Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday's Five: Improve Professional Development

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This Wednesday will be our first teacher work day of the year.  Before students begin on September 7th, teachers need to report for three "professional development" days.  As those days approach, I've been thinking a bit about how we can improve professional development that is sponsored by schools. Those of you who have read my blog for any amount of time know that I believe that professional development, both initiated by individual teachers to meet their own needs and initiated by schools to support teachers, needs to be at the center of any reform or revolution of our educational system.

The problem with most "professional development" is that despite often costing a great deal of money, it neither develops teachers as professionals, nor does it usually lead to any direct improvement in pedagogy or student learning.  For that reason, today's post will focus on five ways professional development can be changed so that it directly leads to positive change for students and teachers.

  1. Put the focus on teachers instead of administration.  -  Too many professional development sessions are spent disseminating information from administration to teachers about things that don't directly impact learning.  I know that improved attendance record keeping, the new policy on hall passes, the latest updates to the e-mail software, and administrative tasks matter to someone, but they don't make a lick of difference when it comes to student learning.  If the majority of professional development time is spent talking about such minutia, it's unrealistic to expect it to have any major impact on students.  
  2. Limit the number of initiatives.  -  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Dylan Wiliam speak at a conference in Hershey.  He made a point that if a district has more than 4 or 5 initiatives going on at once that they really have no initiatives, because it is unrealistic to expect such a wide focus to have any impact.  Yet, most teachers will tell you that their districts and schools have 20 or more areas of focus.  Eventually teachers stop listening because they know that the latest initiative will be replaced by something else within a year.  Identify the most important area or two of need, and keep the focus there.
  3. Make it collaborative.  - Teachers can best improve their pedagogical practices when they talk, compare, share, and work together.  This can't happen while they are listening to speaker explain powerpoint slides, being lectured at, or watching a video. 
  4. Make it relevant.  -  Perhaps the biggest complaint about professional development that I've continuously heard is that it doesn't directly translate to the classroom.  Teachers need to discuss strategies, practices, tools, and ideas that they can take back and use in their lessons.    
  5. Don't waste economic resources & allow your teachers to become leaders.  -  Every school and every district has teachers who are doing amazing things in their classrooms.  Most of the time, however, very few people know about it.  At the same time, schools are under increasing budget constraints.  Why waste money on bringing in someone from outside to lead a session when we can expose teachers in your school to colleagues who are excelling and develop teacher-leaders in our schools at the same time?  
How do the few schools and districts that are successfully meeting all five of the above points do it?  

One district near me has a district technology expo every year where teachers who are doing a great job of teaching 21st century skills via technology are identified and asked to present hour long sessions a few times during the day to their colleagues.  Teachers are given the freedom to attend the sessions they find most relevant to their needs.  

Other schools are encouraging online Professional Learning Networks and Professional Learning Communities.  Many of my previous posts have outlined how important I think personalizing one's professional learning is through tools like Plurk and Twitter.

Another model that I really like is the "unconference."  Basically, teachers would arrive and spend the first half hour deciding what they want to learn about and how to organize the day.  Those who want to talk about certain topics would sign up for rooms and times to meet.  Those participating are encouraged to "vote with their feet."  If a session isn't doing much for them, leave the room and find a session that better fits what they are looking for.  This model is great because every attendee gets a relevant, personal experience that directly fits what they need as a professional.  

Now it's your turn.  Are you happy with your school's professional development model?  Do the sessions you attend meet your needs as a professional?  If so, what is your school doing right?  If not, what changes would you like to see?  In what other ways can we have professional development lead to a greater impact on student learning?  Leave a comment below, and pass the post on to others by retweeting, replurking, or sharing on Google Plus and Facebook so that we can learn from them as well.