(As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.)

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is the author (with Lani Ritter Hall) of the just-published Solution Tree book The Connected Educator, which offers a new model for 21st century professional development: “connected learning communities.” Sheryl and came to know of each other through the Teacher Leaders Network and our mutual colleague John Norton, an education writer and editor who co-founded TLN and has given both of us helpful editorial feedback over the years. In this interview, she shares some of her own education backstory and her vision of teaching and learning in the Internet Age.

1. Tell us something about your background as a teacher and educator.

I wasn’t one of those kids who always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. In fact, probably the opposite was true. I came from challenging personal circumstances — the sort where schools more often add to the problem than help solve it. I decided to become a teacher, oddly enough, because I was interested in homeschooling my kids and I didn’t want people saying that I wasn’t qualified.

Once I started taking education classes I fell deeply in love with learning, teaching, and the possibility of making the world a better place one kid and classroom at a time. I know that sounds kind of “noble” but I absolutely mean it. I fell in love.

My first teaching job, in the late 1980s, was as a preschool teacher at an independent school in Valdosta, Georgia. I actually bartered my teaching services in exchange for one of my children attending for free. As I walked the halls of Valwood School, I often eyed a row of Apple 2e’s that sat under dust covers, thinking “what a waste of equipment.” At the time I wasn’t much of a technology expert but I’m a quick study! I asked if I could create a technology program at the school and soon found myself their computer resource person, working with both teachers and students on developing digital literacy. When the Internet became more public and pervasive a few years later, I had no doubt that a deep understanding of digital tools and connectivity were going to be essential for any educator who was interested in helping all students reach their full potential as self-directed learners.

Over the next 20 years, in Georgia and later in Virginia Beach VA, I served as a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. I’m now completing my doctorate in Educational Planning, Policy and Leadership at the College of William and Mary.

2. Tell us about your current work.

Sometimes I laugh and say I’ve held so many different positions in education because I can’t keep a job, but the truth is, I’m just keenly interested in learning, no matter where it takes place. The best evidence of that are the two education focused businesses I’ve started.

I’m the owner and founder of 21st Century Collaborative, LLC, a digital learning consulting group, and I travel in the U.S. and abroad to deliver keynotes, lead workshops and support nonprofits in their work to promote 21st century learning. Also, about five years ago, Will Richardson and I co-founded a professional development company called Powerful Learning Practice (PLP). Drawing on a host of brilliant education minds from around the world, we’ve helped schools and districts In the United States, Canada, Norway and Australia re-envision their learning cultures through the use of communities and networks. They meet online and face to face, do lesson plan study and action research — we make virtual classroom visits and help deconstruct ideas in webinars and Ning communities. The 7000 educators we’ve worked with have really changed who I am as a learner and educator. And they’ve given us a lot of insight into teachers’ learning needs today.

I also serve on the Online Communities of Practice technical working group for the US Department of Education and consult for organizations like Success at the Core (supported by philanthropist Paul G. Allen and the Stuart Foundation), and the NMC Horizon Project K-12 advisory board (an international body forecasting edtech trends).

3. And you have a new book just coming out . . .

Yes, in fact I’ve co-authored two books that are getting into distribution channels this month. The first is a collection of essays edited by Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann, What School Leaders Need to Know about Digital Technology and Social Media, that features some of the most visible thinkers around social media in education today. The second book, The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age, shares the theory of professional learning we’ve developed through our work with PLP communities. I say “theory,” but it includes plenty of practical advice for folks who are ready to become 21st century educators. We address four big themes:

  • Being a Learner first, educator second
  • Connected Learning Communities (which we describe as the next generation of professional learning communities)
  • Do It Yourself professional development, and
  • Becoming a connected learner

We argue that the time has come to reject incremental change and to radically alter the outdated learning paradigm that most students still experience it today, so they will be fully prepared for life in the 21st century.  More specifically, The Connected Educator is about the need for teachers in the Digital Age to exploit the transformative potential of emerging technologies on behalf of their students and their own professional growth.

4. Say more about the new model of professional development you’re advocating.

In the professional development model we’ve developed and use in our PLP communities, teachers and school leaders work together in local and global networks, connecting, collaborating and harvesting knowledge they apply in their schools and classrooms.

Through the three “prongs” of Connected Learning Communities, educators have the information, resources, and substantive community interactions they need to develop shared visions, common goals, and beliefs around principled change.

