April 18, 2012

“Powerful Learning Practice” assists educator self-actualization and school improvement one project at-a-time

By Bob Lasiewicz, Managing Director, Crossroads of Learning

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, CEO Powerful Learning Practice

I recently sat down (virtually via webcam, that is) with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, CEO of Powerful Learning Practice, (PLP) a Virginia based company she co-founded in 2007 with Will Richardson. PLP utilizes a unique palette of research, group process and social technology to support educators bravely marching into a challenging digital future. It’s an approach that can be applied to many learning communities.

By incorporating elements of action research, appreciative inquiry and distributed communities of practice, PLP has created a laboratory for self-actualization via collaboration that extends past the boundaries of traditional education systems. They blend elements of connectivism and the “wisdom of the crowd” to support faculty and staff development as well as impact systems and processes that effect the communities of participants and the educational landscape at large.

In this interview you’ll read about the genesis of PLP’s approach, some of the obstacles encountered and solutions developed, and how choices were made.

As preparation for the interview, I set the stage with a short background on the social action/social justice nature of the JUST journal where this interview also appears. When I mentioned that “educators are often at the forefront of such issues,” Sheryl jumped right in…

“Not as much as [they] could be though. One of the things that I often think about is the legacy teachers could leave, if just half of them organized their curriculum around an outcome relating to social justice or working with marginalized populations or doing something that left the world a better place.

                     Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Interview Index (click the description to find a specific section)

  1. Professional Development for Educators via Collaborative Self-Actualization
  2. The Formation and Evolution of PLP Communities, “Fellows” and Connected Coaching
  3. The Intersection Between Connected Coaching, Action Research and a Collaborative Learning Community
  4. Emergent Project Definitions/A Favorite Action Research Experience
  5. The Global/Local “Shift” and Fitting the Learning Network to the Needs of Both the Group and the Individual
  6. Next for PLP: E-Learning COP, Webinars and Powerful Learning Press
Professional Development for Educators via Collaborative Self-Actualizati

Bob Lasiewicz: I was looking at the “what we believe” page on the Powerful Learning Practice website and it includes a commitment to the self-actualization of educators. I’m curious about how that came about, how it is core to what you do, and how that translates into your programs.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach: In classrooms and schools we spend so much time talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — about helping students with basics and then moving them along to the point they get to self-actualization as learners. And I’ve often wondered, well, wouldn’t a teacher need to be on that same journey toward self-actualization before they could help children find their way?

When we started Powerful Learning Practice five years ago that idea of helping teachers become self-actualized was really important to me. If we’re going to be working and doing professional development and taking these teachers along a self-directed kind of journey, how could we build in activities that would allow them to grow in the same ways we want students to grow?

PLP co-founder Will Richardson and I both felt that self-directed learning would be much better than anything we could mandate, so we kind of structured Powerful Learning Practice through a community lens, with a very loose kind of governance. We saw the educators in our program evolving as professional learners, driven by the passions they bring to the PLP community. Our goal was and is to help them think about real agency, both in terms of what they want to pursue and how they will go about pursuing it.

And we want them to think not only about how they will build self-efficacy as individual learners, but also how they can gain collective efficacy as part of a community of inquiry. As our work began with our first PLP communities, we quickly saw that collective efficacy grows out of true collaboration, not simply professional “cooperation” that is more typical both in face to face settings and online. It is through truly collaborating and honoring the skills and talents everyone brings (rather than focusing on deficits) that we discover the fruits of deep collective work.

As we fine-tuned these experiences, people really started to grow during their time with PLP. They began to more often call the experience “transformational.” And so that was the insight we gained — that we could leverage individual passion into collective wisdom — the kind that can change schools and kids’ lives.

Passion is an interesting thing to consider. I fly a lot and during that time when we were formulating what you now see in our “What We Believe” statement, I would ask people sitting next to me: “Tell me what your passion is – what really floats your boat?” And very few people could tell me. I was surprised by that, really. It was evidence to me that there was a problem in this area, that somehow either through the educational system that we go through or the challenges of modern life, people are losing touch with their passion for things. We find it harder to say what we are interested in or to identify where we might be “gifted and talented” and to say what our “calling” might be. And if we can’t do that, we certainly won’t be able to self-actualize.

