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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue D ::: June 2002

PDK Couples Web Resources with Peer Interaction

Teacher Shelly Ratelle found it enlightening to be the learner in a learner-centered approach to professional development

by Shelly Ratelle
I teach adult basic education (ABE) and General Educational Development (GED) subjects and employability skills to youth and to women who are recipients of temporary aid to needy families (TANF; formerly AFDC) for EASTCONN, a Regional Education Service Center in Connecticut. Always looking for new ideas, I recently participated in training on how to use the Professional Development Kit (PDK) developed by the National Center of Adult Literacy (NCAL). 

The creators describe it as follows: "The Professional Development Kit: Multimedia Resources for Adult Educators is a teacher-centered system that provides systematic and sustainable professional development opportunities to adult educators." PDK is indeed a comprehensive tool kit for teachers who are developing lessons. It includes a model for writing effective lesson plans, a large database of articles and Web sites for educators doing research, and a place to record your outcomes (i.e., lesson plans) and thoughts (similar to an online journal). Two other components particularly stood out for me: the engaged learning environment, and peer collaboration, including a customizable Web-based forum in which to converse with other teachers about my work.

Engaged Learning 

Engaged learning is an eightfold way of describing one kind of learning environment (see Indicators of Engaged Adult Learning for details.) In this environment, the learners are responsible for and the driving force behind the learning. They work in flexible groups. Under the direction of a teacher, who acts as facilitator, guide, or sometimes co-learner, they move through authentic tasks to produce useful products, which then serve as opportunities for assessment. For example, students studying writing may research a specific community and put together a guide that will be given to newcomers by realtors. The teacher may serve as a link to resources or make suggestions that would fill in gaps, but the students themselves propel the project. The assessment comes from two authentic sources: realtors' agreement to use the product; and community comments concerning accuracy and ease of use that are fed back through the realtors, who agree to compile comments in return for free use of the guide.

Peer collaboration, which is the other piece of PDK that struck me as particularly useful, takes many forms. Teachers are taught to support each other by asking questions about goals, learners, skills, time frames, and other specific factors. This practice aids teachers who are creating lesson plans to produce good-quality, relevant products. Peers are recognized as resources. This turned out to be important to me in transferring the content of the PDK workshops to my job, because I have many peers at work, but no "workshop presenters" available to remind me what to do. 

I first learned about PDK at a state technology conference. Upon hearing that I had been selected to attend, I was asked to introduce myself to other participants via e-mail. That was the first sign that this training was going to be different. I sat, just like my peers must have, and nervously typed a message introducing myself to 25 people, saying that I looked forward to working with them. We would meet for two days, work back in our programs for three weeks, and reconvene for a one-day follow-up session. We were required to attend the training and produce one lesson plan that integrated technology with any subject matter of our choosing. In the spirit of engaged learning, we were not given the definition of technology, but were encouraged to explore what that term meant to us. Each of us created our own definition that we then used in our lessons. I prefer a definition that includes calculators, copy machines, video, and audio, along with computers.

Although apprehensive about what was to come, I nonetheless expected what I had usually experienced in workshops: lecture-style delivery, little hands-on work, and even less transfer to my job. I attend as much training as I can, but often I have to work hard to pay attention to lectures. I prefer to learn kinesthetically or through discussion. Kelly Limeul (PDK project manager, NCAL) and Jennifer Elmore (instructional design consultant) were the two facilitators. Acting in the Guide or Facilitator role as described in the engaged learning table, they did no lecturing. They are very knowledgeable about technology and the PDK model itself; they encouraged participants to help each other, getting us to utilize and support our peers and to think for ourselves. To best enable the PDK participants to support each other, we worked from a common model when writing our lesson plans. Kelly and Jennifer brought with them a generic lesson plan model, which you could find in any teacher resource book, and offered it as a basis for discussion. As a group we modified it slightly, making only minor changes, but yet making it ours. The resource database section of PDK provides articles about adult learners and was available as a reference while planning, but Kelly and Jennifer spent our face-to-face time asking guiding questions that helped us to evaluate our own work. Later, we used the same questioning technique to evaluate our peers' work. This experience with learner-directed, goal-driven learning helped us understand and include engaged learning concepts in the plans we wrote. It was enlightening to be on the learner end in an engaged learning environment.

Peer Groups 

The 25 or so participants would be forming smaller groups ourselves. We could choose our peer groups by geography (some participants came with several others from their work place), by subject taught, or any other method. About midway through the second day, after hearing all 25 people talk about engaged learning and the kinds of lessons they might do, we chose and met with our smaller peer groups. (See Collaborative Vision of Learning and Flexible Grouping indicators in the table.) I had two criteria when selecting peers: I made sure they taught a subject that was related to mine; and I looked for people who were already using a project-based or nontraditional, engaged learning environment similar to mine. This brief meeting set the stage for what would come during our homework time.

In addition to modifying the lesson plan model, exploring engaged learning, and forming peer groups during our face-to-face time, we also learned how to post our drafted lesson plans, questions, ideas, and comments on peers' work to the PDK Discussion Board. Over the next three weeks, as we wrote our lesson plans, we would use the Discussion Board (a password-protected area of the PDK online resource) to communicate with our peer groups and with Kelly and Jennifer, who asked and answered questions. Everyone who visited the board could read all messages and reply to any of them. (See Learning Context and Instructor Role as Facilitator in the table.).

We also supported each other during this homework period through peer group conference calls. Each of the approximately six peer groups made one call, and Kelly and Jennifer were included in all of them. During both the online discussions and the phone call, we used the questioning technique previously modeled by Jennifer and Kelly to help our peers evaluate their own work. We asked questions such as "Do you think your students would be able to read that?" or "What is the role of the learner in that situation?" We also did lots of encouraging.

The first task for the homework period was for each participant to complete one lesson plan. The second task was for each peer group to plan a short presentation featuring highlights of our lesson plans or what we learned from the PDK process, to be given on our final face-to-face day. I am not normally a "skit" person, but I was inspired to write one. My teammate was a great sport and acted with me. The final meeting was like a reunion, and the presentations allowed us to celebrate the accomplishments of the people with whom we had worked over the previous several weeks.


The teachers with whom I worked in PDK were supportive, interested, and hard working. This training model allowed me to appreciate what my co-workers and others in the field know and are doing. I produced a good lesson plan for PDK, partly because of the encouragement and feedback that I got from my peers: an extremely valuable resource.

Since returning to my own program, I have tried to use the discussion board format to encourage Connecticut adult educators to exchange ideas and support each other. The small number of postings there (most of them are mine) suggests that the initial bonding is extremely important in getting users to feel ties strong enough to span the seemingly impersonal medium of the Internet.

After attending PDK, I have been even more inclined to apply engaged learning concepts to my classroom, especially through the specific application of project-based learning. Recently a student expressed discomfort when I asked my class to edit each other's writing. I asked if she would be more comfortable asking questions instead of pointing out mistakes, a technique that comes directly from PDK. Instead of telling her peer that her writing had no introduction, I encouraged her to ask, "Can you show me your introduction?" This enabled the author to realize her piece lacked an introduction, and the editor - the uncomfortable student - did not have to feel pushy or critical. My PDK experience will remind me to use my peers as an important resource in my work, as I guide students to use theirs in the same way. Meanwhile, I'm glad I got the opportunity to experience PDK.

PDK is available online at 

About the Author 

Shelly Ratelle started in adult education as a volunteer math teacher in a multilevel class. She later earned her master's in Adult Education from East Carolina University (NC). She has taught ABE and GED preparation to a variety of populations in North Carolina and Connecticut.


Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL