New Tech Network recently wrapped its own version of summer school for teachers, principals, district staff and superintendents. As an organization that has been partnering with schools to transform teaching and learning for a decade, professional development conferences have proven to be highly effective ways to support adult learning. Responding to requests from schools, we changed the structure of our major summer conference to better support school-wide learning. Generally speaking, adult learning opportunities are designed for individual teachers and getting entire school teams directly engaged in learning together happens infrequently.
This year, for the 1,800 participants from our 180 schools, we designed in twice daily times for school teams to make sense of what they were learning and to design changes for the upcoming school year. The New Tech Annual Conference (NTAC) is a place where new and evidence-based ideas from the education field, and best practices from within our network of schools, are shared in active learning sessions. The conference offered 350 sessions that covered technology, specific subject areas, improvement science, project design and school leadership. The conference goal is for school and district leaders along with classroom educators to integrate new strategies for in the coming year.
In the July conference, we invited all schools in the network to join us in a year-long learning journey focused on ways to integrate “personalized learning” within their Project Based Learning (PBL) schools. We encouraged teachers across the network to incorporate the principles of personalized learning across New Tech’s four school design pillars:
- engaging and authentic Project Based Learning
- empowering school culture
- enabling use of technology
- focus on student outcomes
The learning theme, “Making it Personal; Connecting the School to the Student,” also surfaced the critical need to provide the adults in schools time to personalize their own learning together. As we’ve come to expect given the diversity of schools within New Tech Network, teams took quite different approaches. Many schools opened the floor to allow each educator to share out what they had learned from the sessions they had attended. Others employed specific protocols learned from New Tech coaches to facilitate sharing ideas and sorting them into categories for potential application.
The staff from Bulldog Tech, a middle school located in San Jose, CA, wanted to network with other schools from the Evergreen School District, participate in critical friends protocols and attend collaborative leadership sessions. Bulldog Tech Director Randy Hollenkamp said, “The time to meet with staff from other schools from our district was invaluable in providing context and support that we can re-visit during the school year.”
A large contingent of participants from Australia used the time to connect in regional and country-wide collaborative conversations. Long-time NTN champion and school-change advocate, Ted Fujimoto, remarked that “every space was being used for work,” after seeing schools work to extend their conversations and meetings throughout the week in hallways, outside the hotel and in all available rooms.
If transformative work is similar to a tending to a fire, these new ideas provided the fuel and spark, while the designated work time provided the oxygen needed to grow and spread. NTAC’s keynote speaker, Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart, commented that he “didn’t know of any other education conference that focuses and succeeds at creating team work time, stimulated and supported by the conference sessions. Through intentional design, New Tech made the conference personal while also strengthening the participating teams.”
We think about education innovation being a like a marathon race, but without a finish line, because great school teams thrive on continuous learning. Improvement driven by cycles of inquiry (see our Learning Organization Framework) are a cornerstone of New Tech schools. As organizers and facilitators of adult learning (with large and small groups) we have learned that you don’t need to have all the answers to produce powerful insights that lead to actionable plans. Allowing new and promising ideas to come forward, then creating the space for members of your learning community to pause, reflect, and react will ultimately lead to strong outcomes. This is proving to be a good formula for fostering innovation.