George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Development

Should Students Have a Role in Professional Development?

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When Gail Shatkus wanted to help Montana teachers understand how they might use geographic information systems (GIS) to get students thinking critically about local issues, she enlisted some experts to lead professional development.

Students from Chester-Joplin-Inverness High School have been using GIS for a variety of community projects, such as creating accurate maps of a pioneer-era cemetery. Who better than students to plan and facilitate hands-on learning experiences for their teachers?

"You've heard of flipping the classroom?" asks Shatkus, assistant professor at Montana State University-Northern and veteran career-technical education teacher at the high school. "I call this flipping the teacher." With students leading the way, teachers from elementary through high school enjoyed the chance to learn how to use recreation-grade GPS devices and brainstorm connections to their curriculum areas.

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Student Input: In Action

In a variety of contexts, I've been seeing more and more examples of students playing an active role in their teachers' professional learning. For example:

  • At a workshop to introduce teachers to design thinking, students shared their perspective about how to improve high school. Their stories helped teachers understand the importance of empathy in the user-centered design process. Students' provocative questions got teachers thinking about everything from assessment to unit planning.

  • At a retreat to plan a new, semester-long experiential education class, students were interviewed by teachers about their favorite (and least favorite) learning experiences. Teachers were surprised at the amount of self-directed learning that was happening outside the classroom, from summer internships to online learning that students had arranged for themselves.

  • During staff planning time devoted to project-based learning, students took part in a critique session to improve PBL plans and fine-tune driving questions to increase engagement.

In my last post, How Maker Culture Builds Stronger Learning Communities, I described the maker projects under way at a new high school in Philadelphia where students are improving the built environment.

In a follow-up email, I heard from Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop about a professional development session at the same school, attended by both teachers and key student leaders. He described how it unfolded:

First they did a quick needs assessment of their classrooms, ultimately prioritizing top needs for which, together, we can create solutions. We will then turn the top choices into products and use them as professional development tools, to train the entire team in rapid prototyping, basic design skills, and tool use. Afterwards, we took a previously identified need -- toolboxes and accessible storage
-- and, in small teams, had the entire group try to figure out how to copy and build our prototype.
This is a great example of students teaching teachers on tool use and safety, teachers teaching students on measurement, and parents teaching both. It was pretty awesome.

What's Your Experience?

It's easy to imagine why learning experiences like this don't happen more often. After all, time for professional development is already too limited and overcommitted at most schools.

Nor can I point to any research about the benefits of inviting students to take part in professional development (although I'm eager to hear from anyone who is investigating this topic).

But these anecdotes have me wondering: Does your school involve students in professional development? How do you structure the experience? What do you learn from offering students a seat at the table? How do students respond to the invitation to share their expertise or learn alongside their teachers?

Please tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.