Monday, February 5, 2018

Micro-credentials – Professional Development That Matters

Let’s be clear: quality professional development is one of the greatest demands and a high priority for people in the teaching profession. However, finding meaningful PD is one of our profession’s biggest challenges, leading to plenty of frustration. I’ll be honest. Like many teachers I shamelessly attend education conferences looking to “steal stuff.” Educators are always on the prowl for new and innovative ways to engage students and craft quality learning experiences. But is one lesson or learning experience worth a conference worth of time? Not always. But now, with the increased presence of professional learning communities (PLCs) in schools, many teachers are realizing that quality professional growth can be just down the hall.

Professional development – an idea that should intrigue, excite, and inspire educators – often elicits groans and eye-rolling as simply another set of hoops to jump through before they can get back to the job of educating young people. Micro-credentials may just be the key to help “salvage teacher PD.” In the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin, teachers are coming together to create their own PD that is timely and specifically relevant to the actual kids sitting in their classrooms. For example, one group of teachers formed a book study on a necessary skill like close reading. They exchanged ideas, collaborated on lessons, implemented strategies, and documented the results on student learning. Then after submitting their work for review, they were able to earn a college-backed micro-credential, which can be tied to evaluations and salary, and even licensing. The goal is to make professional development more accessible and practical.  

The key for success in the Kettle Moraine district is that teachers were able to access professional development specifically relevant and tailored to the kids in their classrooms, and they were able to tailor their own growth, lesson planning, and instruction to the diverse learning styles of their students. As an educator and administrator who works closely with varied student populations, an attention to differentiation and unique learning styles is of primary importance to me. As a Gifted & Talented Coordinator (and GT parent), I am attentive to the unique needs of advanced learners, including when those needs include challenges with skills such as executive functioningTo organize lessons and instruction without knowledge of specific students' strengths, challenges, and interests is to be dismissive of the entire learning process. Yet, the challenge of differentiating for varied learners can be daunting. PD opportunities that support teachers' efforts to personalize learning are a long overdue development in education. As I work with students developing advanced learning plans, I can tailor discussions of affective programming by acknowledging the emotional intelligence and mindfulness that is often a far greater indicator of potential than simple standardized grades.

I am also a coordinator for professional development around the goals of equity and pedagogy, and in that regard I know that one of the most valuable components of inclusive excellence and culturally responsive instruction is a teacher's commitment to building relationships and a positive classroom culture. As a colleague recently noted, we simply can't keep doing what we've always done and expect students to adjust. The goal of the educator is engagement in meaningful instruction, and anyone with knowledge of rhetoric knows that effective speakers pay careful attention to their audience, adjusting for who is sitting in front of them. By paying attention to specific qualities and needs of students such as   I see so many opportunities in the micro-credential world that are specifically relevant to the work I am doing. From the important challenge of cultivating digital citizenship to the value of honoring unique student potential through the growthmindset, I see much potential in this new model of PD.

Education truly is an institution in flux, and an intriguing development of professional development is the emergence of micro-credentials as a new, refined, and effective way of providing professional development on a small and focused scale of personalized instruction and competency-based learning.  Organizations like Digital Promise are now offering an extensive platform of PD opportunities in the form of micro-credentials. Digital Promise is a non-profit “authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education and improve the opportunity to learn for all through technology and research.” To earn a micro-credential, educators simply “select a specific skill or area in which they want to develop and demonstrate competency, or an area or skill they already possess competence in. Collect the required evidence as articulated in the micro-credential (e.g. videos, audio, writing samples, samples of student work, reflections from students and/or teachers etc.) Submit their evidence through the online platform.  Assessors then review the evidence against the scoring guide and rubric. If educators successfully demonstrate competence, they receive the micro-credential in the form of a digital badge. Helping to establish the platform and make the opportunities accessible and established is the BloomBoard organization, providing structure to an emerging field.

When a teacher considers how he can “remain current” in his field – an expectation for many professional evaluation rubrics – he’s often faced with the tired and mundane list of professional development offerings that may not fit what he’s actually doing in the classroom. In the spirit of the online credentialing movement, educators now have increased opportunities for micro-credentials which are relevant to and reflect what they are actually doing in the classroom. The greatest benefit of micro-credential is that it honors and relies on the content-area expertise of the classroom teacher, as opposed to relying on an ambiguous, top-down mandate that may come from people far removed from the classroom. Some have explained how the concept of micro-credentials works a bit “like merit badges” in scouting.  

So-called “micro-credentials” work a lot like scouting badges. Teachers complete a specific activity to develop a critical competency for their role, and earn a micro-credential based on showing mastery of the skill. They can collect micro-credentials to document growing expertise and share their accomplishments in the classroom. Proponents of teacher micro-credentials … aim to shift teacher PD to a competency-based system with personalized development opportunities that match teachers’ and schools’ specific needs. Such a system could allow teachers to drive their own development, signal their true areas of expertise to school and district administrators, and advance in their careers according to their skills. If it gains traction, micro-credentialing could help transform how K–12 teachers are prepared, hired, developed, and assigned teaching responsibilities.

As the education world continues to innovate, moving away from a one-size-fits-all system, one of the best things schools can do is to provide opportunities for professional growth that are individualized and competency-based. Relying on the ability of teachers to be content experts and also advocates for the specific learning needs of their students is an effective way of improving instruction and best meeting the needs of all students. Teachers and their students are hungry for quality meaningful instruction that improves outcomes for all kids. The concept of micro-credentials and the establishment of groups like Digital Promise and BloomBoard are innovations that can provide this opportunity.

Ultimately, as I've grown as an educator, I've grown to understand the value of "teaching them where they are, as opposed to where I expect them to be." The value of personalized learning and individualized instruction cannot be understated, and PD that allows, encourages, and supports teachers efforts in this area is professional development worth pursuing.

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