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Response: Improve Professional Development With 'Choice, Debate, & Feedback'

(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest problems with common teacher professional development practices and how can they be fixed?

Part One's contributors are Diana Laufenberg, Dina Strasser, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Debbie Silver, Rita Platt and Dr. Melissa C. Gilbert.   You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Diana, Dina, Heather and Debbie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Douglas Reeves, Jessica Torres, Melissa Eddington, Jared Covili, Daniel R. Venables and Harry Fletcher-Wood share their ideas.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books on education and leadership.  He blogs at CreativeLeadership.net and Tweets @DouglasReeves:

Professional development?  It's often in the same category as jumbo shrimp, a ridiculous contradiction in terms.   The jokes are stale, the illustrations the same, and the vague references suggest ego rather than research.  We can do better, and here are three ideas to consider:  choice, debate, and feedback. 

Choice:  Lisa Elliot, the superintendent of Greenfield Public Schools in Wisconsin, says simply that teachers vote with their feet.  Teachers volunteer to lead professional development - 36 separate sessions at the last meeting I observed - and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.  This requires a remarkable degree of ego subordination by superintendents and professional developers. We all like large crowds, hanging on every word.  Ms. Elliot is no pushover.  She knows that professional development is essential, but when teachers and administrators choose their destination and personally participate in delivery, the level of learning is dramatically greater than when they sit in a dark auditorium to receive a message.

Debate:  Professional development has long been the playground of speakers with emotionally-laden stories that bring audiences to tears and cheers.  But what if they are wrong?  We are a profession that claims to value critical thinking, but we hardly ever see this in professional development settings.  Consider, for example, the contrast between a popular advocate of 21st Century technology and MIT professor Stephanie Turkle, author of "Reclaiming Conversation." While teachers will be forced to listen to the latest fads about personalized learning and technology in the classroom, Professor Turkle is an advocate for human time, face-to-face interaction - not exactly what one might expect from the most technologically advanced university on the planet.  I've been lucky enough to persuade conference sponsors to change traditional keynote addresses to shared time so that Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Tony MacKay, Peter Senge, and I can and engage in real dialog and debate.  This requires a fundamental shift by educational leaders from "they all have to get the message" to "we trust our colleagues to consider alternative points of view and draw their own conclusions."

Feedback:  Asking people to turn off their electronic devices during professional development is close to asking them to turn off their pacemakers.  It might happen, but it might kill them. So I've started to ask them to turn the devices on, but to engage directly by text and Tweet.  The risk is that I might not make it through Mao's Long March to the conclusion of my PowerPoint, but the benefit is that I can accurately tell the host that more than 500 people of audience of 700 directly participated in the discussion.  This technique stops the dead zone of passing the microphone around the auditorium and assures the anonymity of people who disagree with the speaker.  It's tricky and dangerous - people can be rude on social media - just ask a 7th grader.  But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and it's the future of professional development. 

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Response From Jessica Torres

Jessica Torres is a first year elementary assistant principal at Brook Avenue Elementary school in Waco, Texas. She formerly served as an instructional coach and a public Montessori elementary teacher. Torres is a current doctoral student in Tarleton State's Educational Leadership Program. She obtained her Masters in Educational Administration through Concordia University, and her Bachelor degree from Stephen F. Austin. Known widely as @owl_b_torresedu by her Twitter PLN, Mrs. Torres is a staunch supporter of public education, personalized professional development and connecting with others who are passionate about education and students:

There are times when you reach a crossroads, and you know that change is inevitable. If change does not occur then, the system will collapse. We have achieved this point of stalemate when it comes to professional development. Many teachers are always expressing frustrations with wasted time, topics that don't apply to them or their students, and a lack of support or follow through after the initial PD. There are solutions to these widespread problems.  Although not simple, the resolutions outlined below ensure that teaching remains a credible, respectable profession.

1.    Respect teachers' time.

One of the most efficient ways to respect teachers' time is to flip your professional development. Our campus has begun using Google Classroom in an effective manner to flip professional development and give teachers their time back. Courses are created and uploaded to Google Classroom with a specified due date. Teachers can complete the classes in their own time and pace and receive credit for them. Watching videos, reading articles, and other lengthy processes now take place at the teacher's discretion, leaving time during PLCs or faculty meetings for the brief, but in-depth discussions.  

2.     Personalized PD

Teachers want to learn, but they want to learn something that is going to add value to who they are as an educator. Personalized professional development differentiates instruction for teachers in the same manner that we have asked them to do for students. Engaging teachers in topics that are relevant to them ensures that they are going to take an interest and most likely implement what they have learned. 

3.    Ongoing Support

All too often teachers attend one session or conference and learn great pieces or ideas but then never follow through on any of them. Remember, teachers are students, too. They need goal setting, reflection and follow-up conversations to ensure that they implement what they have learned. Coaching and mentoring are becoming compelling tools within the school community, both intended to provide a support system for the learner.