So we’ve decided that in the professional learning and online community work we do,  a lot of the focus will be on helping people figure out what is it they care about, what actually floats their boat, what skills they want to develop. How is it that you want to grow? And then, how can working to build a collective identity help you identify and maximize your gifts and use them to help other people. Our PLP mindset that undergirds this approach to individual and collective growth is that no one of us is as good as all of us, and no one of us is as smart as all of us. And to me, this is clearly the direction schools and learning in general needs to go in a connected world.

The Formation and Evolution of PLP Communities, “Fellows” and Connected Coaching

Bob: Could you outline the major milestones for Professional Learning Practice

Sheryl: Powerful Learning Practice launched out of some work that I had done through a grant funded by Microsoft Partners in Learning. The 21st Century Learner project was a statewide initiative in Alabama, aimed at helping teachers become 21st century learners so they could do the same for students. I partnered with Cathy Gassenheimer at the Alabama Best Practices Center and John Norton, an educational writer and virtual community builder based in North Carolina, who co-founded the national Teacher Leader Network. The three of us had some discussions, wrote a successful grant and worked for several years with a large virtual network of teachers, about 40 schools at the project’s peak.

I learned a lot from that work. I could see that this kind of online, community based approach to professional development could be very sticky. It was pretty exciting in that it was new to most educators (that work began in 2004), it was different, it was fresh. It offered teachers who were eager to learn and change a different experience than they were used to. It was not traditional PD, and both the empirical data and the anecdotal data that we were getting back was very promising.

Fast forward to the 2007 ISTE conference in Atlanta. I happened to run into Will Richardson, an online friend and collaborator who I’d only met once before. This time I got to see him present for the first time, and he was awesome. Afterwards, we sat down at a table and I just talked to him a little bit about my ideas and what I’d been doing and how I wanted to take the Alabama experience and push the positives to a new level. I thought we could involve public schools, high-needs and resource-rich schools, and independent schools and schools of faith — even schools outside the United States — and see if we could build a blended learning experience rooted in the big idea of self-efficacy.

So we formed a business and we started that fall. I believe we began with three communities (we called them cohorts back then). One was made up of independent schools, some very prestigious, some smaller, along the East Coast. Several other independents in Tennessee, North Carolina and California also joined. We also had an international community that was made up of Australians. And then in New York, we had a sizeable group drawn from the BOCES (regional ed service centers) there. Those groups made up our inaugural year when we tried out a lot of these different concepts.

The next year we grew from the three to seven communities (each with 100-120 people). The third year we went to 10 and then to 13. We had 15 this year. In each year, size was a milestone because it challenged us to refine our model of learning to accommodate more participants and greater diversity. One key area had to do with roles — the ways in which we would provide community and individual learner support.

In our first five years, we’ve used a team based approach — teams of five to six educators in a particular district or at a particular school. These teams go through this experience together — they are most often in physical proximity and have the time to talk face to face and build trust — they’re really forming a kind of professional learning community in their local context. In the first years, we used “fellows” – a person in one of the schools that we were working with – and they would offer online support to a group of teams in their vicinity, helping us communicate and stay aware of everyone’s needs and progress.

The fellows model worked well sometimes, and sometimes not so well. It really depended on who was available to fill the role and their personal dispositions. So we’ve taken what we learned there and transitioned to “connected coaches.” These are individuals who have come through our program or otherwise shown their virtual leadership skills. We’ve created specific training for them — a curriculum that draws on several models: Bob and Megan Tschannen-Moran’s evocative coaching, Costa and Garmston’s cognitive coaching, and Jim Knight’s instructional coaching. And there’s some Nussbaum-Beach thrown in there too.

Lani Ritter Hall, co-author of my first book, The Connected Educator, has done an amazing job fine-tuning the connected coaching model and we’ve created an e-course where she takes prospective coaches through a nine-week learning experience, and then they begin to work within our PLP communities. It’s really like every PLP team gets a 21st century (educator) life coach. They are specifically trained to work with teams in an online environment — and believe me, that’s very different than coaching someone face-to-face. So the shift from a rather loose Fellows program to a very focused Connected Coaches is a big milestone for us and it is working really well. Our teams are quicker to get out of the starting gate and more confident about where they’re going. There’s always struggle as they learn to shift their teaching to a student-driven model and to integrate web tools and social media into their classrooms. But the levels of frustration now are just high enough and very seldom too high.

