The Most Satisfying PD Ever

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I am struggling to find the words to describe an absolutely amazing experience I had last week in Africa. There is so much to say and so many nuances to communicate, I’m finding it hard to synthesize effectively for you. But I’ll do my best.

Let me start by asking you a question. What makes for great professional development? Having sat through my fair share of PD brought into the various schools I have worked at, I’ve blogged numerous times before about how cruddy it often can be, more of a chore than a delight.

But I have likely delivered 5-10 times more PD than I’ve received. So let me ask the same question of the PD providers out there. What makes for great professional development?

I have to start with purpose. Before almost any other factor, I have to admit that providing PD for a group of people who are genuinely making a difference is a powerful start to the process. This is often hard to gauge. I mean, every institution in the world speaks about the (often) aspirational and lofty goals of personal betterment and how they are making a difference for every student. But we all know that is simply not true, especially when considering all students. We all know that more students will likely leave with troubling debt than a helpful credential. We all know that at some institutions the truly incredible professors do not outweigh the genuinely bad ones. We all know that some schools have so much middle management bloat, their costs are not representative of their outcomes. No, I don’t mean the satisfaction that comes from helping an institution who may or may not help students.

I’m talking about providing assistance for an organization that is genuinely, without question, making a difference. Specifically, I’m talking about the Davis College Akilah Campus (for Women).

In my own words, this institution is providing diplomas (and soon, bachelor’s degrees) for women in Rwanda, where they often cannot get a credential. The culture is such that women are just not given the opportunity to be educated as there are so many men who still need education, which is seen as the greater need. And yet, this institution is not only taking these women in, but then placing more than 90% of them in jobs and (truly) changing the direction of whole families in the process.

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I’m talking about that kind of difference.

After finding an organization such as this, the next part of a successful PD formula has to be the participants. How often is PD met with annoyance if not outright contempt by participants? In the US, most professional development is attended by participants who must choose X number of events per year (under contract). But, if you talk with most PD developers, you will soon hear horror stories of I-Know-Better professors dismissing research and ignoring suggestions for better learning experiences or of participants who attend only to spend most of their time on phones or computers, rather than giving even a small chance to the presenters.

So imagine my utter delight, as I walked into a scenario with professors who were HUNGRY to learn about learning. They walked in the door having done the pre-reading on neuroscience, having read through the ancillary materials around learning science, and having brushed up on the concepts specific to education technology. These faculty, many of whom attended Master’s or Doctoral programs in the States, realize that higher education is not necessarily good at teaching and learning and they wanted to hear about how to change that. They wanted to know the best possible ways to help these young women succeed and even thrive, rather than simply jumping through hoops to get a piece of paper. The disservice of a lack of usable skills upon graduation is not acceptable in Rwanda!

Which brings me to the final part of the equation: participation. In my 20+ years of training higher education instructors, I likely have developed 30-45 hours of pure content. Over that same time, I have worked tirelessly to try and make as much of it as possible “delightful” (meaning not boring, well modeled, illustrative, poignant, etc). So, much of that time is spent performing activities, engaging the audience with meaningful actions, movement, song, magic tricks, and more.

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Over time, I have treated these "teaching assets” much like comedy bits when I was doing stand-up. I would find a bit that people loved and keep it, while shaving off bits that did not work. But even the best assets, the ones that get most people laughing, singing, or moving (etc) see a percentage of every audience refuse to participate. Whether it’s caution, risk-aversion, snobbery, or discomfort at looking ‘silly’, there is always a group of non-participants in every crowd. Except Rwanda. The entire group was “all in”, moving, participating, chanting, yelling, or whatever the activity called for.

The benefits of all this? Well, out of the gate, we genuinely connected. I made some lifelong colleagues and even friends in Africa. We share a bond of “best” teaching and learning that will be hard to break. But more importantly, these faculty described in explicit detail how the enrichment would radically transform their own practices so as to engender deep learning in their students. In other words, this already successful institution is going to go from a ‘10’ to an ‘11’ (for all of my Spinal Tap friends out there…).

So there you have it. (Installment one of a few, I should think.) It was my great honor to support Davis College and Akilah and to count IICE as a supporter of the institution as well. To all of my newfound Rwandan friends, I thank you for a week I will not soon forget. And to those of you out there who are providing PD for instructors, take heart. While this experience was lightning in a bottle, seeing a trifecta of purpose, participant, and participation, we all know that there is a cluster of every audience like this. Keep doing what you do for that crowd.

Next week, I’ll share with you the question that nearly knocked me out of my plane seat as I flew to Brussels. But until then, and as always…

Good luck and good learning.