Professional development can allow organizations to thrive and change in ways to provide the best for students. Every state requires teachers to attend a certain amount of professional development to maintain their certifications. A requirement should be more than a checklist - professional development should carry meaning and purpose.

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Response From Melissa Eddington

Melissa Eddington serves as an English as a Second Language educator in Dublin City Schools (DCS). Eddington will be beginning her 18th year of teaching at the start of the 2017-18 school year. She started her teaching career in the Logan-Hocking School District as a kindergarten teacher. After moving to central Ohio, Eddington continued her teaching career in Columbus City Schools before joining DCS in 2007. Eddington resides in Hilliard, Ohio with her husband Mike, daughter Genevieve, son Gabriel and various pets:

As educators we differentiate our instruction for our students because they are all different but when it comes to professional development, we assume a "one size fits all" mentality. We also are subjected to district mandated information  or sufficient time is not provided to solidify new teaching habits or initiatives. As an English as a Second Language educator I need specific professional development that is not usually provided by districts along with many other disciplines. We need to begin thinking about how we can try to provide better professional development for our teachers in order to help our students.

A "One Size Fits All" mentality is prevalent with professional development of teachers. We all gather in the largest auditorium we have to talk about the new technique or new initiative we are adopting as a school or district. Most of us check our email, fiddle on our phones or pretend we are taking notes. We are not engaged...we need differentiation. Pat Roy, co-author of Moving NSDC's Staff Development Standards Into Practice: Innovation Configurations, says "just as we differentiate student learning based on needs, we also ought to differentiate teachers learning experiences to meet their varying needs (National Staff Development Council, 2010). We can create small groups based on needs to meet with on a regular basis to discuss our needs, data and other necessary information.

Finding time is scarce but required when teachers are learning a new skill or practice. According to the Learning Policy Institute, in their article titled, "Effective Teacher Professional Development", they state that "Effective professional development provides teachers with adequate time to learn, practice, implement, and reflect upon new strategies that facilitate changes in their practice. As a result, strong PD initiatives typically engage teachers in learning over weeks, months, or even academic years, rather than in short, one-off workshops (2017)." We need to have ongoing professional development in order to master and refine new skills.

Some added challenges that may be present in your situation as described in the "Effective Teacher Professional Development" article are as follows:

  • Inadequate resources, including necessary curriculum materials;
  • Lack of a shared vision about what high-quality instruction entails;
  • Lack of time for implementing new instructional approaches during the school day or year;
  • Failure to align state and local policies toward a coherent set of instructional practices;
  • Dysfunctional school cultures; and
  • Inability to track and assess the quality of professional development.

As educators, we need to "fight" against the challenges and continue to push for professional development that meets our needs...not the needs of the few. One way we can encourage the change is to utilize EdCamps or an "unconference". "Unlike traditional conferences which have schedules set months in advance by the people running the conference, Edcamp has an agenda that's created by the participants at the start of the event. Instead of one person standing in front of the room talking for an hour, people are encouraged to have discussions and hands-on sessions" (EdCamp Online Weebly).

We the educators can be the force behind the professional development and be the leaders. We need to suggest topics and not take no for an answer. Isn't it true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease? Let's be squeaky!

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Response From Jared Covili

Jared Covili specializes in teaching strategies for classroom integration of technology such as Google tools, geospatial learning, social media, and digital devices. Jared's background is in secondary education where he was a Language Arts teacher at the secondary level. Jared received his Bachelor's degree in English and his Master's degree in Instructional Design and Educational Technology from the University of Utah.  Jared is an adjunct faculty member of the College of Education at the University of Utah, where he teaches technology integration classes to undergraduate students. Jared is the author of Going Google and Classroom in the Cloud:

I attended a conference recently in which the keynote speaker shared the idea that all teachers should have their own IEP or individual education plan. At the time I thought that sounded pretty out there, but upon reflection I really like this idea for "fixing" professional development (PD).   Too often professional development is a "one size fits most" strategy and we all know that doesn't work for learning. Here are three suggestions for changing the face of professional development to meet the needs of today's teachers.

Instead of attending a Conference, attend an "Un-Conference": One of the problems of traditional PD in education is that the agenda is already set and very inflexible to meet the needs of diverse learners.  What teachers need is the ability to help determine the agenda for their own learning.  A new style of conference called an "un-conference" or Edcamp looks to help educators do just that.  Edcamps are one of largest growing movements in education professional development.  Here's why - edcamps are a grassroots movement that empowers teachers and administrators to learn about the topics they want.  Rather than a traditional conference where the program is pre-determined well in advance of the event, an edcamp uses crowdsourcing to determine what topics will be covered at the event.  It all happens during the first hour of the edcamp.  Any teacher can suggest the topic they want to learn and discuss by putting it on the idea board.  If others want to learn about that topic as well they simply add their names to the topic and a session is born.

