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Tossing Professional Development: New Ways to Talk About Teacher Learning

"I don't believe that professional development is a solution," Dr. Henry Smith told me in a recent conversation.

"I agree and disagree." I responded.

Most times, we hear professional development and think of days spent wasted in one-off workshops with little correlation to our classroom practice. However, I was thinking about the EdTechTeacher T21 program that places teachers in cohorts and provides them with an extended learning opportunity that includes multiple workshops, online coursework, and virtual support. 

"Then maybe you need to develop a new jargon for professional development," Dr. Smith suggested.

In my doctoral work, I am examining a critical Problem of Practice. Many of today's K-12 public school teachers in the U.S. do not participate in, or have access to, effective professional development (Gulamhussein, 2013; TNTP, 2015) - especially professional development designed to help foster students' abilities to problem-solve in unique situations, synthesize and communicate new information, and complete non-routine cognitive tasks (Levy & Murnane, 2013). Eventhough Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon (2001) offer empirical evidence that effective professional development occurs over an extended time; is situated within the teacher's context; allows for active learning and collaboration; and focuses on student cognition, most professional development neither adheres to these standards nor addresses these Knowledge Economy Skills (Gulamhussein, 2013; TNTP, 2015).  

As I learned through a literature review, funding plays a major role in whether or not schools and districts invest in long-term, sustained professional development. Historically, districts do not allocate funds evenly, nor do schools spend them in the same ways. Many schools spend significantly more than estimated, and most do not have accurate reporting of true cost (Fermanich, 2002).  Miles, Odden, Fermanich, and Archibald (2004) assert that if schools and districts possess a more accurate picture of their expenses then they may be able to better sustain long-term initiatives and develop accurate strategic plans for improvement. 

Beyond economics, the Digital Divide - defined as both the availability of technologies as well as how teachers and students use those tools - also plays a role in whether or not teachers have access and opportunity to engage in this type of professional development.  Because teachers in low socioeconomic schools frequently have less access to technology and support, they may not be able to gain the pedagogical knowledge required to help students take advantage of the available tools or develop the requisite skills (Hohlfeld, Ritzhaupt, Barron, & Kemker, 2008). To bridge the digital divide requires students to have access to quality technology and instruction. The latter cannot happen if the teachers lack access to the pedagogical knowledge that they need to successfully create these types of learning opportunities (Warschauer, 2004).

In addition to these concrete drivers, a teacher and administrator's willingness to learn and change plays a significant role in this problem. Teachers ultimately need to learn new pedagogical approaches that encourage active learning construction rather than passive receipt of information transmitted by the teacher. From a cognitive perspective, these new teaching practices may be resisted because they contradict previously held beliefs (Kwakman, 2003). Though younger, Millennial teachers may possess a greater comfort with technology, they might lack the pedagogical knowledge to integrate newer technologies as well as non-traditional, student-centric practices (Orlando & Attard, 2015).  Previously held beliefs, established teaching habits, and open-mindedness all served as indicators for whether or not a teacher might be willing to learn and change their practice (Van Eekelen, Vermunt, & Boshuizen, 2006).

Another driver may be an administrator's willingness to learn and change. As I discovered during some observational research, even when teachers do have access to professional development and technology, some do not feel as though they can fully take advantage of the opportunity. While an innovative culture may develop within the organization of teachers participating in the learning, the potential to change their classroom practice may disappear once they try to advance their new mindsets to the next level. Whether the administrator doubts the feasibility of these new ideas, or finds them difficult to execute due to environmental factors such as standardized tests or state curriculum mandates, the cycle of change ultimately stops (Sheperd, Patzelt, & Haynie, 2010).

And so, because of these factors, the problem persists - which leads me back to Dr. Smith's comment. Maybe the notion of professional development is broken. In its current state, professional development is often viewed as a quick fix or obvious solution rather than a component of a broader system of improvement. I think that Dr. Smith is right. If we truly want to support teachers in their efforts to improve student learning, then we need to stop doing professional development and create a new jargon to describe effective opportunities for teachers.


Fermanich, M. (2002). School spending for professional development: A cross-case analysis of seven schools in one urban district. The Elementary School Journal, 103(1), 27. doi: 10.1086/499714

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S.  (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915-945.  doi: 10.3102/00028312038004915

Gulamhussein, A.  (2013).  Teaching the teachers: Effective professional development in an era of high stakes accountability.  Center for Public Education.  September.  Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Staffingstudents/Teaching-the-Teachers-Effective-Professional-Development-in-an-Era-of-High-Stakes-Accountability/Teaching-the-Teachers-Full-Report.pdf

Hohlfeld, T. N., Ritzhaupt, A. D., Barron, A. E., & Kemker, K. (2008). Examining the digital divide in K-12 public schools: Four-year trends for supporting ICT literacy in Florida.  Computers & Education, 51(4), 1648-1663. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.04.002

Kwakman, K. (2003). Factors affecting teachers' participation in professional learning activities. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19(2), 149-170. doi: 10.1016/S0742-051X(02)00101-4

Levy, F., & Murnane, R.  (2013).  Dancing with robots: Human skills for computerized work.  Washington, D.C., Third Way NEXT.

Miles, K. H., Odden, A., Fermanich, M., & Archibald, S. (2004). Inside the black box of school district spending on professional development: Lessons from five urban districts. Journal of Education, 30(1), 1-26. doi: 10.2307/40704218

Orlando, J., & Attard, C. (2015).  Digital natives come of age: the reality of today's early career teachers using mobile devices to teach mathematics. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 1-15. doi: 10.1007/s13394-015-0159-6

Sheperd, D. A., Patzelt, H., & Haynie, J. M. (2010). Entrepreneurial spirals: Deviation-amplifying loops of an entrepreneurial mindset and organizational culture. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 34, 59-82. Doi:10.1111/j.1540-6520.2009.00313.x

TNTP. (2015, August 4). The Mirage. Retrieved from http://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf

Van Eekelen, I. M., Vermunt, J. D., & Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2006). Exploring teachers' will to learn. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22(4), 408-423. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2005.12.001

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and equity in schooling: Deconstructing the digital divide. Educational Policy, 18(4), 562-588. doi: 10.1177/0895904804266469

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