Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creating Meaningful Professional Development

by Steven W. Anderson

Cross Posted At The Web 2.0 Connected Classroom

This week on #edchat our conversation centered around Professional Development. Specifically, what are some of the roadblocks that prevent teachers and administrators from engaging in PD. 

Pretty deep huh?

There are lots of ideas out there as to why teachers don't want to engage in PD. Many times the PD, when it is required, isn't meaningful. When I was in the classroom I was part of a team that helped to decide the direction our PD at the school level would take. That was always a lot of fun and we always had positive experiences because the teachers had a voice and role in what we would be doing. 

On the flip side, at the district level, teachers rarely got to choose the direction of the PD. Now, I understand, working at the district level there are just some things that we need to do PD on for on reason or another. But what has seemed to work well for us are buffet offerings. Several of our divisions like Title I, Social Studies and others have taken whole days and run them like a mini conference. There are sessions to choose from and the only requirement is that you attend a minimum amount of sessions for the day. Even better, teachers are the ones in charge of decided what will be presented and there are some really great offerings. 

Time is always a classic complaint. As a person who conducts a lot of PD for teachers I hear this one more than I like. There never seems to be a good time. Mornings, before school are bad. After school is bad. Saturdays are bad. Ideally the solution is on-demand, anytime PD. Great! There is a solution for that. Social Media. Look at #edchat. Teachers come together for an hour and talk about various topics, get ideas, take them back to the classroom, reflect and many blog about their experiences and learn from others. Perfect PD! Or look at the Reform Symposium. Last Saturday there were 18 sessions, 2 keynotes and tons of great learning. Everyone who was there, didn't have to be there. They wanted to be there. They attended the sessions they wanted to and spent their own time doing it. The problem is, if the vast majority of educators tried to turn in that time for credits or renewals on their teaching licenses, they would be denied. But why? With the right steps in place (like opportunities for reflection and practice) on-demand, real-time PD could take a huge time and budget burden off of districts. 

However, one theme that came up again and again was maybe too much blame was being placed on teachers and district administrators. Maybe "bad" or "ineffective" PD is the result of poor design. What can those that design PD do? 

K.I.S.S. Keep it simple..well you know the rest. Often, especially in technology professional development those that do the training try to cram in every little thing into a session. I can't tell you the number of sessions I have sat in on various products where the trainer tried to explain any and all details about some tool or program. Now, I love technology. I live, eat, and breathe this stuff. But most teachers are completely different. Most are content specialists. They know what they teach backwards and forwards but when it comes to learning technology they really have to take their time. And we try to pump too much information into their brains all at once the likelihood of them shutting down and not using what we are teaching is very high. If possible we have to focus on one thing at a time. I am always an advocate of looking at one thing for 3-6 months to a school year. We can really dive in, spend lots of time talking about the ins and outs of the tool or resource. Of course there might be people that don't need that much time but you probably know who that is by now anyway. But taking lots of time on very specific topics leads me to my next suggestion.

Reflect. Reflect. Reflect. By taking it slow and spending lots of time on one specific tool or resource we provide times for all involved to do some reflection. As a trainer what I do is never perfect. There is always room for improvement. One of the tenets of instructional design is taking time to reflect on what works and what does not. By taking it slow we get the opportunity to take a step back every now and then and see what is going well. What is working? What isn't? What do we need to cover again? What would I do differently the next time? Is there someone who needs some extra help? I never would have been able to help my teacher with her webpage had it not been for the simple reflection I did after the first training. And the reflection is important for the teachers as well. They get to really think about how this new tool or learned skill fits in to their classroom and with their kids. They also need time to soak it all in. Even if what we think we are presenting is as easy as copying and pasting there has to be some time for reflection. And reflection leads to play.

Play Everyone needs some time to let loose and play. The fact is, often, in PD there is not enough time for play. Time isn't taken for play. There is usually some time to mimic but not really play. Teachers who are learning new tech skills as part of PD desire more time to just get in and play. Not during the actual PD but afterwards. Teachers need to have time to go back to their classrooms and get their hands dirty. But they need that support of the trainer. We have to be available and offer follow-ups and 1-on-1's. We can't send our teachers back to the classroom with some new skill and not check on them or simply follow-up. Would we do that to our kids? Doubt it. Why do that with teachers.

So the time to play leads to reflection. And we would have neither had we not taken it slow and kept it simple.

There is no doubt that teachers need PD. And there is no doubt there is meaningless PD out there. But we can begin to make it better and have a greater impact on our teacher learning.

What do you think? What was the most meaningful PD to you? Why was it that way? If you design PD how do you make sure it is effective? Leave some comments below.

Now get out there and learn something!

Image From Flickr CC


  1. The best PD in our school - and all the teachers keep bringing it up - was when a small group of us put together a "buffet" of technology learnings: Delicious, Netvibes, Photostory, the email system, Smartboards, and Clickers. Teachers chose their comfort level and it didn't cost the district a thing.

  2. Time, play, and reflection - those are great descriptors of meaningful PD. After all and above all, teaching is a creative act and creativity requires time and play, with reflection being the method we use to determine whether or not our efforts are bearing fruit.
    I'm not quite as convinced about the "buffet." I do think it's a great idea for technology offerings as suggested in the "Reflections of a Science Teacher" post because all of the offerings revolve around a single focus. However, if a district or a school offers a smorgasbord of unrelated topics, my experience is that people often don't have the support they need to go deeper, and the workshops become pleasant but essentially unsustainable interludes from business as usual.


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