Overcoming the SQUIRREL: Why PD Sessions Should Use Digital Tools Sparingly

Guest post written by Jaime LaForgia, Director of Professional Development for Discovery Education

Overcoming the SQUIRRELWhy We Love Digital Tools

For many, the term “in-service” or “professional development” conjures images of tirelessly boring days of sitting and getting information while some expert drones on and on about the latest and greatest in education.  But 21st century professional learning is different.  Think about your last experience. I’d bet within the last year, you’ve been in a session during which the presenter used cool digital tools like Kahoot! or Poll Everywhere, which most likely made your time together more fun and engaging.

But what was the purpose?  Using digital tools in professional development solely to create a “fun” and “interactive” environment completely circumvents the intended learning outcomes. I’ve learned this the hard way.

Why We Hate Digital Tools

Last fall, I planned a six-hour PD session with a group of teachers who were just learning about the new standards and the pedagogical shifts demanded of them. My learning targets for the day focused on understanding the need for evidence-based thinking, academic discourse about texts, and the meaningful instruction of academic vocabulary. I needed a quick and efficient way to get them into the standards in order to understand the vertical alignment and the importance of employing the instructional shifts into their current practice.   

Enter QR codes.

What better way to help them extricate the most important aspects of a rather boring document than through a QR code scavenger hunt through the standards?  

So off they went–phones in one hand, standards in the other.  I facilitated their learning as they scanned, searched, read, scanned, searched, read.  And this just got our day started!  There was so much more we accomplished.  We debriefed, experienced a model lesson, introduced the idea of close reading, and even had some co-planning time so their learning would transfer immediately to practice.

And transfer it did.  Later that week, I entered the school to do some classroom visits bubbling with excitement.  I couldn’t wait to see the teachers’ learning in action.  When I walked down the hall, however, I noticed several QR codes hanging in the hallways and on lockers.  I stood back and watched as students engaged in their content by scanning codes and writing their responses on a, for lack of a better term, worksheet.  When I got a closer look, I realized that much of what was being asked on their QR code was basic recall and recitation type of thinking.  Where was the evidence-based thinking?  The text-based discussions?  The rigor?  It seemed the only learning that transferred was that QR codes were really cool and engaging.

As the content creator of the professional learning, I knew I was using QR codes at the very lowest level of SAMR. But I wanted an easy tool that would enable us to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.  I was going for efficiency, not redefinition.  I knew this, but the teachers, through no fault of their own, did not. The QR codes were the shiny object that hijacked my learning goals.

Untangling the Quandary

So how do we overcome this pesky squirrel?

  • Use digital tools sparingly. It’s much more effective to use one tool in a robust and meaningful way than to expose your audience to three or four tools they can’t use well.
  • Let the pedagogy lead the tool.  Start with your learning outcomes, and plan with that end in mind.  If there’s a digital tool that, if leveraged, will enhance the learning you want to happen, go for it.  If not, skip it.
  • Connect the tool to the outcomes.  Digital transformation happens when teachers see how the technology can enhance their instruction.  If you’re learning about differentiated instruction, showcase a tool that will actually help teachers differentiate.
  • Focus on the learning opportunities, not the tool itself.  While we want our audience to know where to find the tool and how it functions, it’s way more important for us to spend time talking about how the tool can be used to impact student learning.  Learning about flexible grouping?  Show teachers how you can actually use the real-time data provided by a fun tool like Plickers to create groups.

One of cornerstones of effective professional development is modeling the best practices we’re learning about.  Because technology integration is so pervasive, effective modeling of digital tool use is more important than ever.  So next time you want to infuse a digital tool into your session, ask yourself, Is this how I would want to see it used in the classroom?  Then, make your decision.

Connect with Jaime on Twitter

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2 thoughts on “Overcoming the SQUIRREL: Why PD Sessions Should Use Digital Tools Sparingly

  1. Nicely said. It is always tempting to do more than we should when we have a PD session and a captive audience. I like your final question about how this would look in the classroom.
    Thanks for a great way to keep it in mind!

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