Great educators are fully capable of overcoming the challenges that come with this profession, but everyone needs support once in a while. At many schools, that support takes the form of professional development (PD) sessions — which can be incredibly powerful resources when executed well. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many schools, where PD takes the form of undifferentiated, stale workshops with little accountability or follow-up for implementation. Decades of scholarly literature has shown that this method doesn’t change practices or benefit students — but despite loud critiques from educators and researchers, PD for teachers has failed to evolve. That might be because revitalizing PD seems difficult: Workshops are low-cost and often low-effort, and administrators may be hard-pressed to find resources to do better, like funding or trusted PD providers.
In our view, there are a few simple and actionable ways to rethink PD. Here are four ways to reinvent PD that are within reach for any school:
Flexible session formats
The first and most important step to reimagining PD is to go beyond the standard workshop model — and there are more resources available than ever to help with this. For example, Newsela’s Educator Center and similar resources allow teachers to work through materials at their own pace and access them on their own time, returning to the material as often as necessary. Administrators can also draw on the same pedagogies that their teachers use with students in the classroom. For instance, Novak Educational Consulting recommends giving teachers choices about what topics they learn and what format they receive the information in (such as videos, articles, or sample lessons). Structuring PD sessions around discussion and teacher contributions can also be more effective than a top-down approach, giving high fliers a chance to mentor teachers who are new or struggling.
2. Curriculum based on data about teachers’ needs and interests
Too often, administrators select their PD curriculum with little or no input from their teachers. This is a problem: Only teachers fully understand the challenges they face in the classroom and where they most need support. Of course, the best administrators communicate constantly with their teachers and will already have some idea of their needs and interests. But that’s no substitute for comprehensive data collection about teachers’ unique problems and PD goals. Soliciting input by survey — or even better, at the end of PD sessions — ensures that a school’s PD curriculum will be responsive to all its educators, not just the most vocal ones.
3. Implementation support and accountability
The scholarly literature shows that when teachers receive PD through standalone workshops, they don’t implement the new knowledge in their classrooms. That’s not surprising: If a new practice is substantive and innovative, as the best PD curricula are, then putting it into action will require far more education and support than a one-off workshop. Even after they’ve mastered the material, teachers have no way to know whether they’ve implemented it effectively if, like most workshops, there is no follow-up.
According to the Learning Policy Institute, the best ways to address this problem are choosing PD curricula with longer durations and encouraging collaboration, especially in job-embedded situations. Sustained, multi-session PD programs on the same topic give educators the opportunity to practice and adjust their use of the new techniques, and then receive the support and feedback they need to keep improving. Teachers can play an active role in this, encouraging each other through collaboration and mentorship. This is another great opportunity for differentiation: Educators can implement differentiated versions of the same techniques, tailored for their needs and their classrooms, and then share their successes and new discoveries with each other. Making time for this brand of collaboration may require extra PD hours or reorganizing schedules — but the efforts will be rewarded with higher student achievement.
4. Adapting PD’s format for technology solutions
One of the biggest pitfalls for twenty-first century PD comes when it’s time to teach technology. High-tech solutions are becoming more embedded in classrooms every year, but without effective support and training, some teachers — and their students — will fail to reap the benefits. Unfortunately, many schools teach tech solutions in “technology PD” sessions that focus on the tools’ mechanics rather than their applications, leaving teachers to figure out for themselves how the tool will work best in their classrooms. Instead, try teaching technology resources in subject- or grade-specific breakout groups, where teachers can focus on the ways the tool can enrich their specific standards and curricula.
When it comes to PD, effectiveness means efficiency: Well-designed PD strategies are a better use of teachers’ time and district resources and pay off in student performance gains. When teachers feel their time is being put to good use, they feel more motivated to embrace PD and its rich array of benefits. A differentiated, engaging, and implementation-focused approach benefits all teachers and all students — and while this may look different in different schools and districts, it is a goal that all PD designers can strive for.
Check out our latest infographic, PD that innovates, to learn more about PD do’s and don'ts.