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Advice on developing technology staff development


(CC) Photo by eren {sea+prairie}

A colleague in one of my Google+ circles asked for some general advice on developing technology related staff development sessions. Well, I am certainly no expert on staff development or adult education. My college degrees were in working with students, just like most of yours probably are. Pausing to reflect, I realized that after a decade of experience leading technology staff development sessions perhaps I have actually gathered a few choice nuts. I’ve taken a moment to attempt to gather a few of my learned tendencies and considerations.

I’ll begin by saying that we in the LPS Computing Services Training department often hear about folks in our schools who have been tasked with leading technology staff development in buildings. If this is something you WANT to do and feel competent doing, and feel is consistent with your role in the building we would love to support you however we can. On the other hand, this is what we are here for! If you feel uncomfortable with what you are being asked to do, feel free to push back on your building leadership and ask them to contact Kristi Peters and/or Tim Hahn. If a technology topic is important enough to a building’s professional development that the office can guarantee 10 or more people will be in attendance we would LOVE to come out to your building and lead the session ourselves. In many ways, this is actually our preferred methodology.

With that being said, I’ll continue on with a brain-dump of the wisest things I can think of at the moment…


Ideally I try to treat staff development on technology focused topics no different than any other topic. Pedagogically, the methods would be consistent. Good teaching strategies don’t change with the content you are covering.

In reality, we often face significant constraints. Our sessions are generally limited to a couple of hours or less, there is no opportunity to create a structure for support of learning via practice and reflection, there is no followup post-session and ultimately there are no tangible expectations placed upon the recipients short of being “present and accounted for.” This essentially cuts 3/4 of the legs out from under the instructional table and makes using what we know about sound educational practices less useful.

Our sessions often remind me of walking down the beach and seeing a stranger getting into a kayak with the intent of crossing the Pacific Ocean and having them shout in your direction as you pass by “Hey buddy, before I shove off, tell me what I need to know about water.” Where do you begin, or end?

In this scenario where we have no prior relationship with the attendees, no data on their existing knowledge of the topic, no time for a cycle of instruction / practice / reflection, no expectations of the participants applying what they have learned, what we are really trying to do is figure out how to use our limited time together most effectively. Our objective becomes getting our information to be more memorable and packaged in a way to independently support users in an “on-demand” format as they need it in the future.

Address Human Needs

Experience as an elementary school teacher helps to inform much of my staff development work. Like children learning a new subject, staff members rarely come to a session with any scaffolding – prior knowledge of the topic we are covering. Since we tend to forget positive experiences more easily than negative ones, if staff come to my session with anything, it is likely to be emotional baggage about a previous experience that did not go well. You’ll need to be conscious of their emotional needs and address what you can.

Some trainers bring food to sessions for this reason. I like to eat as much as the next guy, but I prefer to begin sessions with a video clip – a “thinking device.” These are nice for a lot of instructional reasons, but in this scenario their real value to me is that they can serve as a redirect. Whatever baggage the participants arrive with gets set down for a moment as they watch the video. When the clip ends, I ask a question about the clip, forcing them to shift mental gears for a moment, putting more distance between the current moment and the moment they arrived in the room. This helps to cleanse the palate, and sets a better scene for beginning the session.

If I jumped right in and started showing where to click, I’m afraid that I would lose many people. Instead, I try to frame what we are about to do in a larger context, provide a connection to something they already know to be true. Perhaps the thinking device I’ve shown provides a good segue for this.

Nervous people don’t clearly hear or understand what they are being told. If they don’t hear or understand, they will certainly not remember it. With that in mind, before I even begin preparing the contents of the session I try to put together a valuable set of supports that staff can return to after the session (or others may find useful if they didn’t even attend.) These might be web pages, PDFs, videos, or a combination of all of these. Before we touch the computers I show these to the participants and attempt to convey that Computing Services is available to support them. This is an attempt on my part to offer a safety net for them and reduce anxiety. Before they begin they now know that there is a lifeline they can access if they need it in the future. We also know that we only really keep a person’s full attention for 20 minutes or so, and if they are going to remember one thing, I would hope it is that they have supports in place.

There is Never Enough Time

I attempt to take the topic and render it down to the very essence of what they have to know to leave the session and continue using the tool or concept. In a good situation, I’ll get to cover 25% of what they MIGHT need to know, but hopefully it is a functional & foundational 25%. Try to imagine a fire drill eliminating half of your time together. Will they still understand enough to begin independently tomorrow?

Any time that can be spent hands-on and using a tool while an experienced user is in the room to address questions is time well spent. If you have 2 hours with the participants and feel like you can cover 70% of the topic in that time frame, you will actually be better off covering only 40% of the topic and offering more time for participants to engage the tool or discuss the concept with peers.

Every 10-15 minutes you need to create an opportunity for reflection, even if it is only for 60 seconds. Offering a guided question is very useful, but it does not need to be Nobel laureate quality. Simply asking them to reflect for a moment with an elbow partner is a useful enough conversation starter in many cases.

When time is not abundant, the situation may call for a different approach all together. Perhaps you’ve got 20 minutes or less with a group of teachers. You’ll need to take more of an “executive briefing” strategy. A) Begin by recognizing that time is limited, B) Deliver either a short overview of the topic or a sales pitch for the tool, with no opportunity for interaction, C) Introduce support materials, D) Entertain questions from the participants in the time remaining. In these cases you are less of an educator and more of a journalist or salesman, but your educational background will help inform what you do and use your time wisely.

Everything is Hard

One thing I have learned from experience is to go out of my way to never call what we are covering “simple” or “easy” or create an implication that they should be able to do this without struggling in any way. That puts them in a no win situation. Either it really is easy, and they feel no sense of accomplishment because I said it SHOULD be easy, or they are struggling and feel ashamed because I’ve implied that they should not be.

Another thing to remember is that when working with adults, you have no positional authority over them. You will do your best to prepare and deliver the information. The hardest part is getting these peers of yours to care about what you are bringing to their attention. People do not act upon new information unless they are emotionally invested. (Being required to act to keep their job is a form of emotional investment. We don’t have that authority.)

My Pantheon of Professional Resources

“Teaching That Sticks” is an LPS staff development session I offer on occasion that is largely based upon the book ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip & Dan Heath. That book has been more influential on my trainings than almost anything else I have encountered. It is an easy read, chock-full of strategies to try, and I highly recommend it.

The facilitation skills modeled in “Adaptive Schools” trainings would also be a tremendously good use of your time if you ever have the opportunity to participate. If not, any facilitation related trainings or texts go a long way when working primarily with other adults.

The books ‘Presentation Zen’ by Garr Reynolds or one of Nancy Duarte’s books on presenting ‘slide:ology: the Art & Science of Creating Great Presentations‘ or ‘Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences‘ would be excellent reads if you are wanting to improve your content delivery.

If you find yourself in a situation where you develop a longer term relationship with a teacher or a group of teachers, you really shift from the role of “Trainer” to the role of “Coach.” The best resource for this working environment might be the text ‘Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction’ by Jim Knight.

In LPS we maintain a subscription to a number of e-book titles in the Gale Virtual Reference Library. Many of these focus on modern instructional models that take advantage of brain research, multisensory learning, visual learning and using technology with classroom instruction. These would be useful for instructing people of any age. Talk to your local media specialist if you need assistance accessing these texts.

Your Turn to Share

There you have a few of the “nuts” I have gathered over the years. Now it is your turn! I’m also interested in hearing the thoughts of others. I’d love to learn something from you as well!


Posted in My Thoughts, Tips & Tutorials.

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