The Silver Bullet (continued)

This is the second post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the first post.

Last time I wrote about how online video has certain characteristics that make it really useful as a means of professional learning (PL). Of course, it would be foolish to ever try and make the case that one means of PL should ever replace others; the point is to work out each one’s unique strengths and leverage those in the right situations. Most would agree, for instance, that one-on-one mentoring in combination with practicum-like opportunities would produce the best learning outcomes for developing teachers. But the economics of the situation dictate that these can only be given to pre-service teachers for a limited number of weeks, and only once or twice during their whole teacher training process. Therefore other PL delivery methods must be employed, which may be inferior in many ways but still provide needed assistance to teachers looking to develop their skills.

Here are four advantages that I thought of for using short-form online video for PL. For every advantage there’s a disadvantage, of course. But that’s not the point! So here we go: online video is accessible, cost-effective, bite-sized and personal.

Let’s start with some of the simpler advantages. Online video is as far away as your nearest internet-enabled device. For many these days, that’s right in their pocket – their smartphone, which is very likely being used to consume plenty of video content already. Alternatively, a home or work computer would provide a better screen and viewing experience.

Assuming internet connectivity (which, though not universal, is not an unreasonable assumption), this is a major benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many PL courses are far away – every single one I have attended has been a minimum of 40 minutes’ drive away from my home, and some have been significantly further (e.g. commuting into the city, MANSW conferences that are held at regional locations and even interstate events). In that 40 minutes, I could have watched a couple of videos, spent some time in critical self-reflection and planning, and gotten back into the classroom to give this new idea a go – all still with time to make a cup of tea.

Online video can be served, with accompanying materials (such as documentation or relevant learning resources), for free. I’m not saying that it should be – in order to make this type of platform viable in the long term, there ought to be a business strategy of some kind to ensure that high-quality PL can be delivered rather than just what can be produced in someone’s spare time – but I’m merely establishing that it can be. Even the most humble forms of PL today have significant overheads, such as a venue, printed materials, presentation equipment and food – not to mention the considerable fee of the person running the session! I do realise that one would need the internet and a device to benefit from online video, but I don’t include that as a relevant cost because the vast majority of people in today’s society will have purchased that already for completely separate purposes.

This is a really big deal. Schools are provided with funds for their staff to engage in PL, but those funds are severely limited (just like everything else in public schools). This is a privilege that not all people or organisations get to enjoy; many need to fund their (mandated) PL out of their own pockets. There are many ideals in education, but a great number of them are constrained simply by costs. What kind of tsunami would be unleashed by a wave of freely available, high-quality PL resources for teachers? It’s a genuinely exciting possibility to consider.

The developers and facilitators of in-service courses have a really tough job. They are typically engaged to provide PL in once-off large-portion pieces, despite the fact that they may not be the best form for participants’ learning. Why do they do it? The reasons, again, are economical in nature. For instance, if I spend two to three hours travelling to and from the city for a course, I want the facilitators to make it worth my while – so I expect them to give me at least four to five hours of reasonably dense content, or else I won’t feel that I have gotten value for my money or time. In a similar way, if we hire a qualified speaker to come and address our staff for a sum in the thousands of dollars, we want him or her to provide us with a substantial amount of content – a 15-minute presentation simply would not do.

So, people are compelled toward giving PL in long formats by financial motivations, rather than pedagogical ones. That’s sad, but hard to avoid. I’ve sat in many a PL session where my fellow audience members on either side of me are fast asleep – not because the content is poor (though it can be), but more because the content is simply long. But presenters are obliged to give these kinds of sessions.

Then a new kind of problem emerges when you attend PL that comes in the form of a conference that spans multiple days. In these contexts, sessions may be broken up and delivered in many smaller chunks, which goes a way toward helping the attention problem. But then the situation arises where your mind becomes filled with so many excellent concepts and new ideas to implement, in isolation from opportunities to actually trial those ideas in the classroom and assess their value for day-to-day teaching.

Incidentally, this is why “lunchroom dialogue” is so vital to teachers; it is where short conversations about effective and ineffective practice can be held, new ideas are raised and proposed, and then the avenue for trialling those ideas is immediately presented when the bell goes and everyone needs to head to their next class. In these kinds of situations, there is a very short distance for the entire idea-implementation-feedback loop and so learning happens rapidly. When attending a PL conference, the loop widens dramatically and new teaching ideas tend to get stored away in the resource filing cabinet of our brain, marked as “to be referred to at a later date” – whether or not that ever actually happens. Our minds also aren’t as sharply attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of new ideas being presented, because we are divorced by time and physical distance from our classrooms where these ideas can be implemented. When you’re in middle of the kitchen with pots boiling all around you, cooking techniques take on a new urgency and importance.