Another milestone has been a change in the way we organize communities online. During our first several years, we created a separate online space for each cohort (now ‘community’). At one point we had 10 separate online spaces to manage. It wasn’t until last year that I finally realized that the negatives outweighed any positives (which had to do with privacy and a perception on our part that there would be less confusion). We preach “connection” so why aren’t we connecting all of our own communities together? Let’s walk the walk of collective efficacy.

I’m still amazed that it took me so long to figure that out, but now we’ve shifted to an online structure where we’re all in one space — the Community Hub — and we also have private spaces where teams can work together on the specific projects (all first-year teams do an action research project together). We have some other ways for folks to hook up in the Hub too – based on where they live or what their interests might be. We managed all of this in a Ning space this year. Every participant, in this model, is a member of the main community (think of a Ning’s main group and subgroups) and in our main space, the topics and the subjects that we talk about are really member-driven and based on participant needs and interests.

Another recent milestone has been Will’s decision to move from his more hands-on role in the company to chairing our advisory board. He’s undertaking a major new book project that involves a lot of on-the-ground research and activity in schools. He’ll continue to do some PLP webinars and some face to face sessions, but I’ve taken over the solo leadership of the company. He’ll be joined on the new advisory board by some other great advisors, including online community legend Howard Rheingold.

The Intersection Between Connected Coaching, Action Research and a Collaborative Learning Community

Bob: In your Connected Coaching materials you reference appreciative inquiry as a fundamental component. You also use action research for a lot of projects that the groups do. Where do you feel the overlap between those two approaches lies, or is there one

Sheryl: The action research that we do is really based on our idea that community develops out of co-creation. So you’re gathering data, you’re sharing your data, co-constructing something with your colleagues. It gives you focus and a purpose but also wide latitude to pursue what you deem to be important. It also creates a reason, a catalyst if you will, to find the time for some good professional conversation with people in a community and share both your own learning and a common learning experience. In PLP, every action research project is different, uniquely designed by participants.

You know, Powerful Learning Practice is a professional development journey, but a lot of people call it a course, or they want to see the syllabus, or want to see step by step what’s going to happen. And a lot of times we don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s not a “one size fits all” experience. You work with a coach and they help facilitate an evolving process. To help folks shape a project, we’ll sometimes do “collective wonderings.” We’ll stage a synchronous webinar where folks will throw out some ideas that they’re interested in, and maybe 50-60 people in the space will start to ask questions, probe your idea with you. This goes on for about four minutes and you get a lot of great input about your big idea. It can really help you refine the issue or first essential question in your team.

The action research piece is meant to be journey of self-discovery. Yes, it’s about looking closely at some particular issue or problem, but the process of exploration is designed to promote that discovery journey. This is not action research that an individual teacher might carry out in a classroom. We do it from a community of practice perspective. So the whole team is involved and ultimately the whole community is involved. They’re weighing in on each other’s projects, asking good questions, sharing ideas of their own. Each team has a main coach to provide some encouragement and pushback, but eventually we all sort of serve as assistant coaches and facilitators.

One of the best ways to grasp the value of working in a community of practice is to learn to see yourself as a team of action researchers. The team, which is embedded in some local context, comes to understand what it really means to “think like researchers” when they’re looking for strategies and solutions that apply to their local context. Then we bring that diversity of ideas, the diversity of ideologies and geography and setting all to the table and have discussions together. My most favorite time during the PLP year is when teams are really deep into their action research pieces and sharing out with the larger community.

Emergent Project Definitions/A Favorite Action Research Experience

Bob: Could you select one group project that you think has had a really terrific result in terms of social justice or social action change in the community itself

Sheryl: There’s some research that Bruce Tuckman conducted in the mid sixties (forming, storming, norming, performing). When teams are formed and they gather, everybody is polite. I see that during our kickoffs. And then participants come to a storming phase. In our case the storming phase is where, because participants are totally out of their comfort zone — in this online environment we’re asking them to do things they don’t normally do — they struggle. There can be a lot of fury. They start to come out of this phase usually about the time the action research work intensifies, in large part because they have a clear purpose. They come out of the storming and they start to go to norming. A new norm emerges and eventually that norm becomes business as usual — they’re performing.