Edcamps are popping up all over the country and because of their cost - FREE, they are putting learning back into the hands of educators.  You can learn more about the edcamps in your area by visiting https://www.edcamp.org/.   Even better, if there isn't one that meets your needs - start an edcamp for you and your colleagues!  Edcamps embody professional development at it's finest - educators learning from and sharing with one another!

Take it Online - Sort of:  For the past several years the idea of "flipping" the classroom has made huge strides in educating our students.  Many teachers utilize their online LMS (learning management system) to provide students with content and instruction online so in-person time can be used to maximize learning.  However, this trend really hasn't caught on with professional development for teachers. 

Moving PD into a hybrid space with online resources and pre-training materials provides an opportunity to personalize learning for educators.  They can learn at their own pace and target areas of interest as they prepare for an upcoming PD session.  Having a flipped PD will increase learning time during the session and make sure everyone is able to take away the ideas and information they intended.

Build a PLN for Just in Time Learning:  Twitter has changed the game for educators looking to learn from and connect with one another.  With a twitter account I can connect with educators from across the globe in seconds.  I don't have to wait for a district PD session to find great resources - I can turn to my PLN (Personal Learning Network) and find ideas and options for my classroom immediately. 

Here are a couple ideas for building your PLN on Twitter:

  • Connect with the locals. For many teachers Twitter can be overwhelming at first,  so connecting with people from your local area is a great way to learn from the people you know. One option for connecting with local teachers is to participate in your state Twitter edchat.  Here, you'll find a wide collection of educators dealing with many of your same issues.  Following these locals helps you develop your PLN. Search for Education Twitter chats on the web and you'll find days/times to get involved.

  • Hashtags are your friends. Twitter is a constant information stream that can intimidate beginning users.  Hashtags can filter out the noise and help you find pertinent resources for your classroom.  Searching for Education Hashtags in your browser will provide you the hashtags you'll need to filter for specific information related to your subject or grade level.

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Response From Daniel R. Venables

Daniel R. Venables is the Founding Director of the Grapple™ Institutes where he teaches schools how to do PLCs well.  His latest book is Facilitating Teacher Teams and Authentic PLCs:  The Human Side of Leading People, Protocols, and Practices (ASCD, 2018).  He can be reached at [email protected]:

As educators, we know from recent and even not-so-recent research that the best professional development for teachers is ongoing, job embedded, personalized PD that focuses on the needs of individual teachers or teacher teams. Yet, as I work with schools and school districts all over the nation I see many that continue to practice outdated, largely ineffective models of PD for their teachers.  Here are some of the things that I see as broken about the old models.

Irrelevance to teachers.            Teachers are too busy to have their time disrespected by subjecting them to PD that is irrelevant to what they need as teachers to do the best they can for kids. We have finally learned to differentiate our instruction for students; it is high time that PD for teachers be differentiated to at least some minimum plausible extent. For every instance that teachers feel their coveted time is wasted, their collective morale and relationship to the administration is eroded.  In nearly all instances, PD should be based on the self-identified, instructional needs of the teachers.

Parachuting in an expert.        This is the central tenet of the old paradigm of teacher PD. Principals hire a consultant or an expert in some instructional area (e.g., differentiation, use of new technology, higher-order thinking, etc.) and this expert offers what is most commonly an off-the-shelf, prepackaged workshop that is tailored to the needs of the faculty only in the very broadest terms, if at all. The workshop is very cookie-cutter not only in offering the same thing to all the teachers regardless of need, but in many cases offering the same thing to every school the expert visits.

Entertaining, but not impactful.           These expert-led one day workshops are very often entertaining to the faculty. In the best case, these workshops are entertaining and might even be inspiring. Teachers get practical ideas they have every intention of implementing when the workshop is over. But statistically speaking, this inspiration is short-lived and rarely leads to impactful changes in the classroom. Inspiring Impactful.  Part of the reason is the next item on the list.

No follow-through.      Even if a one-day workshop is entertaining and inspiring, the chances that it will translate to improved instruction are slim to none - especially if there is no follow up by the expert (as in a follow-up visit several weeks later), or follow-up by the school's administration. By having a follow-up day for teachers to discuss their attempts to implement a particular strategy or app that they learned during the one-day workshop, teachers are more likely to actually try the new idea and reflect on how things went.

Additionally,  the absence of follow-through sends the message to the faculty that the content and focus of the one-day workshop wasn't that important after all.

