Educators have expertise in helping students learn, but somehow the principles of pedagogy end up getting tossed by the wayside when it comes to professional development. We certainly wouldn’t expect to transform our students’ thinking following a few days in lecture sessions with no follow-up. So why do we think this is the best avenue for teachers to improve their practices?
If we want to make serious headway in teachers’ professional learning, we need to ensure that we’re integrating the principles of effective instruction into PD. Below are five research-backed components of effective learning and how to incorporate them into your school’s professional learning program.
1. Start every PD session sharing the student outcomes that you are trying to improve
Learning needs to be purposeful; our mind is designed to select what is important from all the countless sensory inputs it encounters. Much like the other muscles in our body, the brain doesn’t want to waste energy remembering things unless it deems those things to be important. That’s why educators stress the importance of making learning relevant and meaningful to students.
So unless your PD is geared toward solving real problems in your school and addressing what teachers believe to be important, it’s unlikely that teachers will engage with the material or retain it. This is especially important if your school is integrating a blended learning approach. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of using PD to show off the latest whiz-bang tools instead of asking the bigger question: how does technology help solve the problems that your teachers are facing?
“Using assessment of students’ needs to drive the learning work of schools ensures that the instructional strategies emphasized through professional development serve a clear purpose.”
- Laura Schneider VanDerPloeg, Literacy for a Better World
The problems may or may not be identified by teachers themselves. In some cases, teachers may be vocal about their needs and drive the conversation. In other cases, administrators might determine where the needs lie. But in either scenario, teachers need to understand why they should tune in to the PD and how it’s going to further their professional growth. Starting the PD session by focusing on what matters to your teachers and students and making it clear how the PD ties to that objective will help to make the PD more purposeful.
2. Make sure your session isn't a lecture
Sit ‘n’ gets are not an effective means of conveying information. Like students, teachers need to be activating their thinking by answering questions, discussing ideas, or otherwise involving themselves in the process of constructing meaning. This is why many teachers’ conferences are straying away from the lecture model and emphasizing the workshop: learners need to be engaged beyond sitting quietly and listening to someone else speak.
“No one doubts that the lecture method allows a lot of information to be presented in a short time. However, the question is not what is presented, but what is learned.”
- David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns
This is because content cannot really be uploaded into someone’s brain like a file on a computer. If the PD contains ideas that are intended to transform existing practices, the process of change will entail reflection, analysis, and strategic thinking, and that thinking needs to be done by the learner rather than the presenter.
One way to make learning active in a PD session is by asking teachers to break into small groups and discuss how they see problems in their classroom and how they might integrate solutions proposed during the session. Teachers should be answering questions, trying out new tools, applying proposed solutions to their unique situation, and otherwise integrating the ideas discussed during the PD session into their teaching. Every PD session should involve a hands-on or breakout activity where your teachers are the ones doing the problem-solving.
3. Provide bite-sized learning opportunities outside of formal PD days
It’s an unfortunate reality that many schools are confined to only a few days of PD per year. Teachers spend a handful of days in marathon-long sessions of workshops and meetings with the expectation that they can improve their practice in short, intensive bursts of learning. But this isn’t how learning happens.
Like students, teachers need learning to be an ongoing process that builds over time and that gets to depth. A high-impact practice like formative assessment cannot be mastered in an hour-long session; teachers need to understand its purpose, how it fits into their instructional framework, how they can assess its impact and use it to inform their instruction. These are all complex questions that merit sustained investigation.
"Teachers need professional development because the job of teaching is so difficult, so complex, that one lifetime is not enough to master it."
- Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment
To turn isolated PD events into ongoing learning, consider building in resources that extend beyond the PD day. Help teachers develop professional learning communities (PLCs) where they check in weekly to assess their progress and brainstorm solutions to problems. PLCs can also engage in reading and discussing books on professional development, reviewing teachers' lessons, or looking at student work to offer ideas on how to target learning challenges.
Other ways to extend the learning beyond the isolated PD day: offer on-demand resources like online courses, videos, articles, and other ways for teachers to deepen their understanding of impactful practices. Empower coaches to have meaningful, ongoing conversations with teachers about their classroom practice. Create avenues for teachers to share their assignments with one another and uncover new ways of teaching. These are small investments that can pay tremendous dividends on teachers’ professional growth.
4. Provide guided time for teachers to learn from each other
Teachers have long known that it pays to borrow ideas, and that it takes a village to teach a class. The web is teeming with websites that allow teachers to share lesson plans, graphic organizers, and other resources. It’s hard to imagine that one individual teacher would have all the content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge to effectively teach every single topic in his or her class. Research suggests that higher-quality teacher collaboration leads to improved student achievement in math and reading (Ronfeldt, Farmer, Mcqueen, & Grissom, 2015).
Collaboration should be built into professional development, whether it’s via in-person meetings or digital communities. Teachers should have the time and the tools to share their resources and think through problems together. Because teachers are busy individuals with schedules that are often uncoordinated, making collaboration possible will often entail administrative support. Options include building time into the calendar for regular teacher-led meetings, creating opportunities for teachers to observe one another’s classes (whether via recording or in-person), and ensuring that teachers have the tools to easily communicate with one another and share their resources.
“Professional learning communities have been advocated as an important strategy in the work of school improvement. In practice, however, the work of developing strong communities of teachers can require active facilitation and oversight; simply putting people into groups doesn’t ensure good learning or the kind of healthy collaboration that can lead to changes in student outcomes.”
- Laura Schneider VanDerPloeg, Literacy for a Better World
Beyond creating the space, time, and tools for teacher collaboration, administrators can support professional learning communities by providing a framework for what those communities are intended to do. This can include creating a shared set of goals and a common language for discussing the school’s challenges, offering questions for reflection that drive the instructional vision and lead to change in practice, or even suggesting a structure for the meetings to ensure that every teacher has an opportunity to be heard.
5. Create regular opportunities for low-stakes feedback
Teachers need to know if what they are trying out in their classrooms is working. Effective feedback is one of the best vehicles for driving learning, and this applies to teachers as well as students.
We typically think that feedback involves in-person classroom observations, but there are other ways to envision feedback that can be more frequent and more impactful. For example, teachers could regularly solicit feedback on their assignments by sharing them with their coaches or colleagues. This would be far less time-consuming than observing a class and enable teachers to get insights on the questions they ask, the scaffolding they provide, and the content they present to students. Coaches can even create templates that allow teachers to assess their own assignments, similar to the Lesson Planning Tool provided by Achieve the Core. This would help teachers know what effective lessons look like and what they need to include in their own instruction to improve student learning outcomes.
Teachers can also obtain feedback by regularly monitoring their students’ data. Seeing how students perform on various standards (including Common Core and Depth of Knowledge), what sort of behaviors they are engaging in as they learn (annotation, discussion, self-monitoring), and the depth of their thinking as demonstrated in writing and discussion are great metrics to determine instructional quality. This is ultimately the metric that matters most in professional learning: that students are developing the skills and knowledge they need for future success and that their teacher’s instruction is helping to drive their growth.
Jacques, C., Behrstock-Sherratt, E., Parker, A., & Bassett, K. (2017). Investing in What it Takes to Move from Good to Great (pp. 1-43, Publication). Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.
Ronfeldt, M., Farmer, S. O., McQueen, K., & Grissom, J. A. (2015). Teacher Collaboration in Instructional Teams and Student Achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (3), 475-514. doi:10.3102/0002831215585562
Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.
VanDerPloeg, L. S. (2012). Literacy for a better world: the promise of teaching in diverse classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.