Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Professional Development: A Defense

Teacher conversations about professional development often include the terms worthless and waste of time, and a general disdain for typical approaches is often evident. The back-and-forth can be a bruising arena for those who actually provide professional development, and I’ve been feeling a bit bruised recently. Don’t worry. The bruises have only been blows to my ego. (The only actual bruise I have came compliments of a concrete planter on the corner of New Jersey & M Streets in Washington, D.C., and that’s not a tale I care to retell.)

I must confess that my own experience supports such derogatory comments. I once spent an entire morning of “professional development” brainstorming alternate ways to earn a living. Though I’m sure the administration’s intent and the presenter’s goals were worthwhile, the session was so poorly designed that worthless and waste of time accurately described the result.

Why, then, do the current perspectives of professional development seem bruising? A few years ago I began an organization committed to “investing in teachers,” a “school’s most valuable asset.” And, yes, professional development is a significant component of what we do. So, allow me to provide a brief defense of professional development based on what it can do when it’s effectively designed.

Professional development can contribute to increased student learning. As we learn more about teaching and related topics, such as findings from neuro- and cognitive science, we discover principles that can improve our teaching. As our teaching becomes more effective, our students understand more. Our growth in teaching influences their depth of learning.

Many times, our growth in teaching relates to our instructional design—an element that directly influences student learning: “Many breakdowns in student learning may be a function of poor classroom curriculum design,” suggests Robert J. Marzano. “...the expert teacher has acquired a wide array of instructional strategies along with the knowledge of when these strategies might be the most useful.”1 Professional development can equip us with additional strategies for fostering learning.

Professional development can provide a common language for teachers to talk to teachers about teaching. This increases the possibility of collaboration, a practice known to improve practice:
Surgeon and author Dr. Atul Gawande details conclusions of a Harvard Business School study on the learning curve surgeons experience when learning new surgical techniques. Practice in itself proved an unreliable predictor of learning rate and success, but how surgeons practiced made a significant difference. A surgeon leading one of the quickest-learning teams picked “team members with whom he had worked well before” and kept “them together through the first fifteen cases before allowing any new members. He had the team go through a dry run the day before the first case, then deliberately scheduled six operations in the first week, so little would be forgotten in between. He convened the team before each case to discuss it in detail and afterward to debrief.” In contrast, a surgeon who had significantly more experience led one of the slowest-learning teams. He involved different personnel in each surgery, “which is to say that it was no team at all,” and led no pre- or post-operation discussions. Increased collaboration quickened learning rate and improved performance. Most important, patients benefitted from the surgeon’s collaborative approach.2
Educational research reaches a similar conclusion: collaboration improves teacher performance. Unfortunately our learning institutions often impede professional growth by inhibiting collaboration. As a result, we can actually hinder student learning by failing to sharpen one another through collaboration.3 Common professional development can provide a basis and means for such collaboration.

Professional development can provide new research that equips teachers to be more intentional. New research often illuminates why what we already know to be successful teaching is effective. This recognition helps us become more intentional in our use of various methods and approaches. When we understand why something works, we know better how to optimize its effectiveness. A consistently good teacher is an intentional teacher, and the more we understand about teaching and learning, the more intentional we can become. Professional development can do these things, which also means it can fail to do them, and this is a source of teacher frustration and justifiably bruising comments:
Unfortunately, schools provide little help. Most professional development programs for teachers, claims Richard Paul, are “episodic, intellectually unchallenging, and fragmented” with “very little discussion on or about serious educational issues, and when there is such discussion it is often simplistic.”4
Those leading professional development sessions have a critical responsibility. In the next post I’ll explore some principles that should be considered when designing and leading professional development. We need effective, high quality, meaningful professional development.

Otherwise we do a disservice to hard-working professionals and deserve the bruises their opinions inflict on our egos.

  1. Marzano, R.J., What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003), 106, 78.

  2. Gawande, A., Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), 230.

  3. Sergiovanni, T.J., Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 88.

  4. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 191.

Image: 'Audience'


@blairteach said...

As one who also provides professional development, it is disheartening how often I hear so many teachers express disdain when discussing learning opportunities. I try very hard to engage the audience in authentic tasks that are transferable to their classrooms and, generally, I am successful with most participants.

The "worthless" label often arises because frequently nothing is done with the information acquired during the training. When building administrators do not attend the professional development activity with their teachers, it communicates a message that there is little or no expectation of teachers implementing the ideas from the training.

Sometimes, the "bad rap" for PD is more about teachers believing nothing will be done with the information, therefore, "wasting their time," rather than an objecting to the actual PD content or presenter.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

I completely agree! A related issue is the tendency for professional development to emphasize the focus "of the moment." After a few years, it's easy to develop a "this-to-shall-pass" attitude because no initiative is ever pursued to the point of firm grounding in practice. Professional development should be considered a long-term process, not a one-time "shot in the arm."

Robyn McMaster, PhD said...

Like you, Kevin, I am disgruntled by typical professional development. One of the problems is that the human brain is not able to hold all that much new information in its working memory. When we get involved with other people and activities soon after a session a lot of this simply "spills out." We need to practice, fail and find how it works best. The collaborative piece would be very helpful here.