Last month, I paid homage to a number of dead ideas in professional development (PD), and they offer a great guide in thinking about what not to do! But what should we be doing? In this blog, I suggest six conceptual questions to consider if you are in the position of advising on, shaping, or making choices about the PD plan in your institution. These are the considerations—often skipped over—that lead to deeper and more impactful professional learning outcomes.
Question 1. What competencies are needed at this time?
Often, PD design decisions focus on the selection of content that will enhance the instructional skills of educators—and that becomes the top priority. However, it is important to step back to consider other competencies that are equally important, but may receive insufficient attention in PD programming. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have created a framework for considering four competency areas. They include
- the instructional domain (teachers’ need to do), but also
- the cognitive domain (need to know),
- the intrapersonal domain (need to reflect), and
- the interpersonal domain (need to relate).
Perhaps these other domains need the same time and effort as content-focused PD sessions.
Question 2. Where does this PD program fit within an overall, well-planned approach for school staff?
When we design a lesson, or a unit of study, there are multiple considerations in the choices we make as teachers. We consider the interests and strengths of our particular group of students, their performance data on diagnostic or assessment measures, the availability of resources and materials, local curricular requirements, and larger societal trends and goals. Planning PD programs is similar, yet few of these factors are explicit in decision-making or design meetings. Some questions to consider:
- What does this particular professional learning event have to do with a larger vision for a professional learning curriculum?
- Will it be connected to prior learning and set the stage for future “units” of professional learning to come?
- How is it personalized to the needs, gaps, interests, and strengths of the staff?
- Is it an additional stepping-stone in a pathway being constructed across the whole year or set of years in an institution?
One of the most frustrating things for educators to experience is committing time and energy to a PD initiative that disappears the following year. Research shows that being judicious about how a particular PD program will be sustained over a long period of time is essential to its success.
Question 3. When will educators be able to apply the ideas presented in this PD program?
Related to Question 2, it is well known that PD activities with no follow-up or time to process and apply ideas are far less effective than those that build in a sustainability component (just think of the expression “spray and pray”). Research suggests that successful PD design considers the necessary duration of the program, extends PD activities over the school year or semester, and “includes at least 20–40 hours of contact time.” Thinking beyond the content and skills focus or the logistics of the input sessions means considering financial resources; educator availability; the means to continue a structured, ongoing inquiry into the practices presented; and how sustained engagement will be supported and rewarded.
Question 4. Whose expertise is recognized in the design of this PD program?
It is during the design phase of deciding on PD options for staff that teachers should be at the table. When administrators determine what is important, who to consult, and what the activities should be with teachers as codecision makers, PD will be better received, more relevant, and more likely to be implemented. A recent survey of teachers in the United States found that “While teachers largely agree that school leaders think professional learning is important, just over half of teachers surveyed said they have ‘some say’ in their professional learning decisions, and nearly 20 percent said they have no input at all.” It is more important than ever that teachers play key roles in the design of PD at their institutions as the changing nature of today’s classroom makes teachers the most informed decision-makers.
Question 5. How is the learning in this PD program best measured?
Returning to the analogy of teaching students, consider the validity of only using attendance as a measure of student learning. We readily see that it would be woefully insufficient. Yet teacher PD is often measured (if measured at all) only in regard to the engagement level or attendance of staff at meetings or sessions related to the program. In order to be truly thoughtful about the design of PD, we must consider the proficiency developed by educators as a result of the program and trace the results out to student learning outcomes.
This could involve the creation of a professional learning tracking system to manage and record how teachers are moving through their learning, as suggested by Muir, in combination with a systematic approach to data collection. In this toolkit, a variety of approaches are recommended that are robust and, even if used in small ways, can inch up the quality of measurement. These approaches center around Guskey’s 5 levels of PD evaluation:
- Level 1–Participants’ reactions: Did participants feel the professional learning was useful?
- Level 2–Participants’ learning: Did they acquire the intended knowledge and skills?
- Level 3–Organization support and change: Was professional learning implementation advocated, facilitated, and supported at the school?
- Level 4–Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills: Did participants effectively apply the new knowledge and skills?
- Level 5–Student learning outcomes: What was the impact on students?
Question 6. Why is this PD program important?
Clarity of purpose—the transparency around goals and objectives—is something we often stress as important when delivering lessons to students. However, it is all too often absent when delivering PD programming to educators. The following simple ways to promote buy-in with the audience can go a long way. Take time to ensure that participating educators understand
- the reasoning behind the decision to offer a particular PD program,
- who was involved in its design (must include practitioners!),
- how it fits within the larger goals for the institution, and
- how the ideas will be implemented and evaluated.
These aspects are covered in Questions 1–5, so as those questions are considered, they can become the opening for the PD session.
Designing PD can be a creative and dynamic process, but the return on investment hinges on its being built on a solid foundation. Take some time with your design team to consider these questions before you launch your next PD program!
In the comments, share your thoughts about these questions when planning PD!