10 Dead Ideas in Professional Development

Because October ushers in the Day of the Dead celebration, it seems fitting to take a moment to honor some of the cherished ancestors of modern-day professional development (PD).  We would not be where we are without them, but it is perhaps time to put some of those historic approaches to rest.

I came across the term “dead ideas” in a roundabout way—first through an eponymous podcast about higher education, Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning, and then by following the sources back to Miller’s book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity via Pike’s article “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning.” Pike (2011, p. 2) explains why these assumptions about education are “tyrannical”:

Ideas are dead because they are no longer correct, if they ever were. They are tyranny because we cling to them despite the evidence. Thus, we fail to act as we should. Seemingly logical actions, in fact, are counterproductive. Political leaders, media pundits, and business executives all become trapped (think C. Wright Mills [1959]) by these “tacit assumptions and ingrained instincts broadly shared” (Miller 2009:2). Critical social forces provide the context within which these ideas linger. They must be understood if we are to identify the destined ideas of the future that will lead us in the right direction.

PD approaches are not exempt from dead ideas, and should, in fact, be particularly scrutinized for holding on to them. Examining PD for dead (tyrannically held) ideas is especially important in that the modeling of teaching and learning they provide can reinforce practices that teachers then take up and use (perhaps unknowingly), with their own students. In other words, if we experience a PD session that is liberating, energizing, and inclusive (whatever the topic of that PD was), we are able to implement many of the moves when we return to our classrooms. The reverse may also (dangerously) be true.

Before we can envision PD that we believe is more powerful, engaging, and relevant to teachers, we must take a moment to challenge a few “dead ideas” that have had a long run of popularity, widespread use, and unquestioned application. The following 10 are some of the dead ideas in PD that come to my mind. How many of you are still seeing these being implemented? (My hand is raised too!)

1. Herding everyone into a room to listen to an outside speaker.

(Who is this person?)

2. Providing intensive training with no follow up.

(How am I to apply these ideas?)

3, Sending educators to a conference with no space to share back their learning.

(I wanted to share but no one gave me time!)

4. Ignoring expertise, even when it’s offered, of internal employees.

(I could have presented this workshop!)

5. Being offered no choice in the topic of the PD event.

(Ugh, I already know about this!)

6. Thinking that food is the only reason educators participate in PD.

(Please don’t waste our time!)

7. Believing that the best PD has to be delivered in English (by native speakers).

(I want to see local teachers present and I want to deeply discuss using our home language!)

8. Focusing on clocking a certain number of hours of PD.

(I have racked up the hours and have learned nothing.)

9. Packing the PD agenda so that educators have no down time.

(When are we able to talk through these ideas?)

10. Giving the PD only to teachers, without supervisors participating.

(If I try to implement this, my supervisor will disapprove!)

We are poised at a radical moment in education to bid farewell to these and other dead ideas in professional development, as the global upheaval of education due to COVID-19 provides the spark to fuel new directions. Even before this current sea change to education, PD has too often been seen as an experience to dread rather than look forward to. As Walport-Gawron (2018) states:

Any great school leader understands that providing PD is vital to teaching practice, but it’s important to note that not all professional development is equally effective, and a good number of teachers complain that some mandated PD crosses over into wasted time.

Next month, I will provide some planning guidelines if you are in the role of suggesting, designing, or conceptualizing PD at your institution that can get us headed toward a new, dynamic era of PD!

In the comments, share any ideas in professional development you think should be “dead”!


About Laura Baecher

Laura Baecher
Dr. Laura Baecher is professor of TESOL at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her research interests and publications relate to teacher education, including educational technology in teacher learning, observation and coaching for English language teaching, and professional development in TESOL. Her recent books are Reflecting on Problems of Practice in TESOL and Video in Teacher Learning: Through their Own Eyes. She has served as TESOL International Association’s Teacher Education Interest Section chair, as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State, and as president of the New York State TESOL affiliate.
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4 Responses to
10 Dead Ideas in Professional Development

  1. Ana María Castro says:

    Hello Laura!

    Iread through all ten DEAD ideas in PD presented in the article. I couldn’t agree more. I wish they could be known by our PD designers in Buenos Aires, particularly N° 1,2,3, 4, 5 and 10, in my own experience. I am thinking of a common dead idea of decisions made in PD without previous research into the topics teachers and school leaders deem necessary. It could be done through simple tools like surveys sent to schools in advance.

    I will go back to the sources cited in your article to enjoy them And I will also look forward to your new guidelines for PD.

    I am thinking that a combination of dead ideas 1 to 5 are applicable to social communication of any topics designed to attract a determined target of audiences, particularly in social media. If teachers or social communicators are trained to avoid those dead ideas, by adding dynamic activities, i.e. by providing varied schemes or strategies like debates, forums after a presentation, and writing conclusions, active participation will create true learning experiences. So teachers could find a way to apply their class objectives, or sequence objectives into a real life experience. After all, what’s wrong in developing critical thinking and problem solving in Buenos Aires? Particularly I enjoy debates after a sequence for challenging students to feel protagonists of their own learning. Very few experiences of the sort I could achieve in state schools. PD objectives must be up to date . As to written samples of good learning I feel like quoting some activities presented in http://www.britishcouncillearnenglishteens: A video presents stories by means of a comic to introduce grammar items. A brief instruction leads students to understand those grammar items. There follows a blog style : a couple of questions induce students from all parts of the world to write using the grammar taught in the video and well explained below it. I found it very useful and effective when I was able to put it into practice. So, how could PD by means of a practical session induce teachers to use tools other than books and workbooks all the time? I am thinking of presentations that require teachers interactions in a blog style and a subsequent community practice to design a repository of teaching resources. Collaborative approach in all PD sessions will download collaborative energy. And if supervisors are present in PD trainings, of necessity they will see that teachers and school leaders implement a flow of innovations.
    Sharing is a must. My personal needs are in the field of gaming. I will have to see to it,.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share my experiences within your field of work.
    Best regards
    Ana Castro

  2. Ana María Castro says:

    Hello Laura.

    I have just started to read your post and it is very rich in resources. Looks awesome. So I will take some hours tomorrow Tuesday 26th to make full profit from it.

    Best regards.
    Ana Castro
    Buenos Aires

    • Laura Baecher Laura Baecher says:

      Ana I so appreciate your feedback–would love to know more about your thoughts and what you want to hear more about in this blog!

      • Ana María Castro says:

        Hello Laura!

        Thanks for reading my long answer to yoir post. I found it very interesting. I remember havivg come across a podcast collection of yours which I would like to go through and see your line of studies. It will be a pleasure to comment on them and find the topics I need to know more about. I wonder if I can access the link. Thanks!

        Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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