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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

Teachers at the Wheel

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New modes of professional learning put educators in the driver's seat.

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In 2012, when English teacher Andrew Thomasson became curious about flipped learning, no one at his North Carolina high school shared his interest. A handful of YouTube videos and blog posts whetted his appetite, but where to go next? His district offered no workshops on flipped learning, and the first book on the topic had yet to be published.
So Thomasson turned to Twitter, where he met Cheryl Morris, a California English teacher also interested in flipping. Together Thomasson and Morris began a rich collaboration that has included regular video conferences and the cocreation of curriculum materials, conference presentations, and a weekly #flipclass Twitter chat that they moderate for educators.
Similar stories of teachers taking charge of their professional growth are becoming increasingly common. Such self-directed learning contrasts with traditional professional development (PD), which has often been something done to teachers. In conventional PD, outside experts typically transmit knowledge to largely passive teacher audiences.
With self-guided modes, teachers take an active role in their learning. These methods recognize that teachers can develop practice-based expertise and play leadership roles as they advance their profession. Such approaches are based on principles of adult learning and assume that teachers
  • must be involved in their learning process;
  • need to consider a myriad of factors related to classroom and community context;
  • can use prior classroom experiences as potential resources for learning;
  • seek learning that helps them solve immediate problems.
Teacher-powered professional development takes many forms and has existed for decades. For example, the National Writing Project, Lesson Study, and Critical Friends Groups have for years engaged teachers as leaders and agents of reform. Until recently, however, relatively few teachers had access to such programs. Now, technology has made self-directed learning more widely available.

Powerful Learning Spaces

When people think of social media, they don't typically first associate it with professional learning. But many educators have realized that these media do not just meet the needs of students, celebrities, and brands. Social media facilitates participation, challenges hierarchies, and helps build professional networks that support teacher collaboration and autonomy. My research with colleague Dan Krutka suggests that social media provides opportunities to share classroom-tested resources and connect with new colleagues in other locations (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014a).
Take Twitter, for instance. Many teachers participate in some of the more than 200 weekly Twitter chats that allow educators to discuss topics of shared interest (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014b). Teachers report that they view Twitter as a space of professional invigoration, where their ideas matter and their voices are heard (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014a).
Twitter is far from the only source of online professional learning. Some teachers who sign up for services such as Pinterest or Instagram for nonprofessional reasons eventually recognize their usefulness for curating teaching resources. In Edmodo's online communities, hundreds of thousands of educators seek out and share ideas, resources, and feedback.
The messaging app Voxer is gaining traction among teachers as a way to have small-group voice and text discussions that are more private than Twitter chats. Voxer's voice memo feature can create a more personal feel and allows for teachers to deepen professional relationships with both far-flung and local colleagues. For instance, Massachusetts teacher Mary Lou Buell has found Voxer to be effective for extending conversations begun in Twitter chats. She also uses it to coordinate book studies with teachers at her school who don't have regular opportunities to meet in person.

Edcamps: The Unconference Model

As more teachers connect online, it's perhaps no coincidence that educators have also found a new, informal way to interact face-to-face. Edcamps are free, one-day events that avoid traditional conference structures like predetermined agendas. Instead, participants define a slate of breakout session topics the morning of the event. Because of the significant overlap between teachers who attend Edcamps and those who use social media, word of these unconferences has quickly spread since the first event in 2010 (Swanson, 2014). As of January 2016, educators had attended more than 925 Edcamps worldwide. Widespread use of social media at Edcamps, including broadcasted sessions using the video streaming app Periscope, has meant that the reach of Edcamps extends beyond those in physical attendance at the events.
I conducted research on one Edcamp, which captured quite positive participant perceptions. On a 5-point scale, 85 percent of respondents rated their experience as a 4 or 5, and 91 percent indicated intentions to attend future Edcamps (Carpenter, 2015). Participants' narrative comments were also enthusiastic. For example, one teacher described the Edcamp as "one of the best and most personally relevant professional development experiences." I have found similarly positive ratings in a larger data set from multiple Edcamps that I collected for a forthcoming study (Carpenter & Linton, in press).

The Benefits

Although social media and Edcamps are not the only forms of self-directed professional development, they illustrate many of the benefits such approaches offer.

