Today, the role of the teacher is changing. As we rethink how to educate students in our rapidly changing world, teachers in 21st Century classrooms must do much more than transfer information. They must create environments that encourage collaborative, and complex thinking.

Emily Hickman is figuring out how to do just that.

A middle and high school teacher, Hickman has always taken the material she taught seriously. At the same time, she recognized that many of her students were most engaged with the content when it was presented through game-like experiences, such as mock trials.

It was this understanding—and a desire to share best practices with her colleagues—that drew her to TeacherQuest, a professional development program that trains educators to integrate games and game-like learning into their classrooms.

TeacherQuest is among the group of innovative professional development opportunities that have sprung up in Pittsburgh and beyond in recent years, emerging to better prepare teachers like Hickman, working in a new era of education. You won’t find teachers playing board games in all of them. The practices and pedagogies vary, but underlying most is an attempt to replace the dry or insular training experiences of the past with something more meaningful and engaging.

How do you spread and scale up good practices?

These new models are asking important questions. How do you reach diverse audiences and present ideas that are applicable in all learning communities? How do you adapt practices for informal learning settings as well as schools? And how do you spread and scale up good practices beyond the workshop walls?

TeacherQuest, a partnership between the Institute of Play and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, is based on the teaching practice at Quest to Learn, a school in New York City and Chicago with game design and gameplay at the heart of its pedagogy.

Hickman, now the 21st century research and media specialist at Avonworth Middle and High School, participated in the first summer of TeacherQuest in 2014. It was one of the best professional development experiences of her career.

“It bolstered my confidence,” she said. “It was really well-organized, there was a lot of interaction, and we left with a product”(a game she designed for her class). This year, she will lead the program for other educators. 

Zero-ing in on how teachers and students learn

Educators attend a Project Zero conference at Quaker Valley. Photo/Jeff Evancho

Educators attend a Project Zero conference at Quaker Valley. Photo/Jeff Evancho

TeacherQuest and its ilk are partially reactions to ineffective professional development.

“If you come in with your own expectations and put teachers in a classroom and lecture at them, you’re not going to get a lot out of it,” said Hickman, speaking from experience. “It makes zero sense to me. We know better. We know what works for students.”

She means that teachers, like their own students, thrive in settings that are creative and collaborative, where their ideas are heard and respected.

“Research has shown that teachers find some of the most valuable professional development comes from other teachers,” said Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, TeacherQuest program director. So she gives former participants like Hickman teaching roles.

In many of the new programs, teachers participate in the same learning exercises and processes they will later bring to their students.

That’s the case with the programming from Project Zero, a Harvard University research institute that has done some serious thinking about professional development for a long time.

When Jeff Evancho, an art teacher at Quaker Valley Middle School in Sewickley, Penn., went with his colleagues to Cambridge, Mass., for a Project Zero workshop, he had a “truly transformational” experience. They got a primer in the goals of the Project Zero approach: making thinking “visible” by examining and reflecting on learning processes, and developing “cultures of thinking” where the social and environmental conditions promote learning. The rich blend of theory and practice stuck with the educators in attendance.

"Visible thinking" at Project Zero. Photo/Jeff Evancho

“Visible thinking” at Project Zero. Photo/Jeff Evancho

“It was tied into research and rooted in relevance,” said Evancho, now the Project Zero programming specialist at his district. After their trip to Harvard, Evancho and the Quaker Valley staff ended up replicating their experience at home. With support from the Grable Foundation, the district began hosting conferences for educators throughout the region. They were inspired by the work of Jim Reese, a Project Zero scholar who launched a professional development program in Washington, D.C., and advises on organizing satellite Project Zero conferences.

In the workshops, teachers learn how to make their own thinking visible before introducing the concept to students.

Evancho, who oversees the integration of Project Zero concepts into Quaker Valley’s classrooms and afterschool art program, told a recent success story from a 5th grade math class. When the teacher went to review a student’s assignment, she saw that he had deconstructed a math problem using a routine she had introduced to help students learn by making their thinking visible. Of his own volition, the student had taken extra time to map the purposes and the complexities of the math problem, which also helped his teacher understand his thought processes.

“She got to see inside the mind of a young learner,” Evancho said. The approach benefited teacher and student alike.

Translating ideas for diverse settings

At TeacherQuest, participants start off by articulating a learning goal. They might want to help their students learn to collaborate, for example, or strengthen their multiplication skills.

The activity orients the ensuing experience around individual teachers’ needs and student populations. It’s the kind of practice that makes it possible to hold a professional development workshop for participants from diverse districts.

“Our contexts are very different, but engaged learners are very similar,” Evancho said. Project Zero is “not a canned, packaged thing.” It’s a presentation of ideas that can be adapted to different settings.

Other strong professional development programs might be more grounded in specific applications of ideas, but still take care to address underlying concepts that work under different schools’ circumstances.

At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, participants in the summer Maker Educator Boot Camp attend workshops on maker learning practices. The educators come from schools with wildly different resource levels, so the directors have given thought to “which parts can be adapted and what’s core to a maker experience,” said Rebecca Grabman, MAKESHOP manager.

In many cases what’s “core” are mindsets, not materials.

“What you’re engaging with when you’re doing an activity is not necessarily about hammer and nails,” said Grabman, “but about planning or persistence or collaboration—and those translate well.”

Creating equitable opportunities for professional development

Maker Educator Boot Camp. Photo/Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

Evancho posed the question that all professional development providers should ask: “How do you bring about equity?”

Practices might translate across communities, but only if they reach them. For many programs, it is a challenge to reach beyond familiar faces and scale up.

“Our doors are open but we’re not seeing everyone there,” Evancho said.

Even continuing the conversation among participants after a program ends “can be a real stumbling block,” Hickman said. Some programs develop “communities of practice” with venues, physical or virtual, for educators to bounce ideas and questions off one another. Others, like TeacherQuest, require participants to apply in pairs so they will hold each other accountable and more effectively bring the ideas back to their districts.

Providers say school districts have begun to take the lead on providing professional development opportunities for the whole community, sometimes carving out their niche in the region as the expert on game design or personalized learning. Of course, some are better equipped to do so than others. And the barriers to spread are not unique to the realm of professional development.

“The challenges are the things that plague all schools all the time,” Grabman said. “Time and money are always going to be a problem.”

Groups like the Remake Learning Network aim to reduce resource inequity by connecting a diverse cohort of educators, administrators, librarians, technologists, foundations, and nonprofits who can share practices with each other, formally or informally.

“All of us in Pittsburgh are learning about the power of networks,” Evancho said.

In any community, there are still groups who are likely to be left out of the conversation, or simply miss the memo. But this kind of ecosystem helps ideas get around, as local providers like Grabman and Evancho work to build equitable access to creative teacher training.

A number of innovative professional development opportunities are available in the Pittsburgh area in June and July, including: