieces that the group assembles to complete the (jigsaw) puzzle. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece — each learner’s part — is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product.
The participants were broken up into four different groups, where each had a specific task to complete. Roles were assigned within each group, a timeframe for completion was established, and accountability structures were put in place. For the latter, I used the tool Lino where each group was assigned a different colored digital Post-It in order to report on their responses to a specific question. The combination of sound pedagogy with the purposeful use of technology replicated what the teachers and students alike could experience in the classroom. Below you can see what the participants created.

Pedagogy should be at the heart of all professional learning, in my opinion. It is hard for some people to change if they don’t experience firsthand what the change looks and feels like. It is hard to accomplish the goal of transforming practice with just a keynote or breakout session. If you lead the learning regardless of your position, take the time to model what you believe in or preach. In the end, if we can’t do this, then maybe we shouldn’t be leading the learning after all.


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