About Simcoe County District School Board
Simcoe County, Ontario, on the north edge of the Greater Toronto Area, is home to several urban areas as well as historic villages and lakes. It’s a sprawling school district with the challenge of preparing 50,000 students from diverse backgrounds for the digital world.
Why Professional Development Is Often Ineffective
Reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. These traditional priorities may sound quaint to modern educators being pulled in directions that feel perpendicular to the "three R’s." To prepare 21st century students for the future, many districts are asking teachers to implement technologies with which they have no experience. Even those who are comfortable with the equipment frequently stumble in integrating it into their curricula.
"Often, when new computers are introduced in a school, they arrive, they’re hooked up, and that’s the end of the process," says Anita Townsend, Principal of Curriculum K-12 for the Simcoe County District School Board. "In the past, we would put technology in classrooms but fail to back it up with good professional development. We expected the technology to change teaching dramatically. It didn’t, because we didn’t provide ongoing support."
Part of the problem is that one-size-fits-all seminars—the traditional form of professional development—are inadequate to help teachers leverage technology effectively. According to a recent report by the nonprofit National Staff Development Council (NSDC), only about 10 percent of information taken away from a traditional, one-off workshop is actually implemented in classrooms.1 Compounding this problem is the fact that technology training often focuses narrowly on how to use a specific tool. Teachers may return to their classrooms knowing how to access the Internet, but that doesn’t mean student learning improves as a result.
A New Approach to Teacher Education
The good news, as Townsend has seen firsthand, is that effective training can help teachers transform student learning. Southern Ontario’s Simcoe County District School Board pioneered the HP Professional Learning Program, which takes a unique approach to teacher education. "This program is not about adding technology; it’s about transforming teaching with the aid of technology tools," Townsend says.
The program connects participating teachers to their peers and to a mentor, an educator with a proven track record of improving student learning by integrating technology into the classroom. The mentor works with the teachers throughout the school year to build their confidence with technology and then to improve the effectiveness of how they teach. An assortment of webbased technologies, including chats, blogs, conferencing, and a collaborative workspace, supports the ongoing dialogue. In addition, the teachers can access webinars, journal articles, and other resources from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).
This approach reflects lessons learned through the HP Technology for Teaching grant program funded by HP and developed in collaboration with ISTE. The program’s goal was to identify the factors that affect teachers’ ability to transform student learning using technology; its methods were continuously refined based on feedback from thousands of participants. "It was very much a data-driven, researchbased program," reports Hilary LaMonte, program manager for ISTE.
The HP Professional Learning Program builds on this history, but unlike the grant initiative, it is not tied to any particular technology. "We’ll work with school districts and teachers, no matter what technologies they’re using or what their curricular goals are. Even if teachers have limited access to technology, we’re able to help them integrate that into their classroom and change how they’re teaching," says Joan Rocha, program manager for HP.
Radical Results in the Classroom
HP’s approach to professional learning is transforming Simcoe County classrooms. Teachers are tailoring curricula to student interests, and some are loosening their control over the classroom. LaMonte explains, "Several teachers in this project have realized that when students interact with technology, they can become more directive of their own learning. They can identify the problem they want to solve and the information they need to gather, then they can analyze the information and develop a solution."
This problem-solving approach to instruction can exist without technology, but not to the same degree, LaMonte adds. "A teacher who takes this approach moves from the lead position in the classroom to more of a guide position," she explains. "This kind of transformation occurs only when technology and instruction work effectively together."
Julie Perrault’s grade-six classroom in Simcoe County has been transformed. "This is probably the best professional development that I’ve had in 12 years as an educator," she says. "It’s changed my teaching practice and my students’ learning. Every day I see the excitement on students’ faces. My school is not technology-rich. We have one computer lab with 15 computers; students can access it for 20 minutes once a week. It doesn’t matter what kind of technology you have. What matters is how you use it."
One of Perrault’s students reads far below grade level, but he is working hard to stay in her class so he can use the multimedia technologies she makes available in the classroom and in the lab. "This technology has motivated my students beyond my wildest dreams," Perrault says. "I’ve seen a clear increase in the level of students’ work because they’re more actively engaged in learning."
Susan Nicholson, who teaches grades four through six, has witnessed a similar leap in student engagement, and she has benefited professionally as well. She is a beginner with many of the technologies she’s implemented, so she and students have jointly learned how to use them. Forfeiting control in the classroom has been a risk—but a risk worth taking. "Through my participation in the HP Professional Learning Program, I have become much more confident and proficient in using technology as a tool in the curriculum," she says. "I’ve been inspired by the mentors and the other teachers in this project. I have become more engaged as a teacher, and my students have become more engaged as a result of the integration of technology throughout classroom lessons."
Change Starts at the Top
Considering the benefits this type of professional learning offers, it might seem curious that such a program is still in its infancy. But dramatic change doesn’t come easy, and it’s not something one teacher can accomplish alone.
"It takes a system to make this happen," says LaMonte. "For a teacher to be successful, someone at the board level has to very intentionally and thoughtfully support teachers in making this change."
As news of Simcoe County’s success spreads, more school boards will likely consider the move. "I’ve been teaching a long time," says Townsend, "and the things we call ‘high-yield strategies’ were around when I began my career. But the degree to which we can build really creative, productive learning environments through technology wasn’t there before. With the right professional development, like this new HP program, teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to increase student achievement."
1. "Professional Learning in the Learning Profession:
A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad"
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