Professional Development that Works

© 1998, Jamie McKenzie,
All Rights Reserved
A version of this article first appeared in
eSchool News, March, 1998

 The Screen Savers' Disease


We have been at it for two decades . . . trying to blend new technologies into the daily life of math, science, social studies and third grade classrooms.

The results? Mixed.

Pioneering teachers love technology and use it with zest. Sages shrug it off and go on with business as usual. In all too many schools, brand new monitors glow in swirling colors while students still grasp pencils, notebooks (paper) and dry lectures. According to several recent studies, technology frequently remains down the hall - a separate, segregated subject.

Too many schools with brand new networks suffer from the Screen Savers' Disease. That's the equivalent of educational Red Ink - a waste of money and powerful tools.

The primary explanation?

  • Lack of clear purpose
  • Too little support for adult learning
  • Poor design of technology staff development

The Good News

We know what works.

We can clarify purpose and then equip a school district with the kind of learning which makes IT (Information Technology) a widely accepted set of tools and resources for all teachers and students.

We have learned encouraging lessons about promoting the growth of teacher enthusiasm and skill.

In the coming months, this column will report the best technology learning practices and will suggest strategies to blend them throughout the life of your schools. This month's installment outlines ten lessons which can help you convert a ho-hum staff development program into a dynamic campaign.

Use these bold stroke design principles to launch your school and your district into the Information Age with broad-based support and impressive skill.

 Lesson One

Spend 10-25% of the Technology Project Budget on Staff Learning

Provide 15-60 hours annually per teacher for several years

The Illinois State Board of Education wisely requires that all technology grant projects now dedicate at least 25 per cent of the project budget to staff learning. Elsewhere, ten per cent is a bare minimum.

There are no free lunches. The switch from pencil to cursor requires hundreds of hours of exploration and development. If schools do not provide adequate funding for sustained, well- designed adult learning programs, a large percentage of school folks (both staff and students) will not switch tools.

The single biggest explanation for the failure of technologies to penetrate the routines of schools is the failure to fund staff learning on a robust level.

The economics are simple. Better to have fewer computers being used 95 per cent of the time than many more desktops installed but disowned and rebuffed.

Spend less on hardware, more on human infrastructure.

 Lesson Two

Clarify Purpose - Problem-Solving & Decision Making

Teachers don't have time for Trivial Pursuit.

Give them something worth doing and they are far more likely to grasp the mouse as well as the big picture.

This revolution is more about information than technology. When you emphasize problem-solving with rich information, many techno- holdouts lay aside their reservations.

When you engage teachers in the search for answers to essential questions, they acknowledge the power of information. Focus their adult learning on issues that matter to them, and they see the value of honing student information skills.

How do I help my mother adjust to Alzheimer's?
What are the best treatments?
What are the best family strategies?

Once the district technology plan identifies 3-4 prime learning goals such as problem-solving, communicating and decision-making, the adult learning shows teachers how to bring such goals to life.

 Lesson Three

Replace Staff Development and Training with Adult Learning

A few years back a presenter at ASCD's national conference proclaimed "An End to Staff Development."

Staff development is all too often what we DO TO teachers. It sets up a parent-child relationship - often inspiring resistance and resentment rather than growth.

Training is what we do to dogs and pigeons.

Choice is the cardinal design concept behind adult learning. Adult learning is an approach which recognizes that people learn most energetically when they have options which match

  • their preferences
  • their interests
  • their styles
  • their interests

One size does NOT fit all!

The research base behind adult learning (ANDRAGOGY) is a rich source of both potent strategies and proven design standards to increase the success of your technology program.

With this approach, you begin by identifying all life events which might lead to increased learning, significantly broadening the array of sanctioned activities beyond the traditionally limited assortment of classes normally associated with staff development.

Examples . . .

  • Visits to information rich work places (cf., factories, shipping companies, newspapers, farms, etc.)
  • Study groups
  • Tutorials
  • Invention sessions
  • Summer reading
  • Free at-home access to computer and online information

The goal is to propose 50-60 compelling activities which the district might employ to recruit all teachers for the cause.

 Lesson Four

Designate Student Learning as the Cause
(not Applications)

The cause? Teaching students how to make up their own minds in this new information landscape. While the new technologies offer far more data than ever before, to convert the mountains of data into insight or knowledge requires remarkable skills . . .

  • Questioning
  • Navigation
  • Information Literacy: inference, analysis, synthesis, interpretation
  • Independent thinking

Begin with important questions, tasks and projects. Form the adult learning around these tasks. Some examples . . .

What should we do about

 acid rain  global warming
 urban decay  violent crime
 drunken driving  smog
 traffic congestion  water pollution
 declining fish harvests  endangered species
 unemployment  government corruption
 health care costs  AIDS
 teen pregnancy  racial conflict

How shall I contend with

  • my parent's illness
  • my next career challenge
  • funding my child's college
  • my needs to learn
  • my changing relationships
  • change
  • new developments in my subject

While exploring these kinds of issues, teachers will learn all of the software necessary to conduct their searches, interpret their findings and present their conclusions.

We call this strategy "just in time learning" instead of "just in case learning."

Too much time has been wasted on teaching computer applications apart from their classroom utilization. Rather than employing a business teacher to "train" social studies teachers in 2000 functions they "might some day" need from a spreadsheet program like EXCEL, team them in a tutorial of like-minded teachers with a strong focus on investigation. Make sure one is highly skilled in the software to show them how to "crunch numbers" from the Census or whatever data source they might explore in their course work.

Make IT (Information Technology) real to teachers - relate IT to their classrooms - and they make IT their own.

 Lesson Five

Address the Emotional Dimension
The Challenge of Transfer

The best adult learning programs will place a high priority on developing confidence, comfort and calm along with competence.

