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Dynamic vs. Static Models for TAH Professional Development


For educators privileged to help implement a Teaching American History (TAH) project, perhaps the most important question that we can continue to ask ourselves and each other is: how can we make our projects even better? Each new TAH project funded by the Office of Innovation and Improvement creates a new learning organization, centered on the understanding and teaching of American history. But these organizations can be very different depending on the vision and professional development (P-D) model that organizers use to implement their goals and processes.

The P-D model used in the design of a TAH project (whether explicit or implicit) provides the architecture in which all human interactions within a project are organized and valued. Like the building where learning activities are conducted, the structural organization can have a significant impact on organizational learning results and sustainability. What follows are a few thoughts contrasting static and dynamic elements in professional development models. My goal is simply to foster dialogue about the art and science of developing these TAH learning organizations.

A static component in an organizational model is one that is fixed and doesn't change over time. A dynamic component is one that is not fixed; where change from original conditions is possible or perhaps even necessary. Two quick caveats are worth noting here. First, both static and dynamic elements have their uses and in what follows I am not implying that one is inherently superior in all cases. Second, it is more useful to think about the following contrasts in terms of a sliding continuum rather than in binary (either/or) terms. Seldom in professional development are things completely black or white, and accurately judging degree can be of essential value to professional development leaders and groups.

Practice vs. Services

An initial contrast can be explored by asking: to what degree is your P-D model organized as a "community of practice" versus as a set of "services" provided to individuals? Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better. If one of your project's primary goals is to connect and empower the TAH practitioners in your area, then their developing insights and initiatives will progressively inform and guide project decision-making as things develop over the years. If your project is envisioned as a string of services (courses, workshops, field trips, etc.) provided to individual participants, there is no need then to organize or account for change over time in community understandings, inquiries, or prioritizations. In this latter case, different group processes and values develop and are incentivized.

All learning organizations, including our TAH projects, need reflective processes in their design model. . .
Improvement vs Fixed Evaluation

A second contrast is between P-D models built upon the principles of "continuous improvement" and those built with fixed evaluation processes. All learning organizations, including our TAH projects, need reflective processes in their design model, if only to monitor goal achievement and member interactions. However, the quantity of these self-reflective processes and the complexity of the decision-making framework developed to harness the collective intelligence of these organizations vary greatly among different TAH projects. Some projects may file yearly federal reports and systematically think little more about group reflective processes in decision-making. On the other end of this reflectivity spectrum would be TAH projects that are systematically incorporating data-driven inquiry to organize and inform all group decision-making, goal setting, and project development in their communities of practice. As they grow over time, learning organizations that incorporate the philosophy and methods of continuous improvement in their design are much more dynamic in terms of change from originally conceived visions. I would argue that they are also more likely to be sustainable after the grant's funding ends.

The more prescriptive a project design is, the simpler it is to implement and for specific concrete results to be predicted.
Design Philosophy

Like the above-mentioned elements, and intertwined with them, the third and final contrast for consideration in this short essay is as much about design philosophy as about any specific set of methods. This static/dynamic contrast can best be illuminated by examining the question: to what degree is your TAH professional development model "inquiry-based" versus "prescriptive" in design? The more prescriptive a P-D model is, the less it would utilize member input in P-D activities and the more it would center on a string of events and activities operating without member input and utilizing outside expertise in a preconceived and fixed program of study. Again, on the other end of this spectrum would be TAH projects where each participant worked individually or with peers on their own TAH professional development goals and where their own inquiry projects functioned as the means to achieve those goals. The role of outside experts and the learning community as a whole varies enormously across this spectrum of possibilities. The more prescriptive a project design is, the simpler it is to implement and for specific concrete results to be predicted. However, despite the complexity entailed, the more a design harnesses the individual goals and curiosities of its members, (linking and building upon all of them) the more useful and sustainable it may be to the members in the long run.

Ultimately, good results can be achieved in TAH projects whether they are grounded in fundamentally static or dynamic professional development models. The big difference is that the more static a P-D model is, the more project results are bounded by the initial framework at the time of project conception. The more dynamic the P-D model, the more results are unpredictable at the time of project conception, because the model is designed to change and grow with the increased understanding and organization of the member. Admittedly, this creates enormous challenges for designing an acceptable grant proposal (because dynamic elements tend to be more complex in structure and their results are harder to quantify). But, if a fundamental goal of your project is to create a sustainable TAH professional development community—existing long after your TAH funding ends—then the dynamic elements in the design of your learning organization may be central to your long-range success.