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Leading By Example, in the 21st Century...

Dynamic vs. Static Models for TAH Professional Development

Here's an essay I wrote that was published in the National History Education Clearinghouse encompassing some of my thoughts as I was developing our project,...
Let me know your thoughts on it!

" For educators privileged to help implement a TAH project, perhaps the most important question that we can continue to ask ourselves and each other is: how can we make our projects even better? Each new TAH project funded by the Office of Innovation and Improvement creates a new learning organization, centered on the understanding and teaching of American history. But these organizations can be very different depending on the vision and professional development (P-D) model that organizers use to implement their goals and processes.

The P-D model used in the design of a TAH project (whether explicit or implicit) provides the architecture in which all human interactions within a project are organized and valued. Like the building where learning activities are conducted, the structural organization can have a significant impact on organizational learning results and sustainability. What follows are a few thoughts contrasting static and dynamic elements in professional development models. My goal is simply to foster dialogue about the art and science of developing these TAH learning organizations. (For more on educational learning organizations see: )

A static component in an organizational model is one that is fixed and doesn’t change over time. A dynamic component is one that is not fixed; where change from original conditions is possible or perhaps even necessary. Two quick caveats are worth noting here. First, both static and dynamic elements have their uses and in what follows I am not implying that one is inherently superior in all cases. Second, it is more useful to think about the following contrasts in terms of a sliding continuum rather than in binary (either/or) terms. Seldom in professional development are things completely black or white, and accurately judging degree can be of essential value to professional development leaders and groups.

An initial contrast can be explored by asking: to what degree is your P-D model organized as a “community of practice” versus as a set of “services” provided to individuals? Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better. If one of your project’s primary goals is to connect and empower the TAH practitioners in your area, then their developing insights and initiatives will progressively inform and guide project decision-making as things develop over the years. If your project is envisioned as a string of services (courses, workshops, field trips, etc.) provided to individual participants, there is no need then to organize or account for change over time in community understandings, inquiries or prioritizations. In this latter case, different group processes and values develop and are incentivized. (For more on communities of practice see:

A second contrast is between P-D models built upon the principles of “continuous improvement” and those built with fixed evaluation processes. All learning organizations, including our TAH projects, need reflective processes in their design model, if only to monitor goal achievement and member interactions. However, the quantity of these self-reflective processes and the complexity of the decision-making framework developed to harness the collective intelligence of these organizations, vary greatly among different TAH projects. Some projects may file yearly federal reports and systematically think little more about group reflective processes in decision-making. On the other end of this reflectivity spectrum would be TAH projects that are systematically incorporating data driven inquiry to organize and inform all group decision-making, goal setting and project development in their communities of practice. As they grow over time, learning organizations that incorporate the philosophy and methods of continuous improvement in their design are much more dynamic in terms of change from originally conceived visions. I would argue that they are also more likely to be sustainable after the grant’s funding ends.

Like the above mentioned elements, and intertwined with them, the third and final contrast for consideration in this short essay is as much about design philosophy as about any specific set of methods. This static/dynamic contrast can best be illuminate by examining the question: to what degree is your TAH professional development model “inquiry-based” versus “prescriptive” in design? The more prescriptive a P-D model is, the less it would utilize member input in P-D activities and the more it would center on a string of events & activities operating without member input and utilizing outside expertise in a preconceived and fixed program of study. Again, on the other end of this spectrum would be TAH projects where each participant worked individually or with peers on their own TAH professional development goals and where their own inquiry projects functioned as the means to achieve those goals. The role of outside experts and the learning community as a whole varies enormously across this spectrum of possibilities. The more prescriptive a project design is, the simpler it is to implement and for specific concrete results to be predicted. However, despite the complexity entailed, the more a design harnesses the individual goals and curiosities of its members, (linking and building upon all of them) the more useful and sustainable it may be to its’ members in the long run.

Ultimately, good results can be achieved in TAH projects whether they are grounded in fundamentally static or dynamic professional development models. The big difference is that the more static a P-D model is, the more project results are bounded by the initial framework at the time of project conception. The more dynamic the P-D model, the more results are unpredictable at the time of project conception, because the model is designed to change and grow with the increased understanding and organization of its’ membership. Admittedly, this creates enormous challenges for designing an acceptable grant proposal (because dynamic elements tend to be more complex in structure and their results are harder to quantify). But, if a fundamental goal of your project is to create a sustainable TAH professional development community- existing long after your TAH funding ends- then the dynamic elements in the design of your learning organization may be central to your long range success. "

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Comment by Cindee Karns on June 10, 2010 at 2:32pm
These are comments I pulled out of the Wenger article you posted, John. I think there are good guidelines here for us to look at as we try to make this thing happen this fall.

communities make learning available to all concerned. They make sure that the learning from various locations within and beyond the organization is synthesized and integrated, and then remembered and distributed. This tells me that teachers CAN'T just post lesson plans and student work. That's just level one of BLOOMS. They have to synthesize and integrate, not just regurgitate. I think the only way that will work is with writing. How else do you see synthesizing and integrating their new knowledge working?? (besides writing)
The article even defined Practice (which I think John calls Curriculum)
Practice: the body of knowledge, methods, tools, stories,
cases, documents, which members share and develop
together. A community of practice is not merely a
community of interest.
who are involved in doing something. Over time, they
accumulate practical knowledge in their domain, which
makes a difference to their ability to act individually
and collectively.

The development of
communities of practice is a bottom-up process as well
as a top-down one
Where are we allowing the bottom up ideas? Tom just posted his syllabus for feedback. That's a start!

It has to connect a strategic need to the daily work and concerns
of community members so they will find relevance and
personal value in participating.

This is HUGE. If the teachers don't find (the community of practice) relevant (besides the history facts Tom's teaching), it won't work.

We need to make sure this happens:

What was missing was the opportunity for
practitioners to engage directly with one another and
find out what problems they were facing and how they
were approaching them. This mutual engagement in the
details of the practice makes community participation
directly relevant to the work of members.

practitioners belong at once to their communities of
practice and to their work teams, they are the direct
"carriers" of knowledge. If a new solution is proposed
in their community, they can apply it to their work. If
they discover a new solution in their work, they can
share it with their community. Such multi-membership
avoids many of the hand-off problems that arise when
specialists manage knowledge for others to apply. This
is why it is important to have the practitioners
themselves be in charge of managing their own
knowledge, no matter how much assistance they receive
in the process.

So what parts can we give over to the practitioners?

Engaging in this dual process of producing and
harvesting knowledge gives practitioners a unique
perspective on the strategic value of knowledge.

Communities of
practice connect strategy to performance through a focus
on knowledge-the development, refinement, and
diffusion of critical capabilities.

The diffusion part is extremely important. Maybe we can call it presentation as long as it's not just regurgitation of learning.

Thanks, John. Great article. Now we just have to make it happen.

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