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Creating an Alternative Context for Teacher Development

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Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Research
Report Number 17

Creating an Alternative Context for Teacher Development: ACOT's Two-Year Pilot Project


Keith Yocam
Apple Computer, Inc.

Faye Wilmore
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

Apple Computer, Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014


New concepts of professional development are required to alter the beliefs and routines of American teachers. One such concept, that staff development can have greater impact when it is situated in the context of practice, has been developed by Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT), a research and development collaboration among public schools, universities, research agencies, and Apple Computer, Inc. In 1989, ACOT helped to create and pilot the Nashville ACOT Teacher Development Center. The center's program started participating teachers along an instructional development path described in ACOT's research on the evolution of teachers' beliefs and practices. During its second year, the program was evaluated with pre-and postparticipation measures that showed statistically significant findings about the relationships between certain attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of participating teachers and the successful integration of technology into the curriculum. During the third year of the pilot, two other ACOT sites joined with Nashville to design a teacher development project that expands on this work. The National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with ACOT and the participating school districts, funded the ACOT Teacher Development Centers project. It began operation at three sites in September 1992.


Traditional approaches to teacher development are structured activities and programs that uphold the status quo rather than change it (Lieberman & Miller, 1992). Typically, teacher in-service is removed from classroom practice and, more often than not, occurs as an activity or lecture following a full day of work. Teachers rarely, if at all, have opportunities to be active participants in constructing their own knowledge or to learn in environments where they can observe and experiment with new roles for teachers or new models of instruction. More often, the process of providing teachers with knowledge about new and changing pedagogy is a passive activity in which information is transferred to them. This model of staff development, similar to the one most teachers use to instruct their students, has little impact on teacher practice.

Early in the life of the ACOT project, it became evident that the addition of technology to classrooms significantly increased the potential for systemic change. To convert that potential into new opportunities and outcomes for students required the development and implementation of new approaches to teacher training. The ACOT staff tried various teacher development approaches: workshops on technology, instruction, and assessment; summer institutes; support for conference attendance and presentations; opportunities for observations and group discussions; support for action-oriented research projects; ongoing technical support; and a telecommunications network that allowed interaction across sites and with the ACOT project staff. Over the years, the staff found that the approaches that had the most impact did the following:

  • Involved small-group collaborations between teachers

  • Took place in working classrooms

  • Built on teachers' existing knowledge about curriculum and practice

  • Provided opportunities to experiment and reflect on new experiences

  • Provided ongoing support to help implement change and innovation

The staff development program that has evolved from these principles has carried teachers beyond the barriers of their beliefs to new conceptions about the constructivist nature of learning, the facilitative role of teachers, and the empowering influence of authentic forms of assessment.

The Need for a Training Program

Over the years, visitors to the ACOT classrooms--most of whom were educators--remarked on the differences they observed between traditional teacher roles and instruction and what they saw in the ACOT classrooms. Visitors often asked the ACOT teachers how they had learned these instructional techniques, and the teachers described the kinds of experiences and support from which they had benefited. Many visitors, missing the point that the ACOT teachers were active participants in constructing their professional growth experiences, requested some type of "recipe" for teacher training that could be delivered to their own districts.

Motivated by the continued requests for training, the ACOT coordinator at the Nashville site began thinking about how she, ACOT teachers, and ACOT staff from Apple's corporate headquarters could share their insights and experiences with other educators. This paper describes the creation of a professional development program that focuses on providing teachers with in-service opportunities to learn about integrating technology within the context of classroom practice.

A New Vision of Staff Development

In order to alter the beliefs and routines of American teachers, new concepts of professional development are required, ones that go beyond the "traditional" models of teacher training so frequently used. We believe, as does the Holmes Group (1990), that staff development must be situated in the context of practice. That is, participants should be introduced to instructional strategies in the setting of real classrooms and have the opportunity to observe those practices employed in the routine of actual school days. Unlike typical after-school programs, this model of staff development allows participants to see expert teachers modeling instructional practices as they work with students, and it provides them with a framework in which they can examine the results of these practices on student work and interactions.

In addition to situated learning, participants need time to reflect on what they observe in classrooms and to discuss the instructional and learning principles at work. They also need supervised practice. During the school year, participants should be observed by a mentor as they teach practice lessons in their regular classrooms, and they should have time to reflect about each practice session. Finally, after receiving technology training and working in technology-rich environments, participants must have access to a computer, printer, and software to assist them as they learn to appropriate the technology in their regular classrooms. (By "appropriate," we mean understand it well enough to use it naturally to accomplish real work.)