For online video, 15 minutes is a long time. 4 minutes is common and 9 minutes is about the median for educational content. Obviously this means that complicated ideas need several videos to develop, but in practice this seems to work just fine with our brain’s inclination toward instant gratification. These lengths are far more manageable than a day-long or days-long course; they allow us to process the ideas and try them out in the real world before rejecting them or coming back for more.

In years gone past, the phrase “online learning” was synonymous with text and images. The internet was essentially a parallel medium to the textbook, and the reason was technological limitation more than anything else. Other kinds of data, namely audio and video, were too large to practically transfer along an internet connection, when it first became feasible it was difficult to imagine anyone streaming video along an internet connection that a regular family could afford. And yet with broadband internet as fast and cheap as it is now (even without the NBN), Youtube is one of the most trafficked sites on the entire internet (smart move by Google to buy it back in 2006).

Online PL is yet to catch up. Today, teachers across the state have to go through mandatory anaphylaxis and emergency care training, and the online sessions are all carried out through text. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certain parts of the refresher course would be ideal to be presented through online video – a human presenter is far more engaging than reading text, especially for the kind of content that this course includes. People view online PL as a very impersonal kind of medium, and it certainly is not as personal as actual human contact (that is true by definition) – but if video is used effectively, it can be far more personal than a straight body of text. It allows for better delivery of tone and body language, all of which is critical to human communication. In fact, effectively designed short-form video can be a very close analog to the kind of brief lunchtime conversation that I mentioned before.

So, in conclusion – does online video have something to offer to professional learning? I think it has plenty. Who will devote the time and resources to explore that reality? Now that’s the question we must all ask ourselves.

The lightness of being a beginner

So, how was my first week at a new school? I’ve been asked this plenty of times over the last few days, and I keep coming back to one particular metaphor. I think the influx of new information has been like trying to drink from a fire hose – you end up all wet, but still thirsty! (Actually, for the record I think that’s a simile – but who’s keeping score anyway?) Since Tuesday I have lost count of how many occasions I did something “for the first time”. That’s been exhausting, but it’s also been refreshing – in a way that reminds me of the Stanford commencement address delivered by the late Steve Jobs back in 2005. Describing how he was fired from the company that he himself had founded, he said:


“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

The crucial phrases are there in the middle, where Steve talks about how he experienced “the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything”. When you first start teaching, you aren’t sure about anything you’re doing – whether it will work or not – because you’ve never done it before. So you repeatedly try new things because you have no other choice!

In theory, you can fall back on the methods that you remember of how you yourself were taught (and research suggests that many people unintentionally incline themselves this way). However, the truth is that there is no guarantee that these ways will be effective for you anyway, because you are not exactly the same kind of person as any of your teachers was, so the way they taught may not fit your personality or skills. The early days consist of the journey to discover who you are as a teacher, how you will structure things to fit your own idiosyncrasies, how you will discipline students in a way that’s consistent with your character and how you will explain things to most clearly convey your particular ways of thinking.

I am going through that experience all over again, but this time as a head teacher. I’m not sure about anything, and that frees me to form new habits and create new structures. How will I interact with parents? With the rest of the executive? What kind of relationship will I form with my own faculty members?

(Interestingly enough, I had a conversation on the weekend that reminded me one of the benefits of starting out as a head teacher at a whole new school rather than becoming head teacher at the school you’re already at. It’s true that there is a steeper operational learning curve due to your lack of familiarity with the new school’s people, policies and procedures. However one of the major benefits is that you don’t need to awkwardly transition from being someone’s friend to being their boss. Of course these aren’t concrete mutually exclusive categories, but it’s really hard to take the hard line and make judgement calls with people who used to be your mates.)

So in summary, it’s a time when I get that wonderful and rare opportunity to remake myself. To question everything I once took for granted. To reassess the ways I do things and turn over a new leaf where I need to. I don’t know what I’ll keep doing and what I’ll ditch – but one thing’s for sure, when I come out the other end I’ll be a very different person to who I am now!

P.S. I haven’t forgotten about that post which I started but didn’t finish. It’s on its way. Just wanted to write about a few more urgent things first!