Note: This article originally appeared in Volume E5, Issue 1 of the Big6 eNewsletter.
“Most professional development is so boring,” shared an administrator. “When I wake up in the morning, I jump out of bed and I can’t wait to get to work. I love solving problems, wrestling with the issues. But, if I have to attend a principals meeting, go to professional development session at Central Office, I can barely drag myself up out of bed and I tap the snooze button at least twice before getting up.”
If you have worked in K-12 education, then you have been subjected to this type of energy-sapping professional development. During a workshop, Jennifer Green, a middle school principal, confesses, “I can’t wait for my mobile phone to ring. And, if they don’t call me, I call them as I walk out pretending that I’ve received an all-important rescue-us 911 call from my campus.” At the end of the workshop session, teachers and administrators stagger out the door. Even technology facilitators are finding that, as familiarity with technology grows, it is not enough — if it ever was — to put administrators on the computer to produce some multimedia product.
Read the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) and No Child Left Behind legislation, and it is evident that students are expected to become critical thinkers, familiar with information problem-solving. For some districts, the process that students should follow is pre-selected (e.g., Big6) or left up to individual teachers. But this process never finds it way from the classroom to the office of the person who needs information problem-solving processes the most — the campus administrator.
A Process of Revitalization
Big6-enhanced professional development sessions can revitalize not only the adult learners that are required to attend them, but also those who deliver them. Big6 is a transformational approach that revitalizes the design of professional development, requiring the facilitator to shift roles. Shift roles from a know-it-all trainer smug in her knowledge of the content, impatient for her audience to see the light, to explorer and map-maker.
Like a child playing an online action game, principals roll from problem to problem, guns blazing, with little time for reflection. This can create a major challenge for a person tasked with delivering training to administrators and helping them re-think the way they approach everyday information problems. Use these 5 Big6-related actions to transform principals’ arcade-style moment-to-moment problem elimination to reflective, collaborative problem-solving.
Laying the Foundation
Achieving a reflective process can be done using the Big6. As the facilitator, you are already familiar with the Big6. Introducing it to administrators can be as easy as making connections with problem-solving processes they already know. Yet, you can approach the process of developing the flow of information problem-solving using the Big6-related actions. Within the Big6-related actions, you can introduce the Big6 process to administrators as a powerful tool that will help them achieve greater collaboration.
Action 1 — Select a Problem and Brainstorm an Idea to Explore Its Potential (Task Definition)
As a training facilitator, you must create a transformative experience that fully engages your audience. Your first step involves mapping out what information needs to be acquired and put into practice. Using the Inspiration software — or whiteboard if you prefer — respond to these questions:
- What do we really want them to learn?
- Why is it important that they learn this?
- What problems or issues should they be able to resolve with the information?
- What process could facilitate their information problem-solving?
Walking through these questions will help you plan your training to meet the administrators’ needs.
Brainstorming with a visual aid allows you to consider the breadth of the issues involved and the stakeholders impacted from various perspectives. You should demonstrate this strategy for your trainees, as administrators need to learn to see problems from different points of view, allowing them to better resolve conflicts with other stakeholders.
More importantly, using a visual aid allows administrators to see the big picture rather than floating from problem to problem. As in the graphic organizer [not available] below, you can also use this as a pre-planning to identify what you really want administrators to learn about. In the example below, the focus is on Instructional Technology issues.
Action 2—Engage Adult Learners in the Real Life Problem (Task Definition)
Every crisis we face in schools depends on some critical piece of the puzzle that is missing. Why is a student misbehaving? Why is the parent yelling at the paraprofessional and threatening to sue her? Why are the experienced teachers shunning the new teacher despite the principal’s best efforts to get her included? How can we help teachers resolve their own student-teacher, parent-teacher, teacher-teacher issues? The following strategy will help you train your administrators to fill in missing pieces of the puzzle by thinking strategically.
This action – writing a story problem – builds a blueprint for inquiry and the investigative process the administrator will need to follow. As the facilitator, you need to identify key information acquisition goals and work forward from those to pose an engaging introduction or story.
You are not writing a fiction story exactly. You are writing a story that encapsulates the issues and stakeholders in a way that grabs your learners. From the author’s perspective, the writing of the story problem is the most exciting of all the steps. But, it doesn’t have to be a written problem. You only write it if you lack another medium to use and want to remain consistent. You could use radio, television, video or use a skit to introduce the problem elements.