The Creation of the Nashville ACOT
Teacher Development Center

The ACOT project in Nashville began in the summer of 1986 with a fourth-grade class at the Dodson Elementary School. Working in a technology-rich classroom, two Nashville teachers, with the assistance of the ACOT staff at Apple, began to build a program that could individualize student instruction and meet district and state curricular goals through the use of technology. In subsequent years, a third-grade class and a special education class were added.

Hundreds of educators visited the project during its first three years, many of whom wanted to learn how to incorporate technology effectively into their curriculum. Looking at the project's successes, the ACOT coordinator began working with her colleagues to identify what could be shared. She wanted to provide the kinds of support to other teachers within the Nashville School System that she had received from ACOT's staff at Apple, so that they, too, could build their own knowledge about learning and technology. She also believed that the district could benefit if the Nashville ACOT staff and teachers encouraged others to participate actively in the restructuring of their
own schools.

With the support of district administrators, the coordinator began collaborating with ACOT staff at Apple to design a pilot program of teacher development that would be influenced by ACOT's research on the evolution of teachers' beliefs and practices (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholtz, 1990) and by current theories of staff development (Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986). The program, to be held at the Nashville ACOT site, would be called the ACOT Teacher Development Center. Its initial goals were to provide teachers with the following opportunities:

  • To develop as learners and leaders in the field of technology

  • To learn about technology in a way that goes beyond traditional teacher training experiences

  • To be actively involved in the restructuring of their schools

Overcoming Barriers

A major barrier to the creation of the program was a decline in funding for education in the Nashville school system. This had a ripple effect, creating several specific barriers that had to be overcome.

Funding teacher release time. There were no funds available to pay for teachers' release time to attend the ACOT Teacher Development Center. To overcome this barrier, the coordinator suggested that teachers be allowed to use three of their five discretionary teacher development days. Getting approval for this was considered a "real breakthrough" because teachers had not previously been permitted to use discretionary release days to visit other schools.

Obtaining technology. Only a few of the schools sending teachers to the ACOT Teacher Development Center had computers, and there were no funds to obtain more. Because it was important for teachers to have technology available when they returned to their schools, the ACOT project lent computers to the participants. Then, during follow-up visits at each school, the coordinator worked with teachers and staff to develop a schoolwide plan to obtain more equipment.

Obtaining system-wide support. Some administrators were hesitant about using system-wide funding at a site that already had a wealth of resources. To overcome this barrier, the planners created an image of the program as a system-wide resource and designed a program in which teacher teams and principals from all nine districts in the system could participate. Furthermore, they arranged for the coordinator to visit each participating school to provide follow-up support for program participants and to assist with schoolwide technology planning.

Program Organization

The following plan was designed for the ACOT Teacher Development Center:

  • Principals from schools throughout the school system would select two teachers to spend three days at the ACOT site working directly with the ACOT coordinator. These teachers would observe experienced ACOT teachers, have hands-on experiences with technology, review educational software programs, discuss instructional uses of technology, and develop a proposal to involve a computer in the implementation of a project or unit of study.

  • Each two-teacher team would borrow one Apple IIe computer and software to support its proposal. The following year, these computers would be lent to the next team of participating teachers.

  • The ACOT coordinator would provide ongoing follow-up support. This would include visiting the classrooms of participating teachers, meeting with their principals, and holding workshops for the school faculty and parent-teacher organizations.

  • Near the end of school year, all teacher participants would submit written reports on their year's work and make presentations about their projects to their principals, district administrators, and other participants.

  • All principals would submit written reports documenting the implementation of each teacher's proposal and providing plans for the school's future use of technology.

Program Curriculum

The three-day program, though flexible enough to accommodate the different skill levels of the participants, had a specific structure.

Day 1
After providing participants with a brief orientation on the Teacher Development Center and description of the ACOT project, the coordinator prepared them for their first classroom observations. Because the participants begin classroom observations almost immediately, the coordinator referred to that first day as "Shock Day," and she encouraged the observers to pay attention to the following:

  • The roles of ACOT teachers and students, and how they differ from those in traditional classrooms

  • The physical arrangement of the classroom

  • The different kinds of hardware and software in use and available

The observing teachers were also encouraged to talk with the ACOT teachers and students. Assuring participants that "there are no dumb questions," the coordinator told them to ask about anything that interested them. Typically, the uniqueness of the ACOT learning environment evokes questions, so the coordinator urged the observers to seek her out whenever they needed clarification.