I remember this particular team whose members were storming pretty bad, and they couldn’t find a project. And it was like, “this is ridiculous, who has time for this?” We’d met five times together, and nobody could agree on anything. It was a public school — Perth Amboy Middle School in New Jersey. There was some concern around the fact that their school’s writing scores weren’t good, and there was some thinking about how an action research project might really look at different ways to implement writing with students and see if any of those would make an impact. But they were still drifting.

These teachers had a great team leader and a great spirit, so the problem wasn’t disinterest at all. But they really were struggling. And then something pretty amazing happened. They did a field trip every year sponsored by the Rubel Foundation, where students would get on a bus with a group of holocaust survivors and they’d travel to Washington DC to see the Holocaust Memorial. During the trip, the holocaust survivors would tell their stories from World War II in great detail. Of course these middle school kids are just totally taking it in and listening to every word they’re saying.

The teachers who were along with these kids on the field trip were also involved in our Powerful Learning Practice work. Because of that, they had been setting up community kinds of spaces online — re-envisioning the learning space as something more than four walls. So some of their students were familiar with this concept. During the bus trip, there was one particular conversation going on where the aging survivors were saying to these young tweens, “You now, you are pretty much going to be the last generation that gets to hear these stories first-hand.”

“We’re really counting on you to listen carefully and intently and take good notes,” they told the middle schoolers.” We need you to pay attention to what you see, because you’re going to have to tell our stories. We’re all getting up in age and we’re going to pass, and we’ll need you to tell our stories.” I’m just getting chill bumps as I talk about it, it’s so awesome how it worked out.

Then one of the kids said to the seniors, “We do things in online community now at our school. Why don’t we do something online with you? Some of us can videotape you, some of us can write down your stories, and we’ll take them and put them inside our community space and we’ll invite other people in and that way students will be able to hear what happened during the Holocaust.” There would be a legacy.

And the holocaust survivors said, “Yes, we’d be really excited to do that.” And the teachers, of course, realized that their action research project, a project to have students writing with real purpose, had arisen right in front of them. As the team has said many times since: “We didn’t pick our project, our project picked us.” Not only did the kids capture these beautiful stories, but because they opened their online community up to other people in their city and their neighborhoods, they discovered other populations that had gone through experiences of genocide, and those people told their stories from their countries. And so it just became a very powerful, very beautiful kind of thing.

The action research piece really has two objectives. The first is that we want these educators to see themselves as action researchers, to understand what community-of-practice action research looks like, and how you build something collectively. And we also want them to do an action research project so they have a legacy project — something they can share in and out of their school — and something to remind them and their school about how engaged students and teachers can become when connected learning is going on. And there have been many great action research projects like this in PLP over the years.

The Global/Local “Shift” and Fitting the Learning Network to the Needs of Both the Group and the Individual

Bob:You mentioned the importance of community and the network. A loose interpretation of connectivist thinking might be that knowledge is in the network, in the nodes of the network. And yet you’ve made a decision to have a central coaching figure in your project. Could you comment on that

Sheryl: I’d love to. I’ve looked at the research on this question of where and how learning takes place in connected environments. I’ve also done some content analysis, some empirical data collecting, inside our own communities to see how our participants go about the learning process. I did a research project for three years that actually won some awards; it focused on the aspects of building a successful online community. Interestingly, the particular community we studied was initiated to support new-teacher induction. We looked at the role of teacher mentors in online contexts, and what we initially thought of as “teacher mentorship” turned out to be truly a community of practice.

So I’ve done a lot of searching to find the answer to this question: What does it take to truly build a healthy, vibrant, successful community of practice that can serve as an arena for professional kinds of conversations. And what I’ve found is that professional development in the twenty-first century isn’t just a network, it isn’t just connectivism. In fact a lot of people who say they are engaged in professional development go out and they network but not much changes. A lot of teachers will tell you that Twitter is “the best professional development I’ve ever had.” When you look at Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Terry Anderson’s work around connectivism, you get what they’re saying — because you can see that what they’re undertaking (many for the first time) is this experience of shared construction, connection building, the things that happen in a network.

