Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From Differentiated to Customized Professional Development

by John T. Spencer

The Issue
We say we believe in differentiated instruction. We say that we want to meet the needs of all students. However, too often in professional development, schools require teachers to learn the exact same information. It might be quality training, too. However, for a teacher who has already mastered the concepts, this type of training feels irrelevant.

Why learn this if it's not an issue in my classroom?
Why learn this in a way that treats first grade and eighth grade teachers as though they are the same?
Why can't I learn in a way that relates to the direct needs of my own classroom context?

Differentiated Professional Development
Oftentimes schools take this reality and shift toward differentiated instruction. It sounds like a great idea. The staff might have five or six options for a weekly professional development. They become mini-classes that allow teachers to delve deeper into a particular concept. However, this model tends to fail for the following reasons:

  • It doesn't relate to what each teacher needs
  • The focus is on teacher interest rather than student needs
  • There are too few options
  • The PD planners are trying to guess what teachers need rather than allow them to make their own decisions

Customized Learning
A better solution would be for teachers to create their own professional development based upon an identified need in their own classrooms. For example, a teacher might struggle with classroom management. This teacher could attend a differentiated professional development class. However, he or she might also choose to embrace a coaching model (if another teacher could model it in the classroom), peer observation, a book study, a video and a Twitter chat on the subject.

Instead of offering a menu of options, administrators could create a format where teachers could develop their own professional growth plan. This could then set up new structures for book studies, small group classes and peer modeling (give up a few preps and then get your preps back during formal PD times).

The idea here is to keep it student-centered and empower teachers to take ownership of their own learning.

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John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and he's working onSustainable Start, a book for new teachers. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. Great post, John!

    Our admin has done a great job of this. Teachers are surveyed for our needs and PD options are created. Additionally, teachers are encouraged to suggest their own PD, from observing a colleague to ordering books for an individual or group of teachers to read together. All of the PD is opt-in. This morning, for example, there are staff-led trainings on turnitin.com & ActivInspire being offered as a result of teachers approaching admin and suggesting it.

    At the district level, teachers participate in PDUs (Prof Development Units), either joining an existing PDU or seeking approval for one they create. Also, we are piloting a teacher eval framework that, for each of the indicators on which we are evaluated, offers 6 PD options (from PLN suggestions to online courses to video from within the district of exemplary classes). Teachers seeking to improve choose the options that most appeal to them and their needs.

    None of it is perfect but I think it's one the right track.

  2. Great post. We are struggling with these issues and how to "do PD" better at P2PU (http://p2pu.org/en/schools/school-of-ed-pilot/). Would love to get your thoughts as we move ahead and/or have you join us there!

  3. I think a lot of people do well from customized learning and this is what most business and other staffs of professional people look for.

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