Transformative Professional Learning: Getting Better is Getting Easier

Irvin Scott

I will never forget what it was like to be a new teacher in 1989. I was fresh out of college and eager to make a difference in the classroom. Passionate about literature and writing, I burned with a commitment to inspire and ignite learning in my students. But it didn’t take me long to realize that I had so much to learn, despite four years of training to be a teacher. Nearly 30 years later, new and experienced teachers are in much better place when it comes to opportunities to improve their practice.

It’s been more than two years since I wrote about efforts to improve teacher success through increasing collaboration and better, ongoing training. And it’s been more than three years since Primary Sources, a poll of teachers released by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, showed teachers ranked more time for collaboration and quality professional development (PD) among the most important factors to keeping them in the profession—more important than salary increases or greater decision-making roles.

In that time, many bright minds and new ideas have been put to the task of making teacher development richer and more impactful. The Gates Foundation, where I work, has invested heavily in creating spaces for teacher input, collaboration and engagement. And that work continues.

Unfortunately, so do the reports that professional learning for teachers still has a very long way to go. Just a month or so ago, another widely discussed study found that, despite districts spending billions of dollars a year on professional development, about 70% of teachers showed no improvements in teacher learning or effectiveness. Some teachers actually regressed.

While the lack of measurable progress can be dispiriting, the collective work of education leaders, policy makers, entrepreneurs, non-profits and researchers has actually shown great progress. Thanks to the collective efforts of those working to improve PD, and the creative application of new technology, we know more about the essential factors that have the potential to improve teachers’ practice.

In working with teachers, we’ve seen first-hand what they can do when they are given the flexibility to experiment and the resources and communities to share what they learn. We’ve also seen that, to really be effective, PD needs to be ongoing—over weeks and months instead of the one-day-a-month format used in many districts. We also know that great PD needs to have pathways for honest peer-to-peer evaluation as well as advice and support from outside experts.

That’s why we’re investing in innovative PD models that leverage technology and make it easier for teachers to connect and support each other in powerful, sustained ways.

Through the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) and the Mathematics Design Collaborative (MDC), thousands of teachers from across the country pool their expertise and resources to develop high-quality units aligned to the Common Core. Cross-country collaboration also lies at the heart of the Common Assignment Study (CAS), in which teams of teachers from Colorado and Kentucky have worked together over the past two years to co-design units and then coach each other as they teach them in their respective classrooms. Teachers involved in these efforts say that the collaborative process has done wonders for their professional growth—and that their students are more engaged in these co-built units.

Another online community has formed around the Redesign Challenge, a new effort to crowdsource educators’ best ideas for improving PD. As part of the first challenge, educators submitted more than 100 ideas for using video to support PD, and several of these ideas will be developed, piloted and, if successful, scaled up. Teachers are programming their own PD events—such as ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers) and Edcamp—to exchange ideas and teaching practices. And school districts across the country—from Long Beach to Washington, DC—are giving teachers more choice and flexibility in choosing professional development opportunities that meet their learning goals.

Technology is also changing the way teachers access PD. Videos and resources to support high-quality instruction are available online through websites like Teaching Channel, LearnZillion and many others. Educators also are taking charge of their own PD with the help of tools like Knowledge Delivery Systems’ professional learning platform, which allows teachers to access customized videos and content, track their learning and get real-time feedback—all in a virtual environment that’s constantly at their fingertips.  

These promising models are still on the cutting edge, but we’re seeing them catch hold, especially among the educators who have been calling for transformation in PD. And as teacher networks grow and districts increasingly leverage new tools to support PD, the potential to share data and practices across districts, regions, student populations and subjects is also truly exciting. Widespread adoption and integration of new, teacher-powered approaches to PD has real promise to end the practice of siloing teaching innovation and improve teaching everywhere in ways we didn’t dream about before.

Even years into this journey, I remain optimistic about what all of us can do for our nation’s teachers and students. We’re literally and figuratively a long way from the days when I taught, and that’s a good thing. We continue to believe in the power of persistence and innovation to transform teaching and learning—and the power of education to transform lives. After all, we truly believe that every life has equal value.

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Irvin Scott is the Deputy Director for Effective Teaching in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Ready program. Follow Irvin on Twitter, @iscott4.

This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Transformative Professional Development” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Knowledge Delivery Systems (@KDSI). Join the conversation on Twitter using #TransformPD.


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1 Comment

Gary Gruber

The best PD is ongoing, a kind of continuous improvement process, not an event here and there, now and then. However, those seminars and workshops can have value if they are connected directly to the craft of teaching and learning in a specific setting. This is why I am developing a school model based on many of the elements of a teaching hospital. The practitioners are engaged with peers and experts regularly, they are usually part of ongoing research or clinical trials, and they are focused on how they are serving the community and the larger world. There are many more details in terms of structure and function in the design aspects (think of the best Lab Schools you know) and nothing is perfect but we can get closer to an ideal and optimum experience in PD. I also believe in working with the individual and capitalizing on his or her strengths to have greater impact on the learning experience for everyone.

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