But what I found observing this process was that while the mind-shifting and idea-sharing was pretty rich within the network, not much was shifting when you looked back at the local context, for students and in classrooms. Which was sort of the idea behind networking to begin with. The presumption is that you want to be able to take what you find and learn in your online networks and really move and change things – that you will become a change agent and make use of new ideas to create something better. So what I saw was that people were building knowledge, they were gaining understanding, they were doing a lot of link-harvesting. But not much was shifting.

Then I saw that in professional learning communities — let’s say the Shirley Hord, Bob Eaker, Rick DuFour kinds of models — the local context was in the forefront. But so much of PLC implementation was top down and still aimed at improving individual performance, not at empowering collaboration and producing real shifts in teaching and learning. When I build knowledge it’s very personal but it’s enhanced and sharpened when I have the ideas of others to work with — when I have colleagues who can help me to think through things.

I will say that the best of local professional learning communities, where teachers are really having those teaching conversations about their own students and classrooms, and where data-driven decisions are being made — that’s about the best thing that has happened for schools that still see themselves through a 20th century lens. But that kind of interaction hasn’t typically been enough to shift schools — and it really ignores the emergence of the now-ubiquitous technologies we’re seeing, and the our new-found ability to become connected educators and work together.

What I saw missing was something that might bridge the gap between schools stuck in 20th century models of “cooperation” and individual teachers who were developing their own personal learning networks but not bringing about much shift in their local context. So I started thinking about a model that uses a three-pronged approach: PLCs, PLNs and also online Communities of Practice, to produce what I call “Connected Communities.” My thinking about this took place about the time I found some knowledge-construction research by Cochran, Smith and Lytle. They really talked about three kinds of knowledge construction when you’re working with teachers — knowledge in, for, and of practice.

The understanding I came to is this: Networks have their purpose in this whole connectivism ideology, but that way of learning is only one of three professional learning strategies that are needed to really drive new thinking about 21st century learning and push real pedagogical shifts and in local contexts. I need the synergy and the motivation and the pushback that comes from community — and not just my local community but a diverse community of thinkers and practitioners — to make it new, to really shift.

Connectivism is just fine for me and for other self-actualized learners and teachers. But I saw that it wasn’t enough for others who weren’t like me. I’ve been working to come up with a professional development model that will help educators self-actualize — that will help them shift their focus from links and webtools and drill down into the new pedagogy that all the emerging technology implies. What’s being “connected” going to look like when you unpack that big idea in a classroom? Is it going to be student-driven? Is it going to support the power of learning in community? And my conclusion is that you need to have local PLCs, and the connectivist networks and network literacy piece, and you also need to have online communities of practice.

CoPs, in my definition, are global, systemic kinds of places where people with very much diversity come together and really learn how to have collegial, respectful, trustful kinds of conversations. Actionable conversations that result in the co-creation of some really fabulous things based on action research, research inspired by what is going on in their local contexts, with kids, with everyday learning experiences in everyday learning environments. In high-functioning CoPs, one person is saying, “oh it worked beautifully, let me tell you” and someone else saying, “look what did I do wrong and help me think through this.” And then you have the community kind of work through that. And then the bridging piece comes into focus as CoP participants carry their learning back into the local face to face experience, where they sit down with their team and use this new thinking to advance their local change agenda.

You asked me about the need for coaches. Sometimes a coach is pivotal, sometimes they’re more in the role of facilitator. It really depends on the team they’re working with. Quite often our PLP teams are mostly educators who have not become self-actualized learners. They get frustrated, which is good, but they also sometimes get stuck, and they need the guidance of a coach who has both been there herself and has seen others work through the same frustrations. Our connected coaches can often make the difference between a community devolving into a professional network or becoming a true community of practice where deep collaborative learning is taking place.

