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November 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 3

An Insider's Perspective on Transforming PD

To breathe life into PD programs, schools must build in a range of formats and prioritize engagement and choice.

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Professional LearningInstructional Strategies
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There's nothing quite like a professional development session for teachers. If your experience has been like mine, you know about the strange atmospheric mix of bored resignation, eagerness for something new and fresh, and cynical amusement that pervades these gatherings. There's the "I-have-to-get-my-hours-so-here-I-am" teacher who sits in the back and surfs social media; the new teacher anxious for an idea to overcome a challenging situation; the veteran who's familiar with the concept being addressed, knows its likely obstacles, and is armed with a piercing question designed to knock the session's leader off the pedestal. Then, moving like an underwater current, there's the tension that arises from teachers who recognize room for growth and want to learn something new, practical, and useful but also feel protective of the teaching practices they already have in place.
It's as if, for some teachers, the very existence of PD represents a shadowy threat to their autonomy, independence, and sense of effectiveness. I think that's why many teachers choose to receive their professional development hours over the summer or at large-scale presentations where they can be anonymous, instead of attending building-level training sessions with their colleagues during the school year.
As an instructional coach at a middle school who regularly arranges and offers professional development sessions to teachers in my building and within the district, I understand the mixed feelings that teachers sometimes have about PD. I've seen that, at their best, PD sessions can renew our level of energy, stock a toolset of strategies, and motivate us to be better teachers than we were yesterday. At their worst, these arranged opportunities cement ineffective practices, discourage us by making us think of all the things we don't do, and leave us feeling like we just wasted the last hour of our lives.

Toward Not Wasting Their Time

So how might schools develop structures for professional development that support the best teaching practices and give teachers access to the kind of ideas they want—when and how they want them? How can we design PD so that all teachers, no matter their experience, effectiveness, or time constraints, leave with something that increases their capacity to create meaningful learning opportunities for students—without feeling that their autonomy is threatened?
I believe three key factors can help us develop stronger, more impactful building-level professional learning: flexibility in formats, engagement, and choice in content.

Put Flexibility First

First and foremost, PD has to be accessible to be effective. If teachers can't attend, then it doesn't matter how good a session is. We must move beyond the traditional hour-after-school model if we're going to reach all our teachers. Learning can also happen before school. It can happen during regular school hours—during planning time or a working lunch. And with all the digital communication platforms now available to us, PD can be offered virtually, without sacrificing teachers' ability to share ideas and exchange feedback. The school where I work saw attendance at one professional learning opportunity double when I made a few tweaks to an in-person session and offered it as a digital learning opportunity. Schools can even offer "standing," open-ended opportunities like earning Google certification or a micro-credential so that there's always something a teacher can do to access professional learning that counts for credit.
Flexible formats that match the intended objective of the learning can keep school-level sessions fresh and focused. For instance, some situations—such as learning a new technology tool—might be better suited for a heavy dose of modeling and direct instruction. Others, such as the standing opportunity for earning a certification or credential, might be most effectively delivered as facilitated or complete-on-your-own-time tasks.
Not only will offering a variety of formats allow more teachers to attend, it could impact how meaningful the session is for teachers. Proponents of personalized learning note that most learners have some preferred way they'd like to access information and content. In my experience, some teachers enjoy the face-to-face discussion that an after-school session can provide. Others will participate within an online discussion thread in a way they wouldn't in a room full of people. Using presentation tools like Google Slides, Nearpod, or Padlet gives those teachers an outlet for expressing their ideas. Some teachers benefit from being able to ask questions in the moment as the leader explains an idea; others have told me they prefer when I create a series of brief video clips so they can easily pause or rewatch sections of the video.
We've also experimented with informal, mini-PD sessions embedded within the school day, where teachers can sit down together and work through new ideas. These sessions give teachers a dedicated time and safe space for exploring topics like sharing resources through Google Drive or using innovative ways for student groups to share their work.
I realize school leaders and PD providers might be concerned about attendance levels when offering several sessions of different kinds. It's hard to invest so much time in developing a high-quality session, only to see a handful of participants show up. (Believe me, I've been there.) However, I'd argue that many teacher learning sessions might be more effective in smaller groups since that means more time for questions and feedback. And just because the sessions are physically or spatially separate doesn't mean they can't be linked. Digital collaboration tools can help bridge the gap among teachers from different sessions by providing a platform for in-person participants and digital participants to benefit from one another's ideas.
For instance, if I lead or moderate a digital version of a learning session prior to doing a comparable in-person session, I can (with permission) share reflections and questions recorded in the online session with the in-person group as part of the discussion. Likewise, survey responses from the end of an in-person session can be used as prompts for a similar digital session. In-person attendees might end their sessions by posting on a Google form strategies they plan on using in the future. I could then load their posts into a Padlet so the digital attendees can see them to spark some beginning-of-session brainstorming. Offering multiple formats and times has the potential to increase both attendance and the level at which teachers engage with the content.