Another important point to remember as you model writing a story problem is to ensure that you have a “real life” person affected. That does not mean that you put someone you know in the story, but to make sure your main character is the one who has to solve the real life problem. Whether it is a principal, a teacher, a parent or student, it should be someone who will best come alive for your adult learners. For a group of principals, the protagonist should be a principal. For a group of parents, it should be a parent or child. You can always shift the focus of the story so long as the key elements that you want them to learn are present.
As in real life, your adult learners must use the inquiry process and reason to solve the problem. The narrative should reflect problems or issues that campus administrators deal with every day. While this will capture their attention, it will not retain it unless you suggest an approach that re-frames the problem. Simply, helps them see it in a new way. It is at this time that the Big6 can be introduced.
Earlier this morning, Jerry Johnson approached you. Jerry is the superintendent’s right-hand man. “Felice, we need your help. Over the last few years, the state has poured money into your campus for technology. The school board president, whose daughter goes to your school, mentioned that her child isn’t using technology. She even asked the superintendent what the district was encouraging campuses to do to prepare teachers and students to use technology.”
At this point, there are several issues that are inherent within the problem narrative above. The narrative, rather than being several pages long, is quite short. Yet, before administrators begin to tear the problem apart, you should provide a process for them to follow. Naturally, the Big6 makes the problem-solving process easier for them as they struggle through it.
Action 3—Focus Inquiry and Investigation (Task Definition to Information Seeking Strategy, Location & Access and Use of Information)
Once adult learners are engaged in the problem, you can guide them through a simple information seeking strategy. First, ask the workshop participants to read the problem. Then, inquire, “What hunches do you have about this problem?” Explain that “Hunches are intuitive guesses we have about the problem. They are what we think may occur or be the motivations for some of the stakeholders in the introduction.” After you jot down these hunches on another whiteboard (although you can easily use a word processor, flip chart, or in Inspiration software), adult learners are ready for the next piece.
Before moving on, step back out of your facilitative role and point out that their guesses had hit on the main issues in the problem. This is an important piece because it tells you as problem-designer that the story engaged adult learners in the desired manner.
The next thing is to write down everything participants know for certain in the problem. For example, you might phrase it this way, “What do we know for certain about the problem?” This is a wonderful approach because, now that the hunches are out of the way, participants are ready to focus in on the problem. No guesses or hunches are allowed. Participant statements spring strictly from within “the text.” These are the facts of the matter and are critical to solving the problem.
After nailing down the facts, you ask, ”What questions can we ask that will get us the information we need to help the protagonist solve the problem?” Of course, one never says protagonist. By this time, everyone is using the protagonist’s first name. A list of questions is produced. An exciting activity, the question generation shows how engaged your audience is. It is often the “proof” that those reluctant to use this professional development technique need to experience to see its efficacy. Before you move on to the final activity, be sure to prioritize — with the group –the most important questions.
The final activity in facilitating the problem-solving is to have your trainees identify all the potential stakeholders. This last piece allows them to see the big picture, not just try to solve problems from a narrow point of view. It fosters empathy, and being able to view a problem from multiple perspectives. At the end of this activity, you have a list of potential stakeholders. Using the stakeholders as a guide, divide the class into stakeholder groups. It is from these perspectives that the class will explore the issues, locating and accessing information through research.
As you move forward, this is the step when you can take advantage of technological tools the administrators might use in a real-life situation. You can use treasure hunt or subject sampler type activities (Check out http://www.ozline.com) to organize the resources for your learners. You can take advantage of online resources such as ProQuest, Gale Resources, Electronic Policy Analysis Archives for access to research, or a digital video distribution system. Whatever resources–books, newspapers, online—the point is that they have to find the most effective way of doing their research.
Action 4—Support Problem Resolution (Synthesis)
As adult learners in your session gather information filtered through the lens of the respective stakeholder they have assumed, they need to share information with each other. A successful approach is to encourage them to suggest a solution to the problem that considers the various points of view of all stakeholders.
There are different ways of expressing the solution. That solution may be expressed as a multimedia presentation, a document to be shared, or, School Board presentation. Each group will develop its own solution. This is an excellent opportunity to remind others that parallel problem-solving is a real life skill—we may all arrive at similar solutions for a problem, but sometimes these solutions are unique. By working collaboratively—within and between groups—we can achieve the synergy needed as administrators.
