Designing what’s next in teachers’ professional development

March 27, 2014
Fellow, 2013-2014


Photo via Flickr user Todd Binger.

Photo via Flickr user Todd Binger.

In my view, there are five major types of professional development (PD) currently available to teachers:

  • In-house PD: This type of PD is offered at school sites — often weekly. It is usually run by someone on staff and on the school site exclusively. It is common for different staff members to run different sessions throughout the year. In some cases, the principal runs the majority of these sessions.
  • District–wide or organizational-wide PD: This is often scheduled in advance and requires multiple sites to co-locate for long periods of time (half day, full day or multiple day PD). These create an opportunity for school sites within a district or organization to collaborate, learn something in common, and meet and greet other people who teach their same subject area or grade. These larger efforts will often warrant guest speakers from the “outside” to present or lead.
  • Institution-based PD: This is usually long-term professional development around a common theme or content area. These PDs are often tied to a university, nonprofit organization or research institution. These experiences are often funded, so teachers may receive a stipend for their time and participation.
  • Professional Inquiry Group: In this form of PD, a cohort of teachers will come together to learn about something of interest to the group. These are often site-based but they don’t have to be. There are many formats and protocols for such groups but these groups often meet regularly for extended periods of time as they work collaboratively to learn and share new teaching practices.
  • Coaching: Many sites have on-site coaches as well as district coaches for their teachers. These coaches often support teachers in different goals in distinctly different ways. Principals will often play the coach role for teachers as well. New teachers also tend to have a “new teacher coach” who is assigned to help new teachers acquire the necessary credentials.

Most teachers participate in all of these types of professional development concurrently. The result is confused, overwhelmed teachers who find it difficult to know what to focus on first and who have a hard time remembering what they are working on and for whom. I have seen many teachers develop “cheat sheets” to help them keep track of all of the professional development they are participating in. Often, the PD calendar is set at the beginning of the year and is not responsive to the immediate and changing needs of the students and staff.

PD is still being delivered in a 20th-century lecture style, and most of it looks the same: teachers sitting in rows, staring at computers or cellphones while a person at the front of the room talks at them and refers to a computer screen from time to time.

I was recently at an “innovation conference” where someone taught a lecture called “tyranny of the lecture” — in a lecture format. Uhhhhh. So, when I tell teachers I am working on redesigning professional development, they often cheer and say, “thank you.”

Here, as I see it, are the main issues facing professional development for teachers:

  • There is an over-saturation of information.
  • We are not teaching teachers in ways that we want them to teach kids.
  • Learning is not differentiated in any way.
  • Rather than sticking with what works and building on it, PD tends to go in the direction of the latest fad.

I began thinking about how to change teacher practice through transformative, memorable deep-dive experiences. The  prototypes were more workshop-like but more experiential and radical than traditional workshops offered for teacher PD. I thought about American Idol-style conferences where teachers team up and work with coaches to improve their practice over a week’s time, or how horse therapy and liquid-flow dance could lend itself to classroom practice.

What I learned from these prototypes is that, while the experience was often exciting, memorable and transformative for the moment, true sustained change was difficult to achieve using this model. I started looking at some of the newer models for student education. At the SXSWedu conference in Austin this year, I talked to many educational technology companies creating and delivering micro content to students online. I learned there is a lot of research to support this new style of learning.

I started wondering why we aren’t using this same model for teachers, and I began building prototypes around micro content that could be delivered daily to teachers around important ideas in education. Here’s an example:

The feedback from my prototypes was extremely positive. These prototypes led me to think about how to make professional development part of teachers’ everyday lives. What if PD became routine, just like brushing our teeth or checking your Facebook page? This is the question guiding my current work.

I am currently developing several new prototypes designed to make professional development part of teachers’ everyday lives. I am working on creating meaningful content in an engaging format that can be applied in the classroom immediately. My goal is to make it concrete, applicable and short.

I hope that this new format for teacher learning will be so profound and have such an impact on instruction that they will begin to demand more from their day-long and week-long professional development experiences. When you have to concentrate the idea into a 2-minute snippet, for example, it requires you to think, weed, filter and, I believe, create the best learning experience possible.

If you have an idea for a 2-minute PD, would like to film one yourself, or would like to nominate someone else to film one, please drop me a line in the comments, on Twitter at @mpelochino or on email at melissa[at]dschool[dot]stanford[dot]edu.

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  1. Ralph Sherman

    I can help you and your associates to make videos with higher production value. You can use your own voice and an avatar of yourself or some other character to play the role of presenter/protagonist. The background image can be of your choosing and you can add text or other images in the background. There are two projects that I can help you with, Moviestorm for iPad and Moviestorm. There are educational licenses so you can use Moviestorm in the classroom. I help teachers to flip their learning environments with project based lessons which cover core content. These can be done by the students in your class and or by you and your professional associated to supply content for PD.

  2. Cameron Paterson

    Hi Melissa, great blog post, I’m going to google ‘horse therapy’ and ‘liquid-flow dance’ now! The 2-minute clips are more palatable to busy professionals than much current PD, but there is still the problem that it is content-driven, instead of being job-embedded and differentiated at the point of need.

    I would be interested in trying to produce a 2-min PD if you are looking for volunteers. What about feedback, or freewriting, or culture of critque, or authentic audiences?

  3. Lisa

    Let’s connect this with the unconference movement in general. Let’s get teachers out in unconferences aware of this project… !

    They can film a video on site as part of a session at edcamp! It would be an awesome influx of participatory video. See: #edcamp @EdcampUSA


  4. Sam Rosenfeld

    Excellent post, Melissa! Taking the short, one-step-at-a-time approach to PD is definitely the way to make effective change, and I look forward to seeing that shift in educator development programs!

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