These three components of connected learning include the Personal Learning Network or PLN, which many teachers are now developing through Twitter, blogging, and other forms of social media. PLNs are primarily about gathering and sharing good information and ideas — they’re important but they don’t often “go deep.” The second component is the more familiar locally based professional learning community or team that now exists in many schools and districts .

The third and most “connected” component is achieved through participation in global communities of practice, which could not really exist before the advent of the Internet and high-speed connectivity. These are anytime, anywhere communities composed of educators who are committed for a variety of reasons to work together in deep ways on important matters having to do with the art and science of learning. They brainstorm and talk about creative ways to meet the needs of the 21st century learner with fellow professionals, whose ideas and geography may be very different than their own. Together in diverse spaces, they co-construct strategies that can motivate schools and fellow educators to transform learning environments, thus assuring their own sustainability by becoming highly relevant in students’ lives. They are, to adapt a late 20th century expression, places where educators can think globally, to better act locally.

5. I saw your interview at Education Week about passion-based learning. Tell us more about that.

Our book also advocates for inquiry-driven, passion-based instructional strategies that unleash the artistry of teaching and learning in educators. It’s the kind of teaching that requires educators to think deeply about learning design so that we are constantly leading and encouraging students to become self directed learners.

Let me say this first — I love what technology can do to help educators teach more effectively. But best practice for today’s learner starts with the learning, not the tools with which to learn (e.g. technology and the Internet.) We need to be asking ourselves what we want the students to know and be able to do and then work backwards determining how we recognize when they do indeed know and are able to do. What will students do or create that will prove they have mastered the objectives? And how will we check for understanding along the way?

Once we’ve determined the learning that needs to take place — then we can decide which tool(s) will work best. And this is where technology and the Internet pay off. Students can have real choice in the way they show mastery, which allows them to work through their strengths and not their weaknesses (which has been the case for many students in the late 20th century school model). Using technology allows them to create artifacts while connecting and collaborating with others; it allows students to become producers of knowledge and not consumers only.

Inquiry-driven approaches — project, problem and passion based learning models (PBL) — work best to create self-directed learning environments. And they can align nicely with the Common Core movement that has emerged in the United States. PBL can be a standards-driven approach that guides students in the creation of artifacts and also assures ownership of the content. The big difference in using project and inquiry learning strategies? They shift more control to the student. This can be unnerving for the educator who is used to command and control as a means to classroom management.

The amount of control shifted from teacher to student may vary by age level, and teachers may need to release control gradually as they help students (who often have little experience as active learners) gain the skills and understanding to become self-directing. But it’s through student-directed learning that technology and the Web become powerful tools for helping students find answers, solve problems, and design products as they construct and co-construct knowledge around the core curriculum.

Passion is an important piece of the inquiry-driven approach to learning. Knowing your students’ strengths and weaknesses — their interests and passions — will help you organize your curriculum in ways that motivate even your most challenged learners to achieve more. Want engaged learners who are able to elaborate and recall key objectives and concepts? Then design your lessons around their passions.

6. Where do you imagine your work going over the next 3-5 years? What excites you most about the future of professional learning?

Personally, I see myself becoming even more involved with the shifting of professional learning into connected spaces. The Connected Educator lays out the foundation for shifting PLCs into the next generation of connected learning communities (CLCs). Now there’s lots of work ahead helping schools implement that shift in their local context.

I also see myself writing more. I have a book in my head screaming to be written about passion-based learning and how it can result in deep student thinking and strong cognitive development. This concept can be a hard sell and I need to explicate the why and how in greater depth. I also have a desire to help create and promote more gender diversity in the educational technology space. I’d love to help interested women build their capacity around speaking and writing and then give them opportunities to share what they know with the world.

At Powerful Learning Practice, where I serve as the CEO, we’re in the process of developing a publishing arm to support the work we do. We’ve found that many of the educators who’ve participated in PLP communities have wise and compelling stories to tell about effective teaching and professional growth. We’re publishing some of those stories in our group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution, and also launching Powerful Learning Press to spread the voices of our PLPeeps via print and e-books.

What excites me most about the future of professional learning is the potential to break teachers out of their isolation and strengthen the human network. As we move forward, the collective brain will develop more and more rich collective intelligence. Part of the new challenge will be in determining how to access that intelligence and leverage it to make the world a better place.

Thanks, Sheryl!