Personalized and On-Demand

Traditional PD tends to follow a one-size-fits-all approach. When teachers direct their own PD, they seek out learning tailored to their specific needs, rather than being limited to what their district thinks will benefit the majority of teachers (Ferriter & Provenzano, 2013). Given the ubiquitous nature of social media, PD is at teachers' fingertips at almost all times. Educators can scratch a professional itch when it arises, instead of having to wait months for a conference.

Educators as Motivated Learners

Teachers are energized as learners when they're given opportunities to direct their own professional growth. In my Edcamp research, numerous participants praised the mood or emotional environment of the event, describing the "passion," "enthusiasm," and "excitement" they witnessed (Carpenter, 2015). One teacher wrote, "Participant engagement goes beyond anything seen at more traditional conferences" (p. 89).

Expanded Pool of Potential Colleagues

An irony of the working lives of educators is that although they spend much of the school day surrounded by other people, they often work in isolation. Social media has knocked down some of the walls. Teachers are no longer limited to interacting with the small pool of colleagues in their school or district. Indeed, a recent survey of 20,000 U.S. teachers found that 57 percent of respondents used technology to connect with educators with whom they wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to collaborate (Scholastic, 2014).
Such interactions provide multiple benefits. Teachers can find peers who disrupt the siloed thinking of their particular context, expediting the spread of innovative practices. In both my Edcamp and social media research, participants have regularly praised the perspectives they gain in these spaces. For increasing numbers of educators, professional learning networks—built through formal programs in their districts and informal collaborations online—have become an irreplaceable part of their working lives and professional growth. They find it just as natural to talk shop with colleagues across the globe as they do with teachers down the hall.

Increased Leadership Opportunities

Self-directed professional development is teacher-powered—and can also be teacher empowering. Although formal teacher leadership roles are limited in schools, leadership opportunities abound online and at Edcamps. Teacher-powered PD taps into new, rich veins of leadership and gives teachers a platform to make their voices heard.
Great teachers who, in the past, might have had a primarily local impact now have a chance to leave their mark on their profession. In fact, some teachers who actively use Twitter have thousands of followers. Consider Wisconsin middle school English language arts educator Pernille Ripp. In 2010, as a third-year teacher, she was inspired by a story she heard about a virtual book club. She wrote a blog post suggesting that classrooms across the globe read and discuss a common book. The first Global Read Aloud was born. It began with only 150 students, but thanks to the power of social media, just five years later more than one million students from 60 countries have participated (Ripp, n.d.). Before the rise of social media, it's hard to imagine that an early-career teacher's good idea could spread so quickly and become such a successful project.

The Challenges

The potential benefits of teacher-powered professional learning are enticing, but there are obstacles, too.

Starting Out

For the uninitiated, the world of Edcamps and social media can be baffling. Educators must learn new jargon and embrace new technologies. Questions naturally arise: After I sign up for a Twitter account, how do I find other tweeting educators? If an Edcamp's topics are decided the morning of the event, how do I know any of them will interest me?
Fortunately, there are multiple entry points to teacher-powered PD. Is Twitter too overwhelming? See whether the threaded conversations in Edmodo communities are more manageable. Is the technology daunting? Attend a face-to-face Edcamp where you'll likely to find a session or social media enthusiast to help you start out. Because of the voluntary nature of these learning spaces, many participants are welcoming and willing to help.

Vet Your Own Content

The social media landscape has few gatekeepers, and the costs of participation are low. Such openness encourages teachers to share their experiences, but it also means that anyone—regardless of qualification or motive—can spread ideas about teaching and learning. This reality requires educators to be both thoughtful producers and consumers. Teachers need to be mindful of the claims they make online. They also need to keep an eye out for others peddling vague generalizations or education fads, such as those that extol educational technologies that may or may not be useful in their own teaching practice.

Ideological Silos

Some critics say that Edcamps and social media allow teachers to surround themselves with people and ideas that reinforce their existing beliefs. Although these new forms of PD can, in theory, expose educators to diverse perspectives, some educators may use these spaces to seek out only like-minded peers. Traditional geographical silos that have limited teachers' access to new ideas can be easily replaced by ideological ones.
For instance, some teachers establish narrow Twitter networks that lack the variety of educators necessary to experience powerful moments of cognitive dissonance. Given the diverse populations and needs of our schools, educators should be conscious of their professional learning network's composition and ensure that their self-directed learning exposes them to perspectives that challenge their thinking.

