Punctuated Professional Development

Punctuated Equilibrium
In 1972, paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which provided an alternative view of evolution.  Unlike Darwin’s theory of evolution, which requires millions of years of constant, gradual change to create a new species, their theory postulated that species actually change very little over millions of years and evolution occurs in rapid, relatively rare events that result in two distinct species.  Both theories result in divergent species, but the processes needed to result in those species are different.

The Aha! Moment
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Perrin Chick.  Perrin is the Education Director at the Seacoast Science Center.  Located on New Hampshire’s coast in the town of Rye, the Seacoast Science Center’s mission statement proclaims that the Center, “provides exceptional learning experiences in the natural sciences through dynamic and innovative programs and exhibits”.  In my new role at the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), I have been meeting with Perrin for about a month trying to iron out the details of providing an experiential learning opportunity for New Hampshire high school students.  Through our new partnership with the Seacoast Science Center, VLACS students will be able to earn a high school credit in Marine Science through a blend of experiences gained through volunteering at the Seacoast Science Center and online coursework through VLACS.

We were in the Center’s incredible distance learning facility, (the Gregg Interactive Learning Studio) and thinking back to our last meeting when Perrin expressed some concern over the commitment the Center would have to make to VLACS when she said, “We already have 50 student volunteers here at the Center,  I’m not sure we can commit to having more kids here.”  The words weren’t out of her mouth when we both realized that we had the chance to make an impact on those 50 kids.  That instead of creating a new program, we could provide more value to an existing one.

As we laughed about that earlier concerns and our simultaneous enlightenment, our excitement over not only what this program could mean for students already volunteering at the Center, but also for the possibilities it may open up for other students involved in similar programs grew.  Perrin then turned to me and said, “We are changing education one aha! moment at a time.”

Punctuated Professional Development
I complain about the pace of change in education all the time.  I’ve been known to refer to it as “glacial”.   But, what if education only changes (transforms?) in rapid, but rare “aha!” moments similar to the one that Perrin and I had?  Perhaps instead of looking for schools to change, we should be looking for new “species” of schools to evolve.  Is Christensen’s and Horn’s notion of disruptive innovation really the educational equivalent to punctuated equilibrium?

If it is indeed the case that change in education is rare, rapid and dramatic, are we not doing professional development wrong?  Instead of creating PD that allows for comfortable, gradual (glacial?) change, should we look to develop PD that demands rapid change knowing not all will transform, but those that do will create new species of schooling more evolved than the species we currently have?  Change is hard and traditionally it requires time to grieve.  But if real, transformative change does occur rapidly, how do educational leaders encourage other educators to embrace those “aha!” moments?

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7 Responses to Punctuated Professional Development

  1. Cathy Brophy says:

    I believe you may be on to something! This summer I had the opportunity to create a transformative professional development opportunity for over 50 of our teachers-of course I had no idea at the time I planned it that a) so many teachers would take advantage of the opportunity and b) that it would , indeed be transformative. Reflecting on the 15 consecutive days of tech integration workshops, and teacher feedback, has given me a slight clue as to why it was so successful. First, teachers had choice-choice of day, time and workshop topic. Second, there were a variety of workshop facilitators- one teacher described it as a “buffet of offerings”; and third, due to E2T2 funding, we were able to pay teachers to attend up to 30 hours. And we included para-educators in the mix. Would this concept have been as successful if any one of these variables had been left out? It is hard to say. I think it is more likely due to the punctuated equilibrium theory. The important thing is the environmental conditions were ready for the change to happen-relationships had been created, planning had happened, equipment and infrastructure were in place, and the funding was there. I also learned you never know which teachers will lead the change-and pave the way toward the creation of a new species.

    • tbaldasaro says:

      Cathy, your PD offererings this summer were terrific. I’m curious as to how you anticipate be able to measure success? If you have a chance, please share. Thanks.

  2. Tony – I love the last paragraph! The only wording I would modify is where you say that – “should we look to develop PD that demands rapid change knowing not all will transform…”

    I would change the word demand to facilitate or orchestrate or something along that line. I agree with you that we need to push bigger ideas and support them rather than spoon-feeding adults with things that they need to embrace a heck of a lot faster. Whether we maintain our old model of PD or “take it slow” with things that we feel are imperative the results are the same…little to no change for our students in the classroom.

    At least with the “rapid change” idea we will start to get more teachers immersed in much-needed change. I feel that this energy will spread much more quickly as their students are impacted and others around them start to see the impact.

    We just need to stop planning our PD and so many other aspects of our schools to the lowest common denominator.

    • tbaldasaro says:

      Patrick, you’re right. As leaders we need to facilitate the growth of our teachers much like our teacher facilitate growth in their students. Perhaps the demands are more us than on them if that is the case.

      What do you think about the notion that we change “professional” development to “personal” development. So often, we expect our teachers to take what we teach them in a PD session and use it the next day. But what if we encouraged teachers to use new technology, strategies, etc in their personal lives first, with expectations that it translates to their professional life second. I’m not sure, I just see so much ineffective PD out there that I feel as though change is needed.

  3. Well, you have me thinking. But I’m not sure we can say one way works for all. In my years of working with folks, I’ve seen the “ah-ha” moments that transform almost immediately and the more gradual changes over time. Now that I think about it, though, (if I can generalize) the ah-ha’s seem to shift their classroom more fully. Again, I wonder if it is the mindset -a la Dweck- of the individual that determines how and when people change.

    • tbaldasaro says:

      Susan,
      If you are right, perhaps we are hiring the wrong people? There has to be some caring, good for kids type people out there who are not change averse.

      Perhaps we may need to think of it not as the people we hire, however, and more at the culture into which we bring them?

  4. Pingback: Blogging About Virtual Schooling « Virtual School Meanderings

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