Multiplicity of focus.    Schools and districts  continue to be  plagued by this disorder.  It's as if principals  and district administrators, desperate for gains in student learning, try most  anything  that comes down the educational pike.  The result  is "initiative fatigue";  teachers  get overwhelmed, spread too thin, and burnt out in their conscientious attempts to implement in earnest each new initiative.  Principals and district administrators must be selective and prioritize the list of PD options available.  If everything is important, nothing's important.

Same old, repackaged.    There is a lot of "initiative reincarnation" in education. Veteran teachers are well aware of how often old ideas and initiatives morph into "new" ones, with new names and new catchphrases but with little innovative thought. PD that smacks of this may come from well-intentioned administrators but is generally off-putting to teachers who've been around the block a few times.                    

Why Authentic PLCs Can Fix Them All

When done well, authentic PLCs, in contrast to their ineffective, PLCs-in-title-only, ubiquitous counterparts, either correct for or disallow in the first place each of the above problems. Once a PLC facilitator is effectively trained, the PLC becomes a community of self-providing professional developers. They work outside their bubble of existing experience and knowledge as they construct community knowledge and learn anew together. Authentic PLCs by their nature are driven by goals and plans of action that the members themselves have set. They are the decision-making body. This requires a bedrock of trust that is deliberately acquired by what and how the PLC does under the leadership of a trained and skillful facilitator.  But there is another trust account acting here. The principal's capital in working with the PLC is in offering his trust and relinquishing power and autonomy to the PLC.  In return, he receives high-quality work from the team.  In this model, which I have developed with countless schools and witnessed it work with real teachers and principals, the team decides what they will improve in their individual and collective instruction - based in part on both the macro- and microdata they have carefully analyzed - and take definitive action to improve it.  For just as high is the empowerment of the team, so too is the degree of responsibility of the team to produce, to really make a difference for kids.  

It is as Ted Sizer shared with me many years ago when he remarked something close to: "Principals ought to do everything in their power to create and maintain school environments that enable adults and kids to flourish, and then get out of their way."

In my 37 years in education, I have found nothing faster to improve schools than PLCs, when done well.  

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Response From Harry Fletcher-Wood

Harry Fletcher-Wood is a history teacher turned professional development leader working in London.  He blogs at improvingteaching.co.uk and his first book, Ticked Off: Checklist for Students, Teachers and School Leaders, is out now:

There's one big problem with teacher professional development practices: they usually don't work.  Even well-designed and expensive PD often has no impact: 'The Mirage' by TNTP, and recent Institute of Education Sciences reports demonstrate this clearly.

Why is this?

I think we can explain PD which doesn't lead to impact by looking at three big questions:

  • What do teachers need? Often our PD is not focused on knowledge and skill which will be useful to teachers in their classroom now.  Training a teacher in math which will be useful in other grades than the one they teach, for example, is not much help.
  • How will they put what they learn into practice? Teachers need the chance to work through what they've learned and find a way to fit it into their normal routines through deliberate practice.  Too often, there's too much talk in PD, not enough practice and not enough follow-up.
  • What else will get in the way? There are dozens of other factors affecting what teachers do, such as habits, experience, motivation, intuition and home circumstances, as well as colleagues, students and school systems.  Too much PD seems to exist in isolation from these pressures.

What can we do?

All this said, I think there's some promising research on PD which does work.  I take three priorities from it:

  • Careful diagnosis. We need to work out what teachers have and what they need: maybe they're highly motivated and well-supported, they just need some new ideas to play with. Maybe they've got plenty of great ideas, but no one to support them to improve.  Rather than trying to design PD programmes which will work for everyone, we need to establish the conditions for success, and which of those conditions are lacking for our teachers.
  • Focus on the work of teaching. We need to focus on the specific things teachers are teaching and the ways they are interacting with students.  Theory is important, but we need to attend to the minutiae of practice - how you explain a particular misconception in 8th Grade - if you want to provide teachers something they'll use.
  • Use what we know about how people change. Change is hard: we need to design programmes that attend to how humans respond to being asked to change.  I'd like to see more use of behavioural psychology to do this.  A helpful framework is to make any change Easy, Attractive, Simple and Timely.  For example:
  • Easy - Minimise the amount of work change requires: give teachers the templates or resources to use.
  • Attractive - Show how change will improve students' and teachers' lives: get a teacher who's made the change to explain how great it's been.
  • Simple - Ask teachers to make one simple change, like the way they ask questions, and let that become a habit.
  • Timely - Offer PD when it'll be useful: one of my favourite schools runs it for thirty-minutes on a school day morning, then teachers go straight off and use it.

I feel pessimistic about PD now, but optimistic about its potential.  With useful, targeted, behaviourally-informed PD, we could do a whole lot more to improve outcomes for our students.

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Thanks to Doug, Jessica, Melissa, Jared, Danile and Harry for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

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Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

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Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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