Collaborative Learning and Professional Development

09/14/2010  |  Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Professional development needs to change. We know this. 

With the advent of the social web, learning is anytime, anywhere, networked and collaborative. And learning in this way is already being done in large measure by our students, without us. While more national organizations are calling for the teaching of 21st Century skills and the shift to a learning community framework, few models exist for preparing educators to understand how to be a co-learner with their students in this fast-changing learning landscape.

So what needs to shift? What are the principled changes that need to occur? How will we prepare our teachers to produce deep, collaborative thinkers who understand how to leverage the transformational aspects of the web in safe and ethical ways? 

My partner at Powerful Learning Practice (, Will Richardson, is fond of saying, “You can’t workshop it.” And he is right. Traditional PD models of “sit and get” just will not work any longer. Providing the kind of job-embedded, team-based professional development that research suggests creates sustainable change, change means having strong leadership. That leadership must be distributed, collaborative, and connected.
In today’s world, school leaders need to understand and use a collaborative learning process themselves first before expecting it of their teachers and students. This allows leaders to learn together, construct meaning together, and grow in expertise and understanding collaboratively and collectively with each other and their staff. 
The 21st Century leader also needs to provide opportunities for their staff to learn socially, thus encouraging those educators to reflect deeply with other teachers from around the world. Through the development of personal learning networks (PLNs), teachers and leaders become learners who negotiate perceptions, values, information, and assumptions together. The critical inquiry and the sharing of ideas learned in individual PLNs provide the right environment for the development of a school-wide professional learning community (PLC). The collective learning that grows out of those connected conversations enables students to benefit. The sum becomes more powerful than its parts. 
This systemic approach of professional development combines the strength, research and success around learning in networks, communities, and teams into a powerful, collaborative framework. In the spirit of using a common language and understanding, PLP has coined a new, more specific term for this process- connected learning communities (CLC). We see connected educators immersed in communities where participants have a common purpose and are committed to growing together and improving over time. In time, connected educators will share ideas with and ask questions of each other and their global network. And from these conversations, we envision communities and collegiality/camaraderie developing that have the potential to produce lasting, positive change.
So how do we create conditions that are conducive to learning in this way? 
We must allow teachers to be learners first. Putting in place the kind of professional development that would energize his teachers was important to Larry Kahn, director of technology for the Kinkaid School. The teachers wanted to connect and collaborate with other classes around the world. Enabling teachers to leverage these connections in their own learning was critical, said Kahn. He knew the more they “owned” the learning, the more likelihood they would challenge the notion of traditional classrooms. 
In Kinkaid’s case, Skype became the ticket to success, and teachers saw immediate value in the ease of use both personally and professionally. The initial plan was to call one school on Earth Day. However, the one call turned into a school-wide initiative that went off without a hitch. Teachers felt empowered by their work together and pushed themselves to take this further. The students became the beneficiaries as they connected with other schools world wide, sharing ideas and experiences.
For Jeffrey Mordan at The Philadelphia School, professional development has also taken on new meaning as his entire faculty is now sharing their scope and sequence, essential questions, and enduring understandings with each other on a school wiki. Re-imagining what a school can be is no longer simply a phrase, said one of his teachers, but a real possibility. The faculty works collaboratively online, learning from one other and gaining a full understanding of what it means to be an educator at The Philadelphia School. This immersion in online work means teachers are no longer isolated.
“For the first time, transparency has become the norm, said Mordan, and in the end, it isn’t about technology; it is about collaborating in a new way.”
School communities that honor an individual’s need to play, learn, and grow will find success in their professional development. The isolation one might have felt in years past has evaporated as teachers lean on each other for support, creating environments for learning and sharing.
We learn to be connected learners by doing what connected learners do-- co-constructing knowledge. And when these communities exist in comfortable, nontraditional places, we gain a collective of caring educators who “get it” and who understand the needs of the 21st Century learner. 


Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is a 20-year educator who has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. For more information, visit
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