Top tips from school leaders on innovating digital professional development and putting the focus where it belongson teachers

Odigital-pdver the past 6-8 years we have seen a supersonic advancement in public schools and the way our teachers now must teach. This has hit education like a tidal wave, leaving precious little time for our teachers to process it, and especially to learn how to do it well.

The consequence, in many schools, is that teachers have begun to use technology but have forced it into all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. Research has consistently shown that technology used in inappropriate ways is actually worse for learning, and this is happening all around us.

At Grand Oak Elementary School in Huntersville, NC we have worked hard to create an environment where we are supporting our staff through this transition. We are only in our second year of existence and yet we have set the stage through our vision to become a school where teachers and students “Collaborate. Innovate. Achieve.” We aim to help teachers understand our goals for educating students while providing them with the tools, resources, and support culture to make those goals reality. In many ways, the focus on differentiation, risk-taking, and learn-by-doing activities we’re introducing to our teachers mirrors what we are asking from our students as well.

This process of adult learning has not been without bumps and obstacles. Teachers were confused, feeling inadequate, and frustrated. We listened to feedback, affirmed their progress, continue to evolve in our processes, and brought in experts to help answer questions. Most teachers were used to the “sit and get” approach to PD that allowed them to be passive consumers of information. This new way of teaching and learning allows them to take command of their learning and professional growth through topics they choose instead.

(Next page: Our 10 strategies and ideas to help create successful teachers)


1. Technology Tuesdays. These are volunteer sessions for additional technology tool support. This is an opportunity for teachers to get additional tech support on new tools that can be integrated in to the classroom. This is done each month by school or district experts.

2. Flipped PD. Rethink professional development and begin to differentiate by allowing teachers to pick areas they want to learn about, create collaborative action plans, and then learn about their focus area. Simulate an EdCamp model, focus on more engaging and longer term PD that is more in depth rather than isolated shorter sessions.

3. Model and Celebrate. Model technology use with staff any chance you can (in professional development, staff meetings, student groups, model lessons, etc.).  Make sure that facilitators and administrators are using different tools as they present to show teachers how they work “in action”. Celebrate the risk-takers on your staff!

4. Be Flexible. Allow flexibility with what is used by both teachers and students. Don’t focus on one platform or one app. Teachers should be able to use what they are comfortable with and what works for their kids.

5. Tap into Student Resources. Use students to be a catalyst for what they want in their learning (Genius Hour, Genius Bar).  Make sure to get student feedback, allow for them to work on passion projects, and work on characteristics of collaboration, communication, and life-long learning. Have students share their learning with teachers and a global audience!

6. Innovate. Create time during the day to try new things! Have administration cover teacher classes so they can focus on planning and preparation for new strategies and ideas. Empower teachers with the gift of “time.”

(Next page: great creation and organization tools and apps to try)


7. Build Professional Learning Networks. Encourage teachers to broaden their knowledge base and connections with others inside and outside of your building and establish collaborative teams (utilizing Twitter, PLCs, Google+, etc.). Use opportunities to teach staff how to best use Twitter and other tools to learn about areas of interest, and building their learning network beyond the schoolhouse.

8. Ask the Tough Questions. Compare/Contrast an iPad, Laptop, or Chromebook to a pencil.  Is this used because students are engaged or is it truly being used as a tool for learning? Is the technology an add-on or a non-negotiable for this task?  Which tool works best? As with anything,children must use the right tool for the right situation.

9. Categorize. Just like using a media center, children need to be taught and begin to learn when to use the appropriate application to meet the expectations of the activity they are working on. For example, creation tools:  iMovie, Google Docs, PicCollage; or organizational tools: Google Drive, Evernote, Padlet. Every tool is not appropriate for every task.

10. Let Teachers Visit Teachers. Allow time for teachers to watch model tech use in action. This not only strengthens the learning culture of a school, but it also allows teachers to see how their colleagues may be using a technology tool or management of technology in a creative way.

Jen Sieracki is Math/Science Facilitator, and Raymond Giovanelli is Principal at Grand Oak Elementary in Huntersville, NC. They are active members of Discovery Education’s Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a global community of educators that are passionate about transforming the learning experience with digital media. This is the first in a series of articles from DEN members.