Professional development shouldn’t suck

A colleague recently shared an article, A New Era of Learning: Reimagining Conferences for Inspired Teaching. The article by Chris McNutt raises important points about the rapidly diminishing appeal, efficacy, and value of conventional professional development for educators. The article rightfully points out how the word-salad themes of today’s conferences are essentially rebranding of last decade’s themes. This neither represents actual progress nor even getting better at the most basic pedagogical skills. The focus and efforts are misdirected (at best).

“Attending sessions based on new acronyms and educational buzzwords quickly leads to cynicism as it’s something we’ve already seen before.”

(McNutt, 2023)

The tiny, baby-step, incremental nature of what so many conferences gush over, along with their increasingly lavish set decorations, merch, and car show-level hucksterism distract us from the important conversations we need to be having and the work we need to be doing. These events insult the intelligence of the attending educators who know better and do better every day for their students—all without providing any new insights, experience, expertise, or even inspiration.

McNutt’s article is quite clear that the stale, ineffective, and uninspiring nature of professional development is not a rationale for eliminating such events, but for reinventing them. “Our resources could be better spent expanding our professional understanding of related concepts to what we’ve already mastered.”(McNutt, 2023)  We don’t need to eliminate professional learning events or create unconference gripe fests. There is a unsatiated hunger for meaningful professional development that models learning in an uncertain future.

Semiotic Domains

McNutt offers James Paul Gee’s notion of semiotic domains as the cure for what ails educator professional development. Gee defines semiotic domains as “a set of practices that utilize multiple modalities to convey meaning. In other words, a semiotic domain contains multiple signs — such as words, practices, experiences and more — in order to create meaning.” (McNutt, 2023)

Gee is best known for his research showing that thoughtful inclusion of video games in classrooms can be effective teaching and learning tools, He also makes the case that teachers who explore how and why video games are designed might translate that understanding to lesson plan design.

“What’s intriguing about semiotic domains is that by immersing ourselves in a new, related domain, we can gain a better understanding of our current domain. For example, learning about video game design can help teachers to think more critically and creatively when it comes to designing lessons.” (McNutt, 2023)

I don’t believe this goes far enough. 

Although video game design may be more current, fun, or relevant than memorizing Chaucer, learning about video game design pales in comparison to designing one.

Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute for Educators

Every summer, since 2008, (except during our global COVID time-out) educators gather at Constructing Modern Knowledge to put this idea into practice. Educators at Constructing Modern Knowledge make video games and a whole lot more. They use modern computation and fabrication tools at the frontiers of S.T.E.M. in service of those projects while incidentally developing new understanding across a variety of domains. Constructing Modern Knowledge participants make things and make things work. Such efforts are critical forms of knowledge construction.

Case in Point

Pokémon Go, the location based multiplayer mobile video game, was released approximately a week before CMK 2016. The game was an instant smash success and garnered ecstatic press accounts of how this incredible innovation was now available. Seemingly every person on earth was wandering the streets, staring at their phones, playing Pokémon Go. 

Constructing Modern Knowledge begins with a project brainstorming ritual in which participants share any idea they have for what they wish to make. When one educator suggested that they wished to make their own version of Pokémon Go, the voice in my head said, “That’s really hard. Stop them.” My heart and expertise pleaded, “Keep your mouth shut. They may surprise you.” 

Sure enough, another CMK participant introduced TaleBlazer, a block-based programming language like Scratch, that contains a geo-location block. Suddenly the project went from impossible to easy! After creating a game introducing landmarks of Manchester, New Hampshire there was even time left over to create a special CMK edition of the software that introduced every project underway at the institute, based on where each team worked. Approach a project and augmented reality would tell you about the project, who created it, etc. 

Days after a major commercial innovation was released into the world, educators at our summer institute not only learned about it and used it—they created their own version designed specifically to meet their personal needs.

This is just an example of a single project. Every summer I marvel at the ingenuity and creativity of the projects created by educators. And every summer educators tell me that the experience at CMK will result in change in their own classrooms.

An Immersive Solar System Using Images from the Webb Space Telescope Created at CMK 2022

Four Big Ideas

The Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute is shaped by four big ideas supporting the recommendations of McNutt and Gee. 

1) Piaget teaches us that “Knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is no substitute for experience. Any educational challenge you encounter may be addressed by creating or finding a meaningful experience. CMK is all about experience. I like to call these experiences, learning adventures.

2) My friend, colleague, and mentor Seymour Papert was known to say, “You can’t think about thinking, without thinking about thinking about something.” The joyful, complex, creative projects undertaken at CMK, along with the non-coercive, playful yet dignified, material rich, and collaborative learning environment created at the institute fuel the ongoing process of personal growth long after educators return home.  

