When everything suddenly changes, where do we go to learn?

David Schouweiler

When everything suddenly changes, where do we go to learn?

This question drives both my research and my practice as a Science teacher.  I began my career as a high school Chemistry teacher with few resources and little professional support from my school -- I was simply given a laptop, a set of classroom keys, and a warm smile that communicated the utmost confidence in my abilities.  This was particularly problematic given that my undergraduate major was in Biology.  As the sole high school Chemistry teacher in a small school district, I had no one I could turn to for support with teaching my newfound subject area.  The other Science teachers in my department were phenomenally supportive in helping me navigate the school and the community, and they provided me with plenty of advice, moral support, and sounding board sessions.  However, it was up to me to develop my curriculum and to learn the ins and outs of teaching my content to my students.

In those years of developing my practice, I turned to the same place where I had learned to play guitar, pay my taxes, and make repairs when my dad accidentally backed into my car.  I turned to the internet.  Through Google, I quickly found blogs posted by other teachers of my content detailing ideas they had tried as well as what had and had not worked.  I found instructional videos and texts about Chemistry that I used to refresh my content knowledge.  I found tech tools like simulators that enabled me to teach my content in creative and engaging ways.  Best of all, I found communities of teachers through Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook where I gained the ability to dialogue with other Chemistry teachers.  My thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and there seemed to be no bottom to the well of online knowledge.  I blossomed quickly in my professional practice thanks to the resources that others had taken the time to share online.

From this experience, I developed a curiosity about how other teachers furthered their professional practice through online searches for resources like digital tools, pedagogical inspiration, or a deeper understanding of science content.  As a teacher in a small district, I received plenty of moral support but little professional support for teaching my content; it was up to me to independently learn how to do my job to the best of my ability.  From my experience, I began wondering: what does online independent learning look like for other teachers?  While I found success in my independent learning, how many other teachers are not able to find the same results due to barriers to this work like lack of access, time, or freedom to make instructional decisions?  It then brought me to the question: how can teachers be supported in their ongoing mission to independently develop their professional practice?  These questions led me to my dissertation topic through which I seek to learn more about this phenomenon and find ways to support teachers in this work.

Fast forward about eight years -- I am now a doctoral student working on my dissertation while still working full time as a high school science teacher.  This past year, the whole world of education moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Having already developed my own ever-evolving system for finding new ways to research, communicate, connect, and teach, I knew where to turn to quickly adapt to the paradigm shift.  The relative success that I experienced as a teacher during the pandemic solidified in my mind the importance of my research.  How many teachers did not have this foundation of go-to online resources for professional learning from which they could build?  If online independent learning can help teachers adapt to new teaching paradigms, how can we build pathways to support teachers’ learning -- both as ongoing praxis and in response to the next local or global paradigm shift?  Thinking about these questions drives me to develop my praxis so that I can help others learn to seek resources and find success even when everything suddenly changes.


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