At the end of the first day, the teachers met with the coordinator to reflect on what they had observed and to talk about the positive and negative aspects of the program. The time spent reflecting allowed teachers to envision possibilities as well as to identify realistic goals for changes they might make in their own classrooms.

Day 2
The second day was designed to help participants begin to think differently about how teachers and students use technology for learning. In terms of software, the participants learned about the differences between curriculum-delivery (drill and practice) software and productivity (tool) software. The software in ACOT classrooms consists primarily of productivity tools that support knowledge-building activities. The participants also learned about the other software that's available in their district.

The center has an extensive hardware collection. Participating teachers had the opportunity to use equipment they will have in their own classrooms, as well as equipment that they may be able to acquire in the future. Depending on their experience, their willingness to explore, and the hardware available to them in their classrooms, the teachers used this time to advance their existing technological skills or to learn new skills.

Day 3
On the final day of the training, teachers began planning a unit for their own classroom--one that integrated the computer into some aspect of their curriculum. As the coordinator explained, "The teachers don't work on dreams from this point on. They now begin to develop plans to make use of what they have available in their classrooms."

The coordinator's first challenge was to help teachers successfully integrate the technology that was available in their classrooms with their teaching methods. Perhaps more challenging, however, was getting teachers to think about changing their role in the classroom in order to create a more collaborative, active, student-centered environment. The coordinator worked closely with the teachers on their proposed units, helping them to create a realistic plan of action. She also reviewed their three days at the center and encouraged them to continue the learning process by reading relevant educational journals and attending the state's technology conference.

Follow-up Support

To provide follow-up support, the coordinator made classroom visits to all of the teachers who had attended the practicum. Correctly perceiving these visits as opportunities for assistance (rather than as evaluations), the teachers engaged her in discussions about their efforts to use technology and to change their role in the classroom. During her visits, the coordinator also helped teachers to set up hardware and troubleshoot problems with software, discussed the implementation of their projects, and provided answers to technical questions. Perhaps most important, the coordinator provided encouragement. And she demonstrated that participants had support available when they needed it.

The coordinator also met with school principals to discuss technology and instructional goals for the school and to determine what resources were available to support these goals. If the school had a technology committee, the coordinator offered help in building a strategy to meet its goals. The most requested type of support included sharing the results of ACOT research and helping the school develop a plan for technology integration. The coordinator also briefed each principal about the services she had provided to teachers.

During follow-up visits, the coordinator made a point of meeting with all the teachers who had participated in the center's program. She also held in-service sessions for school faculties and made presentations to parent groups. At the end of each academic year, participating teachers made presentations about the program's impact on their teaching to district administrators, school board members, principals, and fellow teachers.

Program Impact

The coordinator observed that teachers who had attended the practicum went back to their schools with specific plans for changing their classrooms. She tells the following story about one teacher's transformation:

During the first day of the practicum, I emphasize one cannot think of technology as something separate from the curriculum. One must bring the technology into the curriculum--into the center of the learning environment and discover the power of the learning and teaching tool. One of the teacher participants had been like a sponge all day, hanging on every word. At the end of the day he stated he was not going home, but would return to school and rearrange his classroom. During the first follow-up visit to the participant's classroom, I discovered he had indeed rearranged his room. The computer and printer had been moved to the center of the room with an extension cord going from the wall outlet, across the ceiling, and down to the computer. Student desks were arranged in a circle around the computer. The powerful learning tool was in the center of the learning environment.

During its second year, the program was evaluated with pre- and post-session measures that showed statistically significant findings about the participants in the
following areas:

  • Increased classroom computer use

  • Increased number of different kinds of software applications employed in classrooms

  • Increased number of different kinds of software applications employed by teachers for personal use

  • Increased sense of professional efficacy

  • Increased sense of personal success

  • Decreased computer anxiety (Marsh & Sherwood, 1991)

The study showed that, of 26 participants, 23 had submitted plans for their continued development in the area of technology use and 22 had developed plans for sharing what they had learned with colleagues at their schools. In addition, their colleagues thought the participants knew more about classroom uses of technology and were more enthusiastic about the place of technology in classrooms (Marsh & Sherwood, 1991). Furthermore, two other ACOT districts elected to adopt this staff development approach for their own use--yet another important validation for the project.