Scaling Local Action Research to More Global Solutions

Bob:Speaking of effective group process, have you seen the April 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review? Some recent research found a high degree of productivity connected with informal interactions of the team. Additionally, they found that it was very important for teams to have a very precise shared vision and very specific roles. People could work without worrying about stepping on each other’s toes. Effective teams also are open to ideas coming from outside the team

Sheryl: I’ll go look at that. One thing you said reminds me to mention something else about our action research approach – and that’s being open to information from the outside. One of the things we do with the action research that I think is kind of interesting, we take Cynthia Coburn’s work and Chris Dede’s work on “Scale” and at the end of the action research our participants go through the scaling process. They develop their project and then they start to implement. And then as they start to gather data about implementation and make inferences, we have them start thinking about scale. We ask them to think of their action research project as a pilot. Is this a scalable idea? Is this something that you could take beyond your classroom or your school and see it work in the larger world? It’s always a tough conversation, talking about scale, because you’ve put blood, sweat and tears into developing your own unique (at least in your mind) activity.

Chris Dede says this extra dimension of scale is evolution. And evolution is where you’re willing to let go of your perfect little model and say OK — I’ll give up my branding, my ownership of it, and think about scale and spread, and what innovations others might bring to it. Rather than be threatened by changes and saying no, you’ve got to stick with my purist model, I’m now going to welcome a new diversity of opinion and ideas and encourage the remix.

This has certainly happened to me as I’ve worked on models of connected professional learning. In the beginning when I started doing this, I didn’t want anyone to monkey with my model because I felt like I had the perfect formula. That was totally ego. So that’s been a real growth experience for me, and I notice that it’s a piece that just about everybody who creates models of learning will go through. Anyone who starts looking at scale seriously has to arm-wrestle with their ego at some point. But I certainly wanted our approach to “scale” — and because we stopped resisting those ideas from the outside, it does.

Next for PLP: E-Learning COP, Webinars and Powerful Learning Press

Bob: What’s new and exciting on the Powerful Learning Practices horizon

Sheryl: The really fun part about this work is that every year is different. We have tried to walk the walk, and be genuinely responsive when people share ideas about changes with us, that evolution piece. Every year we do some focus groups with different participants, as well as surveys across all our communities. And we definitely have our a-ha moments as a result. Some really cool and productive changes have come about that way.

One thing that we’ve done based on a lot of a feedback is to start an e-learning arm of Powerful Learning Practice. By which I mean that we now offer more short-term experiences and don’t ask everyone who wants a PLP experience to commit to a year or more with us. My adult daughter, who has a good head for a lot of things, including business, said: “You know, mom, the way you’ve structured PLP, people have to marry you. They can’t just date you.” (Laughs) “Let them try you out, why don’t you?”

So we’ve created e-learning opportunities — ecourses taught by myself and some great colleagues like Kevin Jarrett, Bud Hunt, Jackie Gerstein and many more — topics like the flipped classroom, teaching online, redesigning your curriculum with 21st century principles in mind. And there’s an actual community of practice that’s growing up around the people who are taking our courses, which involve short commitments — five weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks — and offer graduate credit. And we also have self-paced e-learning experiences that people involved in our communities can do on their own.

The other thing we’re doing that’s a little different is we’re flipping everything. So during our live online sessions, you don’t sit through a lecture and somebody shows you PowerPoint slides. Instead you’re sharing work, solving problems, having the kinds of discussions that we say ought to take place in communities of practice. The basic background information is absorbed through readings and asynchronous discussion. When we’re live, we’re co-constructing.

We’re also launching our own publishing venture — Powerful Learning Press. We plan to focus on short books that support teachers and school leaders as they make the shift to 21st century teaching, learning and leadership. Our first four books are in the works — one is a collection from our group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution, where practitioners write about changes in their practice and important issues facing 21st century educators. And then we’ll have three solo books — one each from an elementary, middle and high school teacher – who describe their own learning journeys, with the kind of “up close with students” detail that educators want to read about. Each of these authors has an amazing story to tell about their own growth.

The new Press, the Voices group blog — these are just two examples of our commitment to give voice to educators who want to change the learning world. This is certainly not a “profit center” for us — it’s not about marketing but expressing our commitment as a company to learning approaches that put kids in the driver’s seat and prepare them to cope with whatever’s ahead. And none of us know for sure what that will be.

Bob: Whew! That’s a lot on your plate. I want to thank you for a terrific conversation. I look forward to the conference!

Sheryl:  It was my pleasure.


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