3) Artificial intelligence pioneer and friend of CMK, Marvin Minsky said, “You don’t really understand something if you only understand it one way.” The sorts of project-based, computationally rich engineering projects undertaken at CMK not only require the development of intellectual processes that accompany design, science, and the arts, but making and debugging something with peers leads to new perspectives.

4) Tony Bennett often quoted the great Duke Ellington who taught him, “Don’t do one thing. Do two.” This seemingly simple advice keeps life interesting and enriches your development as a human. In the case of Tony Bennett, it meant that when I get tired of singing, I paint and when I get tired of painting, I sing. I often advise that the best thing we can do for children is to create opportunities for them to be in the company of interesting adults. The more things you know how to do and the more interests you have, the more you benefit the learners you’re so fortunate to teach.

An Adult-size Tricycle Made Entirely of Cardboard at CMK Embodies Powerful Ideas of Material Science, Physics, and Design

The Castle that Defends Itself throws a whole lot of design, construction, engineering, robotics, and collaboration at what could be a history unit.

The Living Marie Antoinette Wig project was led by an educator who came to CMK five times. She knew that a nutty idea would be embraced and her project demonstrates that robotics may be beautiful.
This video about the Party in a Backpack documents the evolution of this complex and collaborative project from CMK 2019.

Interactive Ensemble modeled by an early childhood teacher discussing how she felt after tackling electronics, sewing, sensors, and computer programming in the creation of an outfit that lights up with body movement. Contrast this experience with the sort of PD typically available to preschool educators.
This Fortune Teller features sculpture, design, craft, language arts, robotics, engineering, computer programming, sensor feedback, mathematics, and more.

Teachers insert themselves into history

Projects are the Basis for Hard Fun

Papert’s notion of “Hard Fun” is at the heart of constructionism and is the foundation of Constructing Modern Knowledge. Activities you care about, like hobbies, have an increasing degree of difficulty associated with progress.

“Good learning in games is a capitalist-driven Darwinian process of selection of the fittest. Of course, game designers could have solved their learning problems by making games shorter and easier, by dumbing them down, so to speak. But most gamers don’t want short and easy games. Thus, designers face and largely solve an intriguing educational dilemma, one also faced by schools and workplaces: how to get people, often young people, to learn and master something that is long and challenging–and enjoy it, to boot.”

(Gee, 2003)

The McNutt article inspiring this essay goes on to discuss the importance of transfer and the critical need for personal experience. However, each of his big ideas for how conferences, and by extension all educational scenarios may be improved, are focused on “How” questions. Such questions represent more talking – more blah, blah, blah. Where is the action? What would he have educators do? 

My most important design principle for creating learning adventures for teachers, such as Constructing Modern Knowledge is action. What can a teacher do at the end of a PD event? What sort of experiences will guide changes in practice?

Engaging in projects that are quirky, playful, beautiful, personally meaningful, or even nutty allows educators to fall in love again with learning, to assert their confidence, share their creativity, and demonstrate their competence. Professional development narrowly focused on job-related skills is impersonal and lacks ambition. That approach serves another master and sugarcoats compliance. Fads fade. Memories of personal excellence, even if achieved through a wacky project, endures.

Some might be surprised by how many complex skills are learned and curricular standards addressed through the sorts of unconventional project work undertaken every summer at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Educators Deserve Professional Development like CMK

Teachers are more than lesson producers or designers. In fact, great educators possess a great number of talents and knowledge across a great number of domains. They deserve rich experiences that respect and support existing expertise, but also inspire new ideas.

Constructing Modern Knowledge is designed to foster maximum choice, abundant time, opportunities for course correction, collaboration, and minimal coercion. CMK creates a productive context for learning in which the rarely questioned structures and distractions of schooling disappear. There are no sponsors, gameshows, or exhibit hall – just the essential elements required for modern knowledge construction. Past participants have noted how a utopian learning environment is built overnight and that reflecting on their own learning experience in such a context informs a new vision of teaching.

“Anything forced is not beautiful.”


Learning is not the result of having been taught. It is the result of what the learner does. Constructing Modern Knowledge is where teachers learn by doing and are fueled to create similar experiences for the students they serve.

You can’t teach without learning about learning about something.

Please join us at the 14th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge July 9-12, 2024!


Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Computers in entertainment (CIE), 1(1), 20-20. 

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press. 

McNutt, C. (2023, 2/21/23). A New Era of Learning: Reimagining Conferences for Inspired Teaching. Human Restoration Project

Xenophon, & Morgan, M. H. (2006). The art of horsemanship. Courier Corporation.