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PD pitfalls to avoid

The Newsela Team
Nov 13, 2020

Potential risks educators should consider when implementing PD

It seems like it should be easy for educators to teach other educators. After all, administrators and teachers choose this profession because they understand the importance of learning and the value of delivering knowledge meaningfully and memorably. Continuing learning is essential for all teachers, and teachers who are always learning and improving their practice model that same growth mindset for their students. For a group of professionals with this mentality, creating effective professional development (PD) programs should be a smooth process — but at most schools, it’s not that simple. Despite the availability of great PD resources, many schools struggle to overcome the obstacles and implement PD that truly benefits teachers and students. 

Ninety percent of teachers receive workshop-style PD sessions during the school year. The problem? Most teachers believe these workshops are ineffective — and the scholarly literature backs them up. Studies from the 1980s to the present have shown over and over that teachers who receive PD through workshops don’t implement what they learn, and their students don’t improve their performance.

Lack of differentiation

Those results are concerning, but not surprising given the drawbacks of the self-contained workshop format. As teacher and math coach Pauline Zdonek put it in a column for Edutopia:

“The majority of PDs I attend are repetitive, simplistic, or downright boring.” 

Even for great administrators and educators, one-off workshops and lectures are difficult to differentiate and follow up on. 

The best educators understand the importance of differentiation, and they would never subject their students to undifferentiated lessons. The same principle applies to PD. PD sessions that put experienced teachers in the same workshop as new or struggling ones serve no one: Teachers who know the workshop’s concepts will be bored and feel their time is being wasted, and newer teachers may struggle to keep up — or worse, feel their unique needs, interests, and challenges are not being addressed. It only exacerbates this problem when administrators and consultants design PD curriculum without input from teachers. 

Just as problematically, the single-workshop model is unsuited to accountability: It usually leaves implementation up to individual teachers. Even for those teachers who do find the workshop’s content relevant and useful, one session cannot provide sufficient support to implement new strategies effectively. 

Growing pains for edtech PD

This is a big issue in an era when the topics PD covers are more complex than ever. PD sessions are an important tool in adopting edtech solutions, but the workshop model just isn’t right for many of the newest platforms. Many educators are resistant to edtech because they see it as too complicated — and who can blame them when they don’t have access to the resources and training they need to learn it?  

Unfortunately, edtech tends to be taught in “tech PD sessions” that are not segmented by subject — even though many of edtech’s most powerful applications are subject-specific. For instance, ELA and social studies teachers might use the same collaboration tools — but social studies teachers might benefit more from research and multimedia applications, while ELA teachers should focus on ways they can use these tools for writing projects. When the two groups are forced into one PD session, one or both will miss out on the best applications for their needs. Implementing tech tools and maximizing their effectiveness requires skill, practice, and ongoing support — not just one (possibly boring) lecture.

On a related note, many tech PD sessions tend to focus heavily on products and features rather than applications and skills. Teachers leave the sessions as experts on what a technology is and does, but might still be in the dark about how they can personally put it to work in their classrooms. PD sessions should engage teachers in active, collaborative learning centered on their unique learning goals for their students. Ultimately, edtech tools are a means to that end — and when they are introduced this way, a greater focus on applications will naturally follow. 

What administrators can do

If the workshop model is so ineffective, why do schools still use it? As with many challenges in education, the answer lies in limited resources. Administrators often perceive one-size-fits-all workshops as the simplest and least demanding form of PD — but while it may require the least investment up front, it’s vastly inefficient when you consider the low return on that investment. 

Fortunately, reimagining PD is possible, even for schools with limited resources. Administrators can draw on resources like Newsela’s Educator Center, adopt flexible formats that go beyond the standard workshop model, and collect teacher feedback and requests to determine curriculum. Increasingly, the best PD strategies include on-demand resources that teachers can access on their own time and at their own pace. By providing continuous access to PD knowledge, on-demand resources can provide teachers with foundational support while freeing up administrator time and resources. 

Supporting teachers as they implement PD concepts doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming: It can be as simple as accountability sessions, designing multi-session PD curricula around the same topic, or supporting existing curricula with on-demand resources. Engaged, interested teachers produce passionate, high-achieving students — and improving PD is a great way to spark that engagement. 

Check out our latest infographic, PD that innovates, to learn more about PD do’s and don'ts. 

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