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What Does High-Quality Professional Development Look Like? Five Things To Look For...

What exactly does high-quality professional development look like? Educators of all stripes have been through professional development that hasn't delivered on its promised outcomes, or has been so out of touch with the way adults learn effectively. I'd even go so far as to say that the majority of PD that I've attended has been ineffective, but why?

A report by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (gag...I know, but hand with me) focused on the teacher perspective and found some interesting things;

  • Districts tend to favor coaching, lesson observation, and PLC's at the main mechanisms for teacher development. Teachers, on the other had, find all three of these to be ineffective at improving their practice, in large part because they are not correctly managed. Many of the teachers I speak with say that PLC time is unstructured and unsupported by admin, making it particularly ineffective and in some cases counterproductive.

  • Coaching is mostly focused on struggling or younger teachers and does not follow models or guidelines that are supported by research, such as cognitive coaching. It is also not done with enough regularity to be deemed effective. The report also says that teachers report skepticism regarding coaching by outside experts (don't fully know a teachers strengths/weaknesses) administrators (lack of classroom experience coupled with conflicts of interest around evaluations) and in some districts, the stigma associated with coaching (many districts use coaching positions to remove ineffective teachers)

  • Teachers report high satisfaction, and better buy in with new initiatives as a result, when choice is offered. But it is rarely offered.

  • Time is the overarching barrier identified by teachers. It conflicts with their instructional responsibilities and administrators do not have enough of it to support its implementation.

With this in mind, I looked at what high-performing international schools do (short answer: they spend A LOT more time and money on teacher development) and on what has been effective nationally (short answer: leverage teachers as agents of change and help them develop agency) and compared that to what I've seen resonate with he hundreds of teachers I've worked with. Here are five trends that stood out;

High-quality professional development experiences...

  • ...should be organized around constructivist theories of adult learning that are backed up and informed by research. Adult learners learn best through constructing knowledge based upon their own experience. Professional development programs should follow this principle, ensuring that participants experience the pedagogical or instructional shifts that they advocate.

  • ...should be organized around parallel hierarchical structures. The facilitator, while they may be an expert, should be sensitive to the fact that they are an outsider and a guest in somebody else’s environment. They should not adopt a posture or tone that insinuates they are there to "fix" some thing that is wrong or broken. Rather, they should be there to affirm practices that are already having positive results well extending or challenging the participants to increase their own knowledge and identify their own mechanism for improvement.

  • ...should leverage the teacher as a co-facilitator. Participants should wear different hats throughout the workshop, because in the end all our teachers and all our learners. The facilitator does not have the same in-depth knowledge of the culture and the students within the school. They may also not be an expert in the curricular areas of all the teachers they are supporting. For these reasons, they should think carefully about how best to leverage teacher knowledge in these areas. There are times when they will take on the role of the instructor, but that authority should be one that is shared throughout all the participants.

  • ...should seek to build the capacity of the learners so that they can support themselves by making sure that it is an ongoing process, not just something that happens during the summer months. The practices and methodologies used should help learners grow their own abilities and expertise. Approaches such as cognitive coaching and teaching circles are particularly effective in helping to sustain the learning that goes on, but the models needs to follow research-backed examples rather than be "customized" to fit schedules and budgets (many PLC's and teacher observation models are ineffective for this reason)

  • ...needs to involve all stakeholders. Administration, staff, teachers, and even the students should be a part of the process. Teachers especially should have an equal voice at the table when determining the best courses of action to pursue and the best initiatives to undertake based on the needs of the school, it’s vision for learning, and the students that the school serves.


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