Professional development (PD) is considered a necessary evil by most of the teachers I talk to. That’s unfortunate because teachers are required to spend more than a few days on district mandated PD every year. While topics like sexual harassment, bloodborne pathogens and workplace safety are admittedly dry, there are better ways of delivering these sessions than lecture style presentations. The same is true of optional PD. Those topics tend be more exciting, but often the delivery is no different. Teachers come, they sit, they listen and they leave.
“It’s very much a set and get type of professional development,” says Eric Patnoudes, a former instructional technologist who is now part of the education team at CDW-G.
There are ways to make PD more engaging. Diana Benner, director of Professional Development for the Texas Computer Educator’s Association (TCEA) says she has seen districts begin to move district mandated PD online. Every teacher needs to take these classes, but can do so on their own time using the school’s LMS. This also eliminates the logistics of needing to find a location large enough to hold everyone and a time that is convenient to schedule the session. At one school where Benner previously served as an online learning specialist, the district chose to add interactive quizzes into online learning modules for school administrators.
“We really held the administrators accountable for knowing the information because they were no longer going to sit there and watch a PowerPoint and leave,” Benner says. “They were actually having to answer quizzes and do activities within Moodle so they were really responsible for knowing the information.”
Optional PD might be harder to move online, but it can be done. However, many optional PD topics lend themselves towards interactivity and engagement, if you let them. Sessions on technology integration are probably the best example of a topic that is often poorly delivered. The focus too often is on the technology itself rather than proper integration and modeling.
“I’ve seen a lot of PD’s focus on how to do this and how to do that. Well, with technology now a lot of those how-to’s are already out there,” Benner says. “You can go to YouTube and look up how to do something. I know I don’t want to sit through a PD that is going to tell me how-to if I can go find a video on it. I want to learn strategies on how to actually implement it into the classroom.”
A better way to structure technology PD is to show teachers how to implement the new tool into their classrooms and to model the ways in which their pedagogy may change. Allow teachers to practice or engage in discussions to learn from one another.
“Im a big proponent of the idea that simply adding that layer of technology to the classroom, but teaching the same is going to have little to no impact,” Patnoudes says. For him, real professional development is that “pedagogically focused shift that empowers teachers to teach differently.”
Patnoudes also points out that technology is supposed to support learning outcomes. Technology integration, itself, should not be the goal of any district.
“Your goals of the technology integration are based on outcomes, not the device,” Patnoudes says. “Often times we get caught up. There’s this new tool, or this new form factor, or this new app or website and that becomes the focus of the learning rather than the actual skill that the new tool will be an accelerator for.”
In other words, define your learning outcomes then choose a technology tool that helps you get there. This goes for PD as well.
Another common complaint about PD is that there is no differentiation even though teachers attending a session possess varying levels of understanding of the topic. That means the session may be too basic and boring for some educators while it’s too difficult or not in-depth enough for others.
“It’s one size fits all,” Patnoudes says. “Differentiating instruction is on the forefront of every teacher’s mind, but when we deliver professional development in schools it’s delivered in a way that is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do with students.”
It would be difficult to cater to every level in one PD session, but there are things you can do to mitigate the risk of unhappy attendees. At Benner’s school, they used to send out surveys to find out what topics interested their teachers and what kind of knowledge base educators had prior to the session.
“If I’m a teacher and I’m going to a PD session and I already know the content then I want something more, something that’s going to challenge me,” Benner says.
With traditional PD, that isn’t likely to happen.
Explore Alternative Formats
Districts may also want to consider giving credits for, or implementing, a less formal Edcamp style PD. So what is an Edcamp? Edcamps are meetups that take place in cities and towns all over the country. The idea is that teachers come together to discuss their challenges and to learn from one another’s experiences.
“They call them unconference style professional development and it’s very informal. It’s participant driven,” Patnoudes explains.
There is no official pre-set agenda for these meetings. Instead, it works like this. Teachers show up. They can find Edcamp locations on Twitter or by consulting the Edcamp wikispaces page. When teachers arrive there is a blank schedule on the board. Attendees fill in the schedule together with topics they want to discuss. Once the schedule is full, teachers break off into groups and attend the session that most appeals to them. In each session, the facilitator will ask questions and get the conversation started. Participants share their ideas and resources.
Each Edcamp session also creates a Google Doc where participants can take notes and include links to any websites or tools they may have mentioned in the course of conversation. Everyone has access to each session’s Google Doc even if they did not attend it. A typical Edcamp runs just a few hours, for example, 8 am to noon and it doesn’t cost a thing to attend.
“You’re going to leave there with a wealth of resources and it didn’t cost you a dime. It cost you four hours on a Saturday and you leave with energy and ideas and you can’t wait to apply all of this stuff to your district,” Patnoudes says.
An Edcamp is really peer-to-peer education. It’s teachers discussing their challenges and offering solutions to one another based on their own experiences as K-12 educators. During an Edcamp teachers are free to choose any session they want to attend and can leave at any time if it doesn’t meet their expectations. Or they can choose to attend a different session. You can’t say that about traditional PD.
Patnoudes cautions schools that something as informal as an Edcamp may not work everywhere. You have to know your staff.
“It takes a certain type of person or teacher to make an Edcamp successful,” he says. “It takes people who are willing to share ideas and who are willing to talk and to collaborate.”
If you think your educators are likely to sit and stare at one another then this may not be the best approach for your district. However, you could consider giving credit to a teacher who has attended something like this. After all, teachers are undergoing PD all the time. Not just in formal sessions. The best learning often takes place in conversation be it an Edcamp, a Twitter chat or something else. Either way, forward thinking K-12 districts are beginning to rethink PD to make it less of a chore and more of an attractive and useful way to advance the skills of teachers and administrators.