Encourage Engagement

Speaking of engagement, the importance of engagement in professional learning can't be understated. We've all attended PD sessions—even on issues like group work or student engagement—in which the presenter lectured the entire time and participants were never expected to do or say anything. This begs the question: If school leaders expect active, meaningful, and engaging lessons from their teachers, why should the expectations for PD be any different?
I can attest that my perspective on creating teacher learning sessions changed when I began to think of creating these sessions more like I create lesson plans. In my first years presenting, I simply showed up with a prepared presentation and expected that, since everyone was a professional and a teacher, they'd all be active participants and would leave with something new and valuable. Those were boring, terrible sessions.
Now I build PD's like I build lesson plans. First, I start with a narrowly focused learning objective. Then, I plan for a product of some kind for teachers to develop by the end of the session that demonstrates an understanding of the learning objective. Next, I think about creative ways to deliver the new information as a big idea; build in some time for teachers to process it; and, finally, plan for an opening hook—a question or problem that'll rope teachers into the whole thing. I shouldn't have been surprised that the same planning structure I'd used to create engaging lessons as a science teacher also worked for PD sessions for teachers.
The biggest difference in planning for adult learning versus planning classroom lessons is that adults have somewhat different needs that affect their engagement. For example, adults need more convincing about the learning objective, and they need opportunities for immediate application. With more experience to draw on, adult learners are good judges of how much support they'll need to learn something new. Keeping those different needs in mind, I've found success in offering different levels of support. Some teachers might need a full walkthrough with someone guiding them as they develop a product. Others might need an easy reference for when they get stuck—a printed guide on the table or a YouTube video. Others will know exactly how they want to apply the new learning and just need the time and space to go full steam ahead with their own ideas.
For example, when our school leadership received our state assessment data, we developed a learning task through which teachers reflected on how their instruction might impact different kinds of students. Specifically, teachers examined students' growth data (essentially the change in percentile scores from the past year to the current one) and considered what factors might have influenced their students' change in percentile scores. Before undertaking the task, teachers received some information, within their professional learning communities, on how the data were generated, and they were asked to look at school-level trends. We'd hoped that this would serve the dual purpose of giving teachers necessary background knowledge and building anticipation for reviewing their individual classroom-level data.
The task itself, which we offered both digitally and as a before- or after-school in-person session, consisted of responding to questions modeled after those in Costa and Garmston's book Cognitive Coaching, (Christopher-Gordon, 2002). The questions were designed to encourage the teachers reflect on how the data might inform future instructional practices (such as "What ideas might someone have to explain why some students' percentile scores dropped?" or "What might you consider doing differently to support a similar kind of student this year?"). To make the application of the new information immediate, the task ended with teachers writing about what changes they might consider.
Although I don't think anything we did was revolutionary, the choice to offer the PD in a variety of ways and to center its content on a task with an immediate application to teachers' practice made it personal, purposeful, and effective.
Aside from how the content of the PD is structured, the most critical piece of making professional learning engaging is creating an environment that respects teachers' different levels of experience and also values learning collaboratively. This is a delicate balancing act. On one hand, new learning must seem attainable (as David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson noted, "self-concept plays a strong role in learning because most individuals tend to avoid situations that may result in failure"). Teachers won't engage (or attend) if the learning project feels too difficult. On the other hand, PD sessions that aren't challenging or novel enough will be met with downright apathy. Offering active, task-based PD with different levels of support helps achieve the right balance. The key is to make the learning objective of the session clear and to set a range of acceptable products teachers can create to demonstrate an understanding of the objective.
Let's say you develop a session on collaborating with Google tools like Docs and Slides, with your stated goals being for teachers to recognize how using the platform might give them a more efficient means of collaborating and for them to create any artifact that involves such collaboration. One teacher might work closely with you to simply create a shareable "view only" link, while another teacher independently develops a template for a student portfolio with Google Sites. Both achieved the goal of collaborating via G Suite and created a useful product that will impact how they collaborate with their students, even though their experiences during the session were very different.
One of the greatest advantages of teaching in the 21st century is the accessibility of informational resources. And one of the greatest challenges of teaching in the 21st century is navigating through that ocean of information. A simple Google search on, say, "effective teaching" turns up advice on teaching from an endless number of social media posts and countless conferences. Look for a fresh take on any learning activity, and you'll find a plethora of new digital tools that can help you accomplish it. With so many topics and ideas available for professional learning, it's challenging to determine what's most pertinent and practical.
A school can find a balance between too few and too many choices by focusing the core learning sessions it provides on its schoolwide priorities while making more self-directed opportunities on other topics continuously available to teachers. In planning for the upcoming school year, school leadership teams often assess the staff's needs, through giving a survey or analyzing teacher-evaluation scores. This assessment is a good time to pinpoint the most important topics that in-house learning coordinators will focus PD sessions on during the school year, those big ideas and values that all teachers in the building should strengthen. These topics should form the core of the PD plan for the year. Care should be given to planning to deliver sessions centered on these topics at times when most of the staff is present, such as at grade-level meetings.
Beyond this core, teachers should be presented with a variety of choices so that they can participate in whatever learning opportunities they're most interested in or that they think will be most beneficial for their own learning and classrooms.
Many school-level PD offerings are topical, based on some kind of pedagogical strategy or technology tool. Simply adding optional sessions, like teacher-led book studies on appealing topics, or offering work time toward teachers collaboratively earning a micro-credential can bring in more teachers without exponentially increasing the planning time necessary to offer additional, formally led in-school sessions. These "learning together" sessions allow teachers to plan to pursue specific professional learning.
It's also important to leave room in the calendar to add in sessions to cover unexpected technology or instructional changes. In my school last year, needs arose for training teachers on using some newly arrived Apple TV's and navigating the transition from the Google Drive launcher to Google Backup and Sync. Creating space for on-demand sessions helps to deliver timely, pertinent professional learning opportunities so that teachers can have access to new learning right when it will have the most impact.

Small Changes, Revolutionary Results

Offering a variety of content in an active, task-driven environment, according to a flexibly designed schedule can transform building-level PD. None of the changes recommended here are revolutionary in and of themselves. But implemented as a whole, they can make PD more accessible, timely, and meaningful to all educators. What a great way to pivot toward the end goal of all PD—maximizing student learning!
End Notes

1 Duverge, G. (2016). "Contrasting classrooms: Instructional differences between pedagogy vs. andragogy." [blog post]. Point Park University Online. Retrieved from https://online.pointpark.edu/education/pedagogy-vs-andragogy

2 Sousa, D. A., & Tomlinson, C. A. (2010). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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