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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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21st-Century PD: Retention, Reflection, and Redistribution of Knowledge

Bob Dillon

Leader, Learner, Idea Generator
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Smiling woman sitting at her teacher's desk

The explosion of information available to educators for supporting classroom instruction is at an all-time high. Books, journals, blogs, forums, websites, social media, and peer-to-peer sharing create a wealth of resources for those entering the teaching profession. In the past 20 years, the landscape has shifted so severely around access to the best ideas and information that it has been impossible for educators to keep up.

Because of this, many educators have declared information bankruptcy and retreated to a few safe places to access information. This was inevitable -- no one can learn, absorb, and implement this flood of ideas as the profession's complexity continues to grow. As teachers claim that they can't put more on their plate or make the plate bigger, how do we nudge adult learning forward and allow teachers to push beyond their comfort zone and bring fresh practices to the classroom without creating an overwhelming environment?

Three shifts can bring new vibrancy to adult learning. These shifts can be seen in three general categories: retaining, reflecting, and redistributing.

How Do We Retain Information?

It's so easy to finish an article, end a day of professional development, or walk out of a conference session and slip back into our busy lives without being intentional about retaining the learning. The majority of information that we hope to absorb is lost without our deliberately attempting to make it meaningful, intentionally taking the right notes, and engaging in conversations about the concepts we're learning.

Make it meaningful from the beginning.

It seems obvious that the critical information is retained, but retention goes far beyond this in its complexity. Adult learning works best when it is horizontal learning (attached to something that we're currently working on) as opposed to vertical learning (attached to something that we'll potentially need in the future). Though both are essential, it is important to consciously realize which type of information we're absorbing, so that we can be realistic about the amount of retention that must take place. This doesn't preclude us from valuing both types of information, as it's important to balance what we need now with what we may need in the future, but as learners we should know that the effort needed to retain horizontal versus vertical information demands a different level of commitment.

Take the right notes.

Taking notes is a skill that many educators haven't mastered. Dig back into your paper or electronic notes and see how many unimportant, unnecessary, and unintelligible notes you have. Taking notes should have both a short-term and long-term motive. Note taking can help us focus on a speaker or important conversation, but our notes should also be something that we can return to, something that continues to grow understanding after the information flow on this topic has ended. Many educators are rethinking their note-taking strategies. They're deciding whether electronic note taking is effective beyond its purpose of reducing paper usage; looking at the concept of sketchnoting to see if non-linguistic representations in their notes allow for greater retention; or considering whether Google Keep, Evernote, or another note-taking app can add to their retention. Taking notes supports greater retention, and taking great notes requires a fresh intentionality in today's high information flow rate.

Share a conversation.

Retaining information is a personal endeavor, but at times it must include others to truly maximize the knowledge gained. These are the conversations where ideas are strung together, meaning is made of information that didn't fully make sense, and concepts are synthesized and reconsidered. In the past, the opportunity for these conversations usually came immediately after reading a chapter, watching a video, or hearing a lecture. Educators have added many asynchronous opportunities for retention, such as online conversations with their PLN, themed Twitter chats, and now longer-form discourse using Voxer. Whatever your strategy, processing your learning through conversation will bolster your retention of essential information.

How Do We Create Space and Time for Reflection?

Cementing learning takes reflection. Long-term memory and the ability to organize and access information at a later time requires making sense of the information that you're retaining shortly after you acquire it. This step is often the Achilles Heel of adult learning. Even when educators take notes or talk to others, it requires an intentional reflective practice to make the learning rich and real. Have you ever had the experience of remembering reading or hearing about something without remembering the details? This can result from not spending the necessary time reflecting.

Adjust a current schema.

New information needs to shift thinking, whether through change, growth, or reinforcing ideas, but unless new information makes us think differently, it will most likely be pushed aside. When we leave a conference session saying things like, "I've never thought about it like that," we're reflecting on the information and beginning to adjust our current schema. Be intentional about how information changes your thinking. Sometimes, tangential learning outside of the field can shift our thinking about education, so take time to reflect on what new information is doing to the old ways of thinking.

Ask what legacy systems are barriers to progress.

The excitement of new learning can be addictive. For many adult learners, that's why they loved school and struggle to understand why some kids aren't always motivated to learn. New learning often falls flat before it is implemented or scaled because of systemic or attitudinal barriers. For learning to make a difference, learners must also reflect on the barriers to success. These barriers shouldn't become boulders in the journey forward. They should be mixed into the new learning, so that realistic solutions can be crafted.

Have a quality space for synthesizing ideas.

The noise of our car, house, community, and workplace can make reflection challenging. Reflection can require banter and conversation, but it can also require separation, silence, and a slowing of life. Where is this place for you? Is it in the morning before anyone rises or during a evening walk? Is it in the shower or the quiet of your office after the day's energy has passed? Quality reflection comes in these moments when new learning makes new sense and new ideas become new actions.

How Do We Share or Redistribute the Information?

Acquiring ideas, resources, and materials, and then deeply embedding them into personal practice is a huge part of professional growth. But in an age when collaboration, sharing, and transparency are parts of excellent education, we must not only retain and reflect, but share or redistribute that knowledge. We can't afford a system that traps wisdom at a time when everyone needs the best stuff every day for every kid.

Increase the frequency of sharing with your PLN.

Make a habit of redistributing ideas, materials, and resources by leaning into the concept that our role in education extends beyond our individual classrooms, buildings, and districts. As you dial into the needs of your network, ask yourself: What ideas could bolster their work? What resources could help their latest issues? What materials could support their culture? Through these questions, redistribution of learning blossoms while personal learning deepens.

Be systemic about sharing.

Daily routine can shape and support learning habits. For redistribution to flourish, it means a daily commitment to support the learning of others. Does this mean tweeting out five resources each day, a weekly e-mail to local colleagues, joining a weekly online chat to share your latest ideas and resources, or blogging more frequently? The answer is yes and no. Yes, these are great ways to redistribute information. No, the habit of sharing has to be personal, so some of these may not be right for you.

Don't assume that people already have the information.

It's an easy mistake to believe that everyone already knows something that you have learned. This is rarely the case. Excellent adult learners who think about retaining, reflecting, and redistributing are almost always ahead of the learning curve. Your efforts to share will enrich the learning ecosystem. You'll remove friction from the system and support the mingling of ideas necessary for change. The smallest chunk of information can spark a transformation. The slightest nudge can be the catalyst for change.

A deeper level of professional learning is needed for the schools of the future to emerge at a pace that kids and communities deserve. With a greater focus on retaining information, reflecting more frequently on learning, and redistributing the new knowledge to others, excellence can scale throughout the educational ecosystem.

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