The Six Flaws of “Traditional” Professional Development

By Katya Rucker

Out of every mode of support we pour into students, high-quality instruction has proven to have the greatest impact on their achievement. The buck stops with the teacher (or so we’re frequently told), and that’s why schools and districts have invested almost $18,000 per teacher on training and professional development, mostly in the form of workshops and salaries for support staff. Here’s the problem: a lot of it isn’t working.

Luckily, there’s research that shows what kind of PD does translate into better student outcomes. By understanding the six biggest downfalls of “status quo” professional development, leaders can begin taking steps to change them.

1) Traditional PD treats teachers as passive learners.

Lecture-based, sage on stage workshops don’t work any better for teachers than they do for students. Why they don’t work is twofold. According to a 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute, traditional PD rarely makes room for participants to connect the content to their individual contexts to build understanding, and provides no opportunities for participants to learn skills or strategies by actively trying them out. Humans learn through trial and error — we need to make mistakes in order to repeatedly approach new problems from different angles. Making mistakes also helps us internalize what success looks like so we can better apply the new skill in higher-stakes environments. For teachers, that means their classrooms.

How to fix it:

Just as teachers should create opportunities for their students to learn actively in peer-to-peer interactions, any workshop-style PD can be improved with a little learner-centered pedagogy. The majority of workshop time should be reserved for teacher collaboration, feedback and reflection as participants analyze student work and model new strategies in real time with each other. There is no time wasted in having science teachers participate in the hands-on labs they’re designing for their students, or in having English teachers pose their students’ Socratic Seminar questions to their peers.

2) Traditional PD is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Most professional development happens periodically and covers a variety of topics during full or half work days when kids are not at school. Workshops or sessions teachers take might cover topics on everything from literacy and classroom management to blended learning and assessment. Sessions are usually disconnected from each other and from the teacher’s classroom, and this information overload without coherence often prevents any of it from making it into the teacher’s instructional repertoire.

How to fix it:

Professional development should “go deep” into each teacher’s context, prioritizing application of knowledge in instruction over covering generalized topics at intermittent times. Going deep does take time, but it’s time that produces returns: according to a 2003 report by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, teachers who received at least 80 hours of professional development focused specifically on inquiry-based science instruction were much more likely to put the new strategies into practice than peers who received fewer hours of PD.

3) Traditional PD involves no ongoing support from an instructional expert.

When a workshop ends, support ends with it. That means it isn’t there when teachers need it most — in their classrooms, when they’re trying out the new strategy or skill for the first time. Many leaders choose professional development that addresses an existing skills gap in teachers, but this gap won’t close without targeting something more foundational: the implementation gap.

How to fix it:

When a peer or school-based coach delivers a workshop, implementation support might be available after the fact, but only if time is intentionally protected for follow-up on the specific skill the workshop covered. That doesn’t mean the peer or coach needs to get into every classroom at the time the teacher is applying what he or she learned, but it does mean that a one-on-one check-in soon after implementation needs to happen in order for the teacher to reflect and share what went well and what didn’t with the instructional expert.

If follow-up support is not structurally or logistically available after a workshop, leaders would do better by giving teachers the time to design their own collaborative learning experience and nixing the workshop altogether.

4) Traditional PD isn’t tailored to individual problems of practice.

When you put a fledgling teacher in the same room as a seasoned teacher leader and deliver the same content to those two and everyone in between, you can expect the same results as a teacher who shoots for the middle in her lesson: the seasoned veterans will be bored and may already know how to model the skill, while the new teachers will be overwhelmed and uncertain about where to start. When PD isn’t tailored to individual teacher needs, it won’t translate into practice because it doesn’t meet teachers at their developmental readiness levels.

How to fix it:

As with every budgetary line item, schools and districts have finite resources they can commit to differentiating professional development for teachers. One low-cost option is quarterly needs-assessment surveys. Administrators should ask their teachers to share specific instructional challenges, then identify patterns across responses to determine the focus of professional development time. If there aren’t patterns, the survey data could still allow leaders to match educators with one another based on individual areas of strength and growth.

5) Traditional PD doesn’t create space for teachers to reflect on their practice.

In a typical school week, teachers must constantly plan and act on their plans. When they assess student learning, they also have to make time to analyze results and determine how to move forward. Reflecting on practice is an exercise that understandably gets tossed aside in the midst of crazy school days. And because PD is so often about learning new skills and strategies, reflection is usually limited to: “Think about how you have been doing X. Now let’s learn how to do Y.”

How to fix it:

One way to create space for reflection is to have teachers participate in learning activities as learners, and ensure that a structured debrief about adapting the pedagogy for their classrooms takes place. This should be a relatively easy exercise to build into whole-group PD, but to go a little further: hold your instructional leaders (and yourself) accountable for asking teachers reflection-based questions in observation debriefs and even on the fly.

6) Traditional PD doesn’t measure its own impact on student learning.

There isn’t much data demonstrating the effect of professional development on student achievement, but one general conclusion can be drawn from the valid studies that do exist: The more time teachers spend on professional development (around 49 hours throughout a school year), the higher the impact on student learning.

How to fix it:

The lack of data correlating PD with student outcomes points to at least one obvious step leaders should take: Consider what student data would prove that teachers are taking what they learn back to their classrooms. This data should be varied and rich. If teachers are working on increasing student talk and decreasing teacher talk, they can have an observer record the number of minutes students are speaking in a class period before and after the teacher learns new student engagement strategies. If teachers are working on differentiating or personalizing learning, they can point to choice boards or playlists they have implemented in their classrooms, and then collect student assessment data as students have varied opportunities to demonstrate mastery.

The majority of teachers, current and former, have experienced one or many of these flavors of bad PD. But the good news is that many teachers can also name an instance of PD that actually worked for their practice and improved learning for their students. Let’s turn those instances into the new status quo — with fewer workshops and more intentional application of practices proven to help teachers grow.

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Katya Rucker is a Teach for America alum who taught math and English to middle school students in Massachusetts for 4 years. She is now Strategic Manager of Partner Development at BetterLesson.

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