Righting the Ship

For years now, it has been recognized in the educational sector that professional development (PD) needs to change. Whether we focus on the unhappy and unfulfilled teachers, the principals who do not see the desired change in their staff, or the lackluster results from high-quality studies done on PD… one thing is very clear – we need to right the ship. 

I sought to explore the question: What does research say about planning effective and meaningful professional development? While this question is too broad to come up with one succinct answer, I did uncover some thoughts to consider when planning your next PD session. 

Choosing Less and Diving Deeper

Schmoker (2015) argues that we choose topics for PD that have no empirical evidence to back it up as true “best practices” (p. 2). Instead, schools choose PD that follow current whims and fads, such as educational technology or differentiation (Schmoker, 2015, p. 2). In contrast, schools and districts should conduct a far more “methodical, painstaking study of any practice or program before they adopt it” (Schmoker, 2015, p. 3). Teachers should be given a say as well and leaders should be able to explain, with evidence, why those topics have been chosen for PD and how they will improve students learning. Another problem with our current professional development is that we choose way too many topics for PD and have limited, if any, follow up with teachers to coach them through until mastery. And then the next year we pile new initiatives atop the half-mastered ones. Schmoker explains “…we must direct all professional-development time and personnel, and teacher collaboration, to a severely reduced number of powerful and proven practices” (2015, p. 3). Otherwise, we overwhelm our staff with the onset of new initiatives and make very little progress in any of them.

Agency and Collaboration

Teachers want a say in their professional development. Classrooms around the nation are very diverse- in curriculums, supplies, and students’ needs. So naturally, teachers should participate in continuing ed on the topics that connect with their classrooms. On top of that, teachers’ have a huge range of backgrounds, training, and experiences, and need personalized training to fit where they are at professionally. Therefore, we should give teachers choice in their PD and make sure it is relevant to them. In a survey done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014, teachers expressed that their ideal PD would be personalized, interactive, and sustained over time (p. 4). Likewise, McGrath (2020) encourages trainers to give teachers time to process, practice, and transfer new knowledge. A good rule of thumb is to spend about a third of the session on new information and the other two thirds on reflection and implementation (McGrath, 2020). Give teachers agency and the opportunity for hands-on learning, applying their learning to their specific classroom, and the opportunity to collaborate with others. Check out Elena Aguilar’s Principles of Adult Learning to gather other ideas of how to meet your adult learner’s needs. 

Implementation and Coaching

Another problem with our current formats of PD is the lack of support for teachers during implementation. It’s like giving them a map on how to get to point b or mastery and then helping them on their personal voyages. Valerie Strauss (2014) gave a powerful analogy as she compared implementation in the classroom to riding a bike. Would we show a picture of a bicycle, explain the theory behind the mechanism, and then just release teachers to try riding a new bike in the parking lot on their own time? No. Strauss states: “In the same way that riding a bike is more difficult than learning about riding a bike, employing a teaching strategy in the classroom is more difficult than learning the strategy itself” (2014, p. 1). In fact, studies show that it takes an average of 20 practice attempts before a teacher can master a new skill (Strauss, 2014, p. 1). Therefore, a goal of PD time should be to choose powerful practices to study and then support teachers as they practice, tinker, and improve their craft. Schmoker argues “mastery born of repeated practice and ongoing guidance must become the new goal of professional development” (2015, p. 3). Furthermore, teachers have indicated that they want sustained time to learn (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014, p. 4). During implementation, teachers would benefit from time collaborating with peers and receiving additional support from coaches. If implemented well, coaches can come alongside teachers and help with the implementation process by co-planning, co-teaching, modeling new instructional practices, or observing and giving feedback. 

While it is always hard to right the ship, implement change, and break away from how things have traditionally been done, think of the benefit professional development can have on teaching and learning if done right. It would be like unlocking a vast treasure trove of skills, ideas, knowledge, and pedagogies that can transform education. For now, let’s begin by choosing just a few evidence-based practices for PD, giving teachers agency and hands-on learning opportunities, and supporting them through the learning process to mastery. 

In your opinion, what is vital to consider when planning effective and meaningful professional development? I would love to hear from your experience participating and leading PD. 

Works Cited 

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5W5P9bQJ6q0SUlzb19fX0lpaXM/view

Bright Morning (n.d.). The Principles of Adult Learning. Retrieved from https://brightmorningteam.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Principles-of-Adult-Learning.pdf

McGrath, Shannon. (2020, May 7). 3 Tips for Creating Effective PD. Eduptopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/3-tips-creating-effective-pd

Schmoker, Mike. (2015, Oct. 20th). It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-its-time-to-restructure-teacher-professional-development/2015/10 

Strauss, Valerie. (2014, March 1). Why Most Professional Development For Teachers is Useless. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/01/why-most-professional-development-for-teachers-is-useless/ 

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