Difficult Conversations

New avenues of professional development mitigate some challenges to collaboration, but they don't address them all. When differing opinions or challenging topics arise, online communities offer a unique "out." Teachers can simply disengage by unfriending or unfollowing a virtual colleague—rather than pushing through difficult conversations that could lead to growth. For collaboration to be healthy, here's a rule of thumb: Listen and read at least as much as you speak and post.
When users are willing to work through impasses, they can arrive at beneficial discussions about challenging topics. In the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina, educators used the hashtags #fergusonsyllabus and #charlestonsyllabus to share ideas about how they could help students process and respond to the news. The #fergusonsyllabus hashtag even resulted in the organic, collaborative creation of a widely shared Google doc, which includes crowdsourced teaching materials.

Misalignment with School and District Goals

Past research has emphasized that professional development should be coherent with ongoing school initiatives and mandates (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001). It's reasonable to question whether self-directed PD features such coherence. With Edcamps and social media, teachers can get frustrating glimpses of innovative practices that they are unable to implement in their own schools. Similarly, school leaders may be concerned that teacher-powered PD doesn't match district priorities. What will happen if teachers spend their professional learning energy on practices that don't align with district goals?
Yes, new approaches to PD expose teachers to ideas and practices that don't exist within their school or district. But that's the point. Teachers can still grow professionally even if they cannot immediately implement everything they learn in the context of their current work. In my research, issues of coherence and alignment have not proven to be of particular concern to participants. It may be that the teachers in these spaces have found it possible to balance their individual interests with their schools' goals.

Elevating the Profession

Teachers should be among the most highly motivated professional learners. Instead, professional development has often elicited significant cynicism and even bitterness. For too long, U.S. teachers have lacked access to PD that engages them in learning and allows them to share their expertise. Clearly, we need to explore new models. Research on social media and Edcamps suggests potential benefits and indicates teachers' interest in collaborative and participatory PD. In an era of intense demands on educators, it's worth noting that teachers are willing to give up their personal time to participate in this unremunerated professional learning.
Whether a larger number of teachers engage in teacher-powered PD may depend on administrators. Principals, superintendents, and policymakers could view grassroots approaches to professional learning as threatening. But districts should understand that new forms of PD are not inevitably contrary to their agendas. An increase in self-directed professional learning does not mean that all traditional PD will disappear. The unconference probably will not kill the conference. As Kristen Swanson, coleader of the first Edcamp, has suggested, self-directed PD will likely become "one component of a balanced professional learning diet" (2014, p. 40). Teachers who participate in Edcamps and social media are often invigorated by such experiences and ultimately seek out even more professional learning.
Administrators should consider how they can encourage and harness self-directed learning among their faculty, without introducing so many constraints that the experiences are no longer teacher-owned. For instance, some district policies dictate what counts for continuing education credit. More inclusive definitions should encompass informal, teacher-driven efforts. If education leaders embrace and support teacher-powered PD, teachers will have more opportunities not only to be active in their professional development, but also to shape the development of their profession.

Carpenter, J. P. (2015). Unconference professional development: Edcamp participant perceptions and motivations for attendance. Professional Development in Education, 42(1), 78–99.

Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2014a). How and why educators use Twitter: A survey of the field. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 46(4), 414–434.

Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2014b). Chat it up: Everything you wanted to know about Twitter chats but were afraid to ask. Learning and Leading with Technology, 41(5), 10–15.

Carpenter, J. P., & Linton, J. N. (in press). Edcamp unconferences: Educators' perspectives on an untraditional professional learning experience. Teaching and Teacher Education. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2016.03.004

Ferriter, W. M., & Provenzano, N. (2013). Self-directed learning … for teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(3), 16–21.

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915–945.

Ripp, P. (n.d.). About the GRA. Retrieved from

Scholastic (2014). Primary sources: America's teachers on teaching in an era of change (3rd ed.). Retrieved from

Swanson, K. (2014). Edcamp: Teachers take back professional development. Educational Leadership, 71(8), 36–40.

Jeffrey P. Carpenter is a professor of education at Elon University and director of the Elon Teaching Fellows Program. He was a high school English and ESOL teacher for 10 years in various countries before moving into teacher education.

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