The value of social learning for educator PD
August 27, 2019
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Social learning is gaining ground in education. Participate's Dr. Allison Violette explains why.

This post has been sponsored by Participate.

Social learning is taking the professional development (PD) community by storm. But what exactly is it -- and how does it add value to PD experiences? How can it be incorporated into a professional learning strategy? Allison Violette, former curriculum associate superintendent and current education strategist at Participate, breaks down these social learning questions below.

What is social learning?  

Allison Violette: To me, social learning is all about connection -- such as a connection with fellow learners because of a shared interest or domain. In a social learning environment, the participants form relationships because they share the same passion for learning and growing in the domain. They form meaningful, dependent relationships where they can be vulnerable and open to learning from their peers. It's really about experiencing a unity of purpose that creates community. As an administrator, I have observed communities of teachers deeply entrenched in learning because it was relevant to them, many times based on their needs or the needs of their students. These types of experiences lead to powerful growth for teachers and ultimately improve learning environments for students.

How is social learning relevant to the education field? 

Violette: Learning is social. Too often we see educators isolated by subject matter, grade level or background. Shifting professional learning so that it’s focused around connection opens up opportunities for educators to interact, share and receive feedback and grow their craft. We learn best when we talk to one another, so we have to find ways to create a social space where educators can grow.

Why is social learning in education important?

Violette: In today's educational arena, learning is continuous. Information is accessible in a click. Technology allows learning to happen instantaneously and ubiquitously. The same is true for networking. Teachers connect and learn collectively, not in isolation. Interacting with experts in the field or connecting with other teachers around a shared instructional practice provides educators with timely knowledge and feedback.

How is social learning changing professional development?

Violette: Think back to the last PD session you sat through. The keyword here is sat. This PD session was likely a dissemination of information about how you could improve on a practice without the leader asking what you already do to improve that practice. This is where we see a shift in professional learning. Social learning is changing PD because it makes PD more participatory. Teachers are seeking connection and community to grow and improve. Each teacher comes with knowledge and expertise that can be shared, valuing various perspectives to a relevant topic or interest. Professional learning networks and connections are built, allowing for peer feedback and coaching. 

For us at Participate, this is where Communities of Practice (CoPs) seem to be the natural fit for educator development. When teachers have a space to collaborate around a shared practice, they can follow their learning pathway and participate in meaningful learning experiences.

What are some new developments in educator professional development?

Violette: Unconferences and Edcamps are great examples of new developments for personalized PD for teachers. These settings let teachers network and share ideas around topics that interest them. They can grow their professional learning network and sustain the learning experience far beyond the event. During my days as a school leader, I challenged educators to find opportunities like these that catered to their interests, but I also understood that not every teacher will go out of their way to find that. It’s on us as education leaders to create that space and provide a community to support them. This is where learner personas and personalized learning pathways are crucial. Learners come in all shapes and sizes, with different styles and goals for their learning. Not only that, a single learner might shift their approach between and within learning experiences. When designing PD experiences, think through what will appeal to the broad range of learners within your community.

What do you predict for the future of professional development in education?

Violette: Technology will continue to influence professional development in education. That's where an online CoP can be a powerful experience for teachers. Differentiation is key to student learning and it’s also imperative in teacher learning. There is no “one-size-fits-all” or “cookie-cutter” philosophy in providing PD for teachers. I see a shift in building personalized pathways to meet every educator’s needs.

Developing engaging, personalized professional learning that places a heavy emphasis on social learning doesn’t need to be time-consuming or costly. Learn more about Participate’s approach to social learning and how you can build an online learning community.