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February 25, 2021
Vol. 16
No. 12

Leveraging What We Know for Better PD

Instructional Strategies
Students deserve meaningful learning experiences—ones where they explore rich questions, engage in deep discussions, and problem-solve in collaborative ways. This ambitious vision for learning requires an equally ambitious vision for teaching. Teachers, who have generally not had these rich learning opportunities themselves, must learn how to support students to think critically, engage in the authentic practices of their discipline, and discuss and productively collaborate with each other. This is no small task, as studies of teacher learning have demonstrated (Hill, 2007).
Investments in professional development have often been seen as the policy instrument to achieve this more ambitious vision of learning. Unfortunately, we know that many formal efforts are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.
But we collectively also know quite a bit about what works and what doesn't when it comes to professional development. If teachers and leaders find a gap between their current professional development efforts and the types of learning experiences teachers need to learn and grow, they can assess whether they may be facing any of the following five challenges and use what we know to build more effective opportunities for teacher learning.

Challenge 1: PD Lacks an Ambitious Vision of Teaching and Learning

Professional development efforts often introduce teaching practices, concepts, and routines without a full picture of how the pieces fit together to create a coherent whole. Individual PD must be grounded in a broader vision for teaching and learning, with frameworks for understanding how the intended knowledge, skills, and practices fit within a broader vision for student learning.
Schools that adopt an ambitious vision for teaching and learning, such as Complex Instruction or project-based learning, also adopt a clear focus for their professional development efforts. An instructional vision should include the goals a school has for student learning, as well as the teaching practices teachers use to support them, such as the driving goals and the core teaching practices of project-based learning.
An instructional vision establishes priorities and provides focus. For instance, if your school has an instructional vision that centers equity and inclusivity, then professional development efforts should directly support teachers to pursue that vision. Teachers might explore strategies to disrupt racist or sexist stereotypes about intelligence, participation routines that enable broader engagement from all students, and strategies to build stronger relationships with students. Professional learning must be designed in service of a broader instructional vision; it must be more than a hodgepodge of disconnected teacher tips and tricks.
Consider: What is the instructional vision that should drive our PD efforts? What are the practices and mindsets that support this vision?

Challenge 2: PD Fails to Cultivate Teacher Ownership

Teachers feel more engaged when they have a sense of agency and autonomy over the learning process. Giving professionals ownership over their learning is a key principle derived from research on adult learning.
Professional development opportunities should support teachers to define their own development goals and work toward making progress on those goals. This can be done by allowing teachers to identify specific teaching practices they hope to develop, such as supporting students to collaborate, eliciting higher order thinking, or supporting students to reflect and revise. For example, in our PennPBL professional learning program, teachers identify their own goals and create plans to pursue those goals. A teacher might decide to support students to engage in peer critique. To pursue this goal, they identify specific things they hope to try in their classroom, such as co-creating an assessment rubric with students or conducting a "think aloud" where they model the peer critique process. After trying these techniques in their classroom and having an opportunity to analyze their experience with colleagues, they begin to surface what works, the challenges their students encounter, and the new instructional dilemmas they now face. These understandings form the basis for their next goal and plan.
When teachers are working on developing their practice together, they can make collective choices in the direction they want their professional learning to take. In a two-year professional development program for ELA teachers, we asked teachers to vote on the practices they most wanted to improve from the practices included in an observation protocol and then organized our PD efforts around those practices.
Consider: What opportunities do teachers have to define their own professional learning goals? How can you leverage observations or peer feedback to help identify areas for growth from which to choose?