For many of the techno-holdouts, emotions play a very serious role in blocking acceptance of IT (Information Technology).

  • What if I look foolish in front of my colleagues?
  • What if I cannot make this program work?
  • What if I look foolish in front of my students?
  • How long will it take before I feel like and expert?
  • How do I fit this into my already crazy schedule and life?
  • How will I find time to cover the curriculum if we're doing so much research?

Even those who are moderately open to using IT have concerns about the unpredictability of the IT experience.

  • What if the Network shuts down in the middle of my class?
  • What if the Internet is slow?
  • What if my students lose their work?
  • What if we can't find any good information on our topics?

Regrettably, too little of the technology staff development delivered during the past two decades paid attention to this dimension.

The work of Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers has amply demonstrated the risks of ignoring "the challenge of transfer" - that difficult process of translating theories and strategies acquired during workshops into actual classroom practice.

If you want to see IT alive and well in your classrooms, you design learning with an emphasis upon comfort and you provide a good percentage of the time available to foster reflection about the steps which will make the new tools, resources and strategies a fixture in the classroom rather than a figment of someone's imagination.

  • "So what?" we ask. And then, "So what?" again.
  • "What does this all mean? "
  • "How might I do this - or something similar - with my students?"
  • "What would it take?"
  • "What obstacles might I face? How might I overcome those obstacles? What benefits?"

 Lesson Six

Create Teams and a Culture of "Just in Time Support"

Joyce and Showers have substantiated the power of peer coaching and extended support systems when teachers are called upon to adopt challenging new strategies.

You should equip one third of your teachers and many of your students with strong IT skills so they can provide "Just in Time Support" at any time on any day - when it is needed. No waiting until Thursday afternoon when the next class is scheduled.

Rather than relying upon a few special technology specialists and risking the development of dependency relationships which might actually delay your progress toward IT integration, share, distribute and empower broadly.

  • One teacher is great at spreadsheets
  • One teacher is great at search engines
  • One teacher is great at multimedia presentations
  • One teacher is great at global e-mail partnerships

Create a culture of adult learning and mutual support.

 Lesson Seven

Use Surveys and Assessment to Guide Planning

We can only customize and provide a rich menu of learning experiences well matched to our colleagues if we know

  • their preferences
  • their interests
  • their styles
  • their interests

As well as their current skill level . . . their readiness for new stages.

We must regularly and periodically ask teachers about these matters by means of surveys and other assessment instruments. A yearly survey is essential, but a dynamic program gauges staff attitudes and levels of growth far more often - at least at the conclusion of every new learning experience.

It is best to keep such inventories anonymous, grouping the results within each school to provide a clear picture of the needs which reside within that building.

Examples of such surveys can be found at under "Tech Assessment" and at and

The more complete our picture of our colleagues' needs and preferences, the better the match between the opportunities we will create and the participants whose enthusiastic engagement we hope to enlist. A faithful match is like the warmth and the yeast which cause bread dough to rise (and then rise again even after being punched down).

 Lesson Eight

Provide Time for Invention and Lesson Development

Invention is one of the most powerful learning experiences of all. When we invent, we also OWN the product and are more likely to " carry it all the way through to market."

In the case of IT, teachers are rarely given time to develop unit and lesson plans which would blend both tools and resources into the daily flow of events. Invention allows teachers to translate new possibilities into familiar terms and real contexts. They adjust to local circumstances. They may customize the lessons to create a faithful match with the needs, the preferences and the capabilities of the young learners they serve.

In all too many cases, schools try to circumvent the invention process by purchasing units developed elsewhere, but few of these user friendly packages take root in local soil. Few win enthusiastic commitment from local staff.

"But where do we find the time?" is the classic response.

Once the district defines staff development as adult learning and commits a major portion of the technology project budget, time for invention and lesson design becomes more readily available.

Invention must take place within reasonably rigorous guidelines in order to provide some degree of quality control. When you combine definitive structures and clear design criteria, invention will stay on track. In some cases, teachers are set free with plenty of time but little scaffolding. Without clarity, there is a risk that the inventions will perpetuate preexisting practice, twisting and contorting new technologies to fit old goals.

Another source of time is the rearrangement of teachers' work life to minimize the number of weekly hours devoted to mindless, unprofessional activities such as lunch duty and hall duty. Efficiencies and redesign in those quarters can free up time for study groups, invention and program development.

 Lesson Nine

Hook the Passions of ALL Teachers

A good Country & Western song uses a "hook" to draw us in and keep us connected like a trout on the line. The hook is a line which repeats itself until you find yourself singing it or whistling it over and over as you go about your daily routines. The hook is usually haunting in its simplicity and its power.

"And I shaved my legs for this?"

The best hooks have the power to call up basic passions. They strike us "where we live."

Ho-hum staff development provokes yawns.

We will see engagement and commitment from teachers when we show them how they can wield IT to explore their passions and dispel their fears. We see growth and risk-taking when folks care about the destination of the journey.

 Lesson Ten


We are talking about a 3-5 year journey. While we may have some fast learners, the great majority will require sustained support and follow through (and funding) over several years if we hope to see them welcome the mouse to their classrooms as a tool worthy of as much (if not more) respect than the time-honored (and resilient) piece of chalk and the lectern.

More to Come

Future columns will expand upon the themes outlined in this opening issue, providing examples, success stories and resources to help you sharpen your skills and invent adult learning programs which invite change.

If we do our work well, we will hear few teachers complaining . . .

"And I shaved my legs for this?"


Copyright 1998, JMcKenzie, all rights reserved. Teachers may make hard printed copies for their colleagues. All other duplication or distribution is prohibited unless permission is granted expressly by the author.

This article was first published in eSchool News, March, 1998


This site is produced by Jamie McKenzie
Editor of From Now On