High-Quality Professional Development

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.  It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”  Winnie the Pooh

I can’t remember why I initially looked up the first lines of Winnie the Pooh, but when I read them I immediately thought of education and education reform.  Just being in this class with a bunch of teachers reminds me – through their groans and sighs – that most professional development is boring and ineffective.  Yet we continue to persist in doing it wrong over and over again, not out of ill intent, but because the nature of schools is such that we can’t stop bumping our heads for long enough to think of another way.

We all have worked with teachers and administrators who resist growth and change in their professional practice.  A group of teachers put together the video to illustrate the absurdity of that mindset:

(source: lynnvm)

I believe that every educator got into the profession with the goal of helping students learn, but somehow we have created a profession where some individuals do not continue to be lifelong learners themselves.  As a site administrator it is my goal to create opportunities for teachers that invigorate them and lead them to be clamoring for training that would allow them to help all students achieve success.

In Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner advocates for nurturing innovation by tapping into students’ needs for play, passion and purpose in their lives (Wagner, 2011). Somehow, administrators must facilitate professional development that meets the theories of adult learning (see description here), the needs of District improvement initiatives, and the needs of a teaching force that is increasingly called upon to do more with more students in less time.  Because of these constraints, PD has to be targeted to individuals, accessible anytime, socially constructed and engaging – building on play, passion and purpose to nurture innovation at the classroom level.  We need to model the teaching we expect of our teachers, taking learning into the 21st century for adults and students alike.

A Case for Better Professional Development

In his synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses of what works in schools, John Hattie (2009) found that teachers are a powerful influence in student learning, specifically “teachers using particular teaching methods, teachers with high expectations for all students, and teachers who have created positive student-teacher relationships.”  In the Stand and Deliver tradition, popular myth holds that great educators were born that way – they have a gift that cannot not be learned.

One way schools and districts can get high-quality, expert teachers is to hire and retain expert teachers – but that could be a slow process that takes decades.  However, research (Marzano, 2010) has shown that quality professional development can create expert teachers – teaching is in fact a skill that can be learned.  In a study review cited by Linda Darling-Hammond (2009), teachers who participated in significant amounts of on-the-job learning (an average of 49 hours) were shown to have increased their students’ achievement by 21 percentage points.  The research is clear, however, that all professional development is not equal, and that only quality professional development will produce increases in student learning.  In measuring the effectiveness of professional development on student learning, Hattie (2009) cites research that found seven themes in common among professional development programs that had the greatest effect on student learning:

  1. PD was over a long period of time.
  2. External experts were more effective than in-school initiatives.
  3. Teachers needed to be engaged to deepen their knowledge and skills.
  4. There was a high effect of PD that challenged teacher’s perceptions about learning – specifically that they assumed groups of students could or could not do.
  5. Teachers communicated with each other about teaching.
  6. School leadership supported opportunities to learn and provided time and place to meet and to process new information.
  7. Money and release time were unrelated to student achievement.

True school change comes at the intersection of theory and reality – the implementation of any program has to consider the people, culture, and climate of the school or district in which it will operate.  All of the ideas and research behind professional development has not led to significant change in the ways in which it is delivered – probably more as a result of tradition and assumption than laziness or ill intent. Hattie (2009) notes that nearly all teachers come with a preconceived idea about their profession, having come up through the system themselves, creating a self-perpetuating system of education the way is has always been.  “This fact means that the simple acquisition of new skills or theories is not adequate to alter teaching practices.  Therefore, the central task of teacher learning must be to change these conceptions.”  In addition, continually decreasing funding has led to a decrease in the amount of money and time devoted to professional learning.

Digital technology can certainly be employed to help mitigate some of the problems with the successful implementation of high-quality professional development.   In previous work I have advocated for a wiki to solve facilitate professional development, and have illustrated how curation and aggregation sites (such as paper.li and scoop.it) as well as social bookmarking sites (such as Diigo and Delicious) enable teachers to follow their own professional learning goals.

My district is currently engaged in a radical transformation in the way we operate (more on that in another blog) that has meant teachers and administrators have had to essentially re-learn what we know about teaching and learning.  Simultaneous to that, the state of California has decreased funding for professional development, and our sagging economy has led to yearly decreases in funding for education.  More and more professional development needed, less time and money to execute.

I am convinced that digital technology will best support professional development when it can be accessed through mobile devices so that it can take place any time and any place.  My District is starting to utilize Edmodo as a tool for professional development – a networking application that has been traditionally used to help teachers organize classes for school-aged learners.  Given the seven themes of quality professional development listed above, next week this blog will investigate the opportunities and problems that Edmodo will provide in a high-quality professional development program, especially through the lens of the Edmodo application for iPads.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2011).  Teaching and the Change Wars: The Professionalism Hypothesis. Change Wars. Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan eds.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Teacher Education and the America Future. Journal of Teacher Education.61:35. Retrieved online at

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routlege.

lynnvm.  (2008, May 28).  When I become a teacher [Video File].  Accessed from YouTube database. http://youtu.be/qOT0FBIBqUc


About Katy Foster

I am an Assistant Principal in Larkspur, CA. I blog to publicly reflect on my own learning in leadership.
This entry was posted in Professional Development. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to High-Quality Professional Development

  1. Pingback: Edmodo for Teacher Professional Development: A Case Study | ifyoucantbeatem

  2. Pingback: Improving Professional Development: Polishing a Turd | ifyoucantbeatem

  3. Pingback: What IS good teaching? | ifyoucantbeatem

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