Challenge 3: PD is Short, Sporadic, and Disconnected from the Classroom

Though teachers wouldn't expect students to master sophisticated practices or develop deep understandings after a single workshop, some professional development efforts assume that approach will work for teachers. But effective PD takes time.
Rather than professional development efforts that rely on one-off workshops and seminars, effective PD connects a teacher's learning with their actual classroom practice over sustained periods of time. Oftentimes, this looks like teachers exploring a routine, practice, or strategy; trying it out in their own classroom; and then analyzing how it went. In doing so, teachers use their own classrooms as professional learning sites. By recording video of their teaching or gathering other classroom artifacts to analyze, teachers bridge the gap between professional development and their own teaching.
Teaching is complex and requires in-the-moment discretion. Teachers are constantly managing dilemmas, informed by the goals they have for their students. Professional development that never incorporates real episodes of teaching is likely to lack the nuance and complexity needed for teachers to develop in meaningful ways. Even brief videos of teaching captured on a teacher's cell phone can provide a powerful source for teacher learning. Ensuring that teachers follow all school policies and protect student privacy, they can record their teaching and analyze critical moments with their colleagues.
Imagine a science teacher is soliciting responses from the class, and one student responds with a common scientific misconception. How can the teacher respond? What should they consider? Brief videos such as these can help teachers explore common issues they face and practice strategies to nurture curiosity and a growth mindset—techniques that will develop students' mindsets as sense-makers and problem-solvers.
Consider: How do our PD efforts connect to make a sustained, classroom-connected, active learning experience for teachers? How do we design teaching schedules to make room for ongoing teacher learning?

Challenge 4: PD Is One-Size-Fits-All

PD without differentiation fails to acknowledge the different learning needs teachers have. Professional development is most effective when it supports teachers to develop practices that are specific to their disciplines. Argumentation occurs in both science and mathematics, but these disciplines have different approaches and standards for how to create viable arguments. Interpretation and inference have a place in both English Language Arts and history, but meaning-making in these disciplines involves different approaches. Teachers benefit when they have access to models of what high-quality teaching looks like within their disciplines, as well as opportunities to practice those approaches.
Even within a given subject area, teachers are likely to have vastly different needs. While an accomplished teacher may need support with how to effectively intervene with student groups during collaborative projects, a novice teacher may need practice on simpler collaborative routines, such as how to facilitate an effective think-pair-share.
Student learning is most successful when it is differentiated by student needs and interests. The same is true for teachers. To do this, professional development efforts should require teachers to engage with their own practice, whether it be by establishing their own professional learning goals, defining their own problems of practice, or practicing making instructional plans.
Consider: How is our PD responsive to teacher needs across disciplines and teacher developmental trajectories? How do we tailor professional development opportunities to address teachers at different stages of developing ambitious practices?

Challenge 5: PD Is Not Collaborative.

We know the powerful learning potential that comes with learning in community with peers. Yet, this professional capital is often underleveraged because many PD efforts fail to engage teachers with one another in meaningful ways.
Most teachers face some similar problems of practice and stand to benefit from seeing each other teach (live or on video) and engaging in thoughtful analysis of how they interact with students or ensure equitable participation.
Teachers that have complementary strengths can serve as valuable resources for each other. A recent study in Tennessee showed that pairing teachers with different levels of skills in particular areas, as captured by classroom observations, led to improvements in both teacher practice and student learning. Importantly, the effort did not specify what teachers needed to work on together; teachers had the agency to decide how best to use their time.
While schools may benefit from significant structural changes, such as creating schedules to allow common planning times and allowing novice teachers to observe accomplished teachers teaching the same courses, smaller interventions are also possible. For instance, a school can embrace "open classroom" policies where teachers invite their colleagues to drop in whenever they want. Other teachers may form "five-minute observation clubs," where they commit to dropping by each other's classrooms each week for brief observations and then debriefing over lunch.
Consider: How does our PD support productive collaboration among teachers? How can we pair teachers with differing expertise who can support each other in developing their practice?

An Ambitious Strategy

Ambitious learning for students requires ambitious learning for teachers. All too often, PD efforts ignore principles and research on adult learning for the sake of efficiency. Powerful professional development to support instruction takes time, attention to the demands of particular subject matters and grade levels, and differentiated support for teachers at different stages of developing their practice. If we want to create opportunities for purpose-driven, authentic, sustained, differentiated, and collaborative learning for students, we need to invest in equally rich chances for teacher learning.

Hill, H.C. (2007). Learning in the Teaching Workforce. The future of children, 17(1). Retrieved from

Zachary Herrmann is a former math teacher who currently serves as a program director and a member of the associated faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

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