In considering the solutions presented, it helps to have a common rubric. At minimum, the whole group should decide 1) What the solution strategy will be, 2) the advantages and disadvantages of the solution from the perspectives of different stakeholders, and, of course, 3) the consequences. This information could easily be arranged in a table or a series of slides (if using Powerpoint). Finally, a fourth component can be a powerful antiphon. This last component, either as a narrative or a skit, can quickly sum up the solution’s main points. Whether skit or narrative, it should capture the essence of the solution. These narratives will differ on their quality and perspective. For example, one such solution narrative for Felice is written as follows:
As her Hyundai Santa Fe pulled into the afternoon traffic rush, the events of the last month raced through Felice’s mind. What a wonderful experience it had been to meet with the Campus Leadership Team and share the need for a comprehensive needs assessment process. She had trusted to the process and the commitment of her staff and she sought simply to facilitate the process. When John had stood up to present the State’s needs assessment tools, as well as the Levels of Technology Implementation (LOTI) that they had found online, there had been an immediate response. The Framework focused the CLT in a way that she had not imagined earlier. The week prior to the meeting, the District Technology Director had provided links to the LOTI Framework and that had proved itself a useful observational tool. She and the Technology Director had done the “LOTIwalk.” It allowed them to gauge the Level of Technology Implementation for the various products and classroom instructional activities.
After the needs assessment had been completed, addressing several key areas such as teaching and learning, infrastructure, and administrative support, she had begun walking the campus with the LOTI Framework in hand. This framework gave her, her campus leadership team the information to make decisions about technology use in schools. Using the LOTI had also allowed her to tailor specific technology-integrated professional development for her teachers, correlate weekend computer camps for students to target technology levels, which by the way corresponded to higher levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
As she pulled into the Central Office parking lot for the School Board meeting, she waved at the Board president, who was walking towards the Board Room. Her smile and a quick wave signaled her acknowledgement. She had also played a significant role as a member of the campus technology committee. Her clamoring for newer technology, her advocacy with the superintendent, had focused the laser beam on technology and its appropriateness in schools. “You know,” Michael the Technology Director had shared at one late evening meeting, “I’m grateful to you for bringing us all together. Without you, Felice, and without the Board president being such an advocate, we might have faced serious budget cuts. Those would have been catastrophic for our children, especially now when NCLB calls for information and technology literacy.”
Action 5—Facilitate Problem Debriefing (Evaluation)
After solving the problem, a key piece of Big6 enhanced professional development is to reflect on the solution. Did the solutions participants developed really address the issues in the problem? Encourage administrators to be blunt and up front about their solutions. To simplify the process, ask them to first develop criteria for what would be an effective solution as a group, and remind them to consider the needs of all stakeholders. Use this criteria to assess the solutions that are brought forth, as well as what process they followed in information problem solving. This feedback is important for adult learners and allows them to fine-tune the solutions they develop.
A tremendous amount of work has been accomplished in this session. Now, you will notice the benefits of this approach among your adult learners. Not one of them is falling asleep. All are self-engaged, almost driven, to solve the difficult, complex problem that emerged from the mapping activity in Action 1. Using the Big6, they are able to move from Task Definition to Location & Access to Synthesis and Evaluation smoothly. More importantly, they have the meta-cognitive language to describe the process they are using to develop a solution.
Make sure that your adult learners ask themselves how the Big6 process they are using changed their approach to the problem, as well as how they explain the problem solving process to others. During debriefing, they can use this feedback to evaluate their problem solving effectiveness.
Using these five actions to Big6 Enhanced Professional Development enables district facilitators of professional development to revitalize their workshop sessions. It also provides campus administrators participating in the session with essential tools that may employ technology as an information management tool used in the context of information problem solving. Identifying the missing information, locating it, synthesizing it, and evaluating their process can transform how administrators approach their jobs.
The wonder of using the Big6 approach with adult learners is that they will not perceive your workshop as a long, boring exploration of a topic at the periphery of consciousness. They will not sit in your class problem solving the real life challenges they face, or will encounter, back at their campus. Instead, you will have tapped into their creative energies, engaging them, making them feel as if they, not you, had planned out the experience.