Lessons for Creating Effective Staff Development

Following the second year of the pilot, an advisory group was formed to determine how other teachers could benefit from the ACOT experience, whether they had access to only one computer or to many. The group, which included ACOT teachers, administrators from the districts supporting ACOT projects, and ACOT staff from Apple headquarters, developed a program based on the principles inherent in the ACOT staff development program. From this, they developed a proposal to design and study a year-round in-service model of teacher development that was situated in context of practice. The proposal was funded by the National Science Foundation in partnership with ACOT and the participating school districts. The newly funded ACOT Teacher Development Centers project began in September 1992 at three sites.

The following principles form the basis of the staff development model that was used in the proposal:

  • Situated learning. Participants should be introduced to instructional strategies in the setting of real classrooms and have the opportunity to observe those practices employed in the routine of actual school days. Situated learning allows participants to see teachers modeling instructional practices as they work with students and, most important, to see how the students work and interact.

  • Learning by doing. The instructional program should parallel the instructional strategies that ACOT teachers use with their students. This allows the participating teachers to learn about the constructivist nature of learning by building their own knowledge about the facilitation of interdisciplinary curriculum projects, the effective uses of technology, and the application of alternative methods of assessment.

  • Technology-rich environments. Participating teachers should observe, study, and practice in technology-rich learning environments where instructional strategies are modeled by ACOT teachers and students.

  • Specific plans for change. During the staff development session, participants should adapt what they've learned for their own situations by preparing plans that they will implement in their own classrooms.

  • Peer support and information dissemination. To ensure some level of peer support, as well as to increase the potential for school change, each participating school must commit to sending a team of two to four teachers who will train together and support one another in their own schools (Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1991). To promote diffusion of the project throughout the school, each participating team of teachers and their principal should develop a plan for trainees to share their experiences with other faculty members.

  • Ongoing assistance and time for reflection. Teachers in this program should have ongoing assistance from their trainer (Holmes Group, 1990). During the school year, participants should be observed by the project coordinator as they teach practice lessons in their regular classrooms, and they should be provided with time to reflect about each practice session.

  • Continued access to technology. After receiving technology training and working in technology-rich environments, participants must have access to a computer, printer, and software to assist them as they learn to appropriate the technology in their regular classrooms.

The Nashville program started participants along an instructional development path described in ACOT's research on the evolution of teachers' beliefs and practices (Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1991). Participants began by adopting technology for the delivery of traditional instruction. This approach allowed them to focus on understanding the technology and on building an awareness of constructivist views of learning and instruction. Then, after they had personally appropriated new technological tools and witnessed demonstrations of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, and more open-ended assignments, participants were prepared to implement far more progressive and ambitious activities in their classes. They might have even considered alternative ideas about the nature of assessment. Without the technical, organizational, and social support described, however, teachers rarely use the technology for more than traditional drill and practice. And they may even extinguish spontaneously emerging collaborative and problem-solving behaviors in their students (Sandholtz, Ringstaff & Dwyer, 1991). Further, without systemic support, the work of a few, no matter how committed, has little chance of significantly reforming the process and outcomes of schooling (Phelan, 1989).


Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. (1986). A nation prepared: Teachers for the 21st century. NY, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Dwyer, D., Ringstaff, C. & Sandholtz, J. (1990). Changes in teachers' beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership , 48(8), 45 54.

Holmes Group. (1990). Tomorrow's schools: Principles for the design of professional development schools. East Lansing, MI: The Holmes Group, Inc.

Lieberman, A. & Miller, L. (1992) "Teacher Development in Professional Practice schools." In Marsha Levine (Ed.) Professional practice schools linking teacher education and school reform. NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Marsh, J. & Sherwood, R. (1991). An evaluation of the outreach program of the teacher development center of the Nashville Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University.

Phelan, P. (1989). The addition of computers to a first-grade classroom: A case study of two children. Unpublished manuscript.

Sandholtz, J., Ringstaff, C. & Dwyer, D. (1991). The relationship between technological innovation and collegial interaction. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

See Also