What distinguishes National Geographic Education as a leader in professional development?
We had a chance to ask educators at the National Geographic Education Summit, and their answers were both powerful and unpredictable. Participating in our roundtable were:
- Leon Tynes. Tynes teaches and serves as the technology department head at the Engineering and Science University Magnet School in West Haven, Connecticut. His students are empowered to find their voice through the storytelling and technology of filmmaking. Tynes is a 2016 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow.
- Peg Keiner. Keiner is the director of innovation at GEMS World Academy Chicago. She stresses the importance of students finding their own “explorer identity” by identifying with actual explorers, often through National Geographic’s Explorer Classroom program. Keiner is a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow.
- Jim Bentley is an educational consultant and teacher in Elk Grove, California. He engages his students in project-based learning involving stakeholders, policymakers, and the public. Bentley is a 2018 National Geographic Education Fellow.
- Sharee Barton is a teacher of gifted and talented students in Rexburg, Idaho. Her students understand that local actions have global impact; they helped tackle the plastics crisis with a “skip the bag, save the sea” campaign. Barton attended the 2017 National Geographic Summer Institute.
All four educators repeatedly cited three elements that—intentionally and unintentionally—define National Geographic Education: support, a smart and strong iterative process, and consistently relevant resources.
Leon Tynes identifies National Geographic’s network of educators as a “community without borders.”
The network is defined by support from other educators—in the form of digital communities, in-person workshops and conferences, and even chats over Skype or Google Hangouts.
Peg Keiner describes National Geographic’s educator support as encouragement from individual staff members (she specifically mentions senior manager and former blogger Meghan Modafferi), as well as “their investment in resources and people. It’s a commitment we’re not receiving from other places.”
Tynes explains that in too many professional development environments, teachers are restricted from participating as equal partners with administrators, local officials, or instructional strategists. As a result, “some of the best teachers aren’t teaching”—they’re working in the corporate or nonprofit educational spheres.
Jim Bentley echoes this, adding “stepping out of the classroom is not stepping up in the world … I always marvel when I hear ‘Hey, you were promoted to principal.’ Promoted? Really? I just got further away from kids, how is that better?”
The comment earns knowing nods, and prompts Keiner to recognize educators as “gatekeepers of creativity” and National Geographic’s commitment to “amplifying teacher voices.”
The focus on supporting educators also encourages students: Sharee Barton notes that such an atmosphere “allows the students to step up and be professional, and I feel like I’m racing to keep up with them … It just raises the level of experience for everyone.”
The Geo-Inquiry Process
The backbone of National Geographic’s body of work is the Geo-Inquiry Process, designed to teach the skills necessary to think and reason geographically.
The five-step structure of the Geo-Inquiry Process means continual iteration of questions and analyses, as well as unpredictable, unmoderated patterns of growth for student projects.
Tynes notes that “this thing is a work in progress.” Depending on the project and available data, “You might be at step three and you may circle step three for three months because the problems are unique.”
Keiner says iteration forces educators and students to “think about different entry points” in the process. Students “need to know all the steps along the way, all the people [explorers] had to speak to and get permission from to explore in that place. I think the steps in that process, those communications skills, all the Geo-Inquiry steps of collecting and figuring out who you want to talk to—those are often the pieces that are missing.”
“You used the term ‘soft skill’,” says Bentley, who also consults at the Buck Institute for Education, a leader in project-based learning. “[At the Buck Institute], we call them ‘success skills.’”
Another product of the iterative process is the permission to fail. “It’s not about what’s wrong, if there’s a failure,” says Bentley. “It’s about what’s missing. And it’s not about improving, which implies a deficit, it’s about growing.”
Barton enthusiastically agrees. Educators, she says, need to model that, in learning, “you don’t have this nice, neat little path. You go down a path and there’s a roadblock and then you go down another path and there’s another roadblock. You have to have joy in that journey. With that joy in the journey you can crawl over the hurdles and get around them.”
All four educators appreciated the structured rubric of the Geo-Inquiry Process.
“It validates what we have been doing in our classrooms and given us more tools to do it better,” says Barton.
The structure helped Tynes to better explain to administrators, board members, parents, and even other teachers the innovative pedagogies he was using.
“It’s just that validation that you can take to another teacher or an administrator and say, ‘No, I’m not winging this.’ It may look like it because every project is different,” but there is a framework.
Finally, educators point to the cutting-edge research that has helped define National Geographic for more than 130 years.
When Tynes was preparing academic resources prior to his journey to the Galapagos as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, for instance, he was impressed that National Geographic “was within the current year. Everything we found on Nat Geo’s website was in the current year, which was not the case with other resources. The … curation is on point, 150%.”
Bentley adds that he does curation of his own: National Geographic Education’s Resource Library allows educators to “shop” for free or at-cost individual resources.
“Kids don’t want or deserve and off-the-rack education,” he says. “They want something tailored.”
National Geographic resources, as well as the Geo-Inquiry Process, teach students how to think, says Barton.
“And we, the teachers, need to learn right alongside them,” says Bentley.