Professional development to help educators use technology for teaching and learning has been critical for decades, but also riddled with pitfalls.
During the 2020-21 school year, those flaws became more evident than ever, educators say, even as the training itself became more important. Teachers had to navigate learning environments that were brand new to almost everyone, including virtual and hybrid learning. And professional development had to shift on the fly, in the middle of a crisis that touched every aspect of teaching and learning.
“All the evidence over the years has been that most professional development isn’t doing the job,” said Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking. “It’s not just-in-time. It’s not personalized. The priority is decided by the department head or the principal as opposed to what the teacher needs.
“I don’t think this is necessarily something particularly new, but in the pandemic it became so obvious as overnight every teacher had to [learn] remote learning. I think [districts] saw the failure of the traditional ways of doing professional development.”
I think [districts] saw the failure of the traditional ways of doing professional development
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced some districts to rethink their PD priorities and strategies and find new ways of training teachers. Teachers’ tech skills have dramatically improved, and some district leaders say they don’t want to go back to the old ways of delivering PD.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest perennial problems or mistakes in tech-related professional development, and how some districts are using their pandemic experience to address them.
Emphasizing broad more than than deep learning
The problem: Teachers are presented with so many new technological tools that they hardly have enough time to figure out which ones are actually going to complement their teaching style and subject matter, said Adam Gebhardt, an art teacher and technology mentor at Jefferson Hills Intermediate School, near Pittsburgh. “It’s like the Cheesecake Factory menu,” Gebhardt said, referring to the upscale chain restaurant with a famously wide variety of choices. “There are so many options, and it’s overwhelming.”
How to address it: Let teachers go deeper, not broader. “The vast number of options is almost counterproductive,” Gebhardt said. “We almost need fewer choices, the best, most-effective ones.” Teachers should be given space to experiment with a particular tool, and allow their students to explore it too. “For me, I don’t need training, I need time,” Gebhardt said. When he introduces a new application to his students, he will let them play with it for 10 minutes or so. By then, many will have found features and have specific questions, so that the class can learn together.
Not providing ongoing support
The problem: Teachers are given a one-shot professional development session on a new tool or strategy and then they are left to puzzle through it themselves.
How to address it: Teachers need to know who they can follow-up with to get additional support, educators said. Whenever the district runs a training, it should “have a person behind the learning [who can] provide that ongoing support, even if it’s not in a formal capacity,” said Micah Brown, a technology and innovation lead teacher for Kansas’ Andover school district. For instance, Brown has given trainings on Seesaw, an interactive student engagement tool, and then gotten questions from teachers on how to implement it, even as much as a year later.
Not making the training practical and customized to what and how teachers teach
The problem: Teachers have vastly different needs when it comes to technology, depending on what they teach and how advanced their technological skills are, said Jessica Sanders, an instructional coach at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Rio Ranchero, N.M. Districts need to “make it relevant, make it current, use research to back what we are conveying to teachers, otherwise you sit in a room full of blank [faces].”
How to address it: The Andover school district came up with a partial solution inspired by subscription services, such as StitchFix, which sends customers a box of clothing or other goods tailored to their personal taste and needs. In Andover, teachers took a survey, telling the district’s digital professional development team what they were interested in learning, what they teach, and how they absorb material best. And then the district sent them a box of materials customized to their needs, role in the school, and learning style. They directed auditory learners to podcasts, for instance, and visual learners to blogposts. Teachers then had six weeks to go through the materials in the box at their own pace and in their own time. “A lot of our feedback was just how nice it was that everything in the box pertained to them and their subject and their content area,” said Rachel Meenen, a technology and innovation lead teacher.
Not evaluating the impact
The problem: It is hard to tell whether a particular training or course had any real effect on student outcomes or teacher practice. And it’s not always clear what the goal of introducing a particular tool or strategy is: Higher test-scores? Improved student engagement? For evaluation, most districts default to giving teachers an exit survey at the end of a training event, said Dyane Smokorowski, the coordinator of digital literacy for the Wichita Public Schools in Kansas. “But that doesn’t show impact,” she said. “That’s just like if I did or if I didn’t like it.”
How to address it: Giving teachers time to contemplate their learning and how it fits in their broader, overall goals can be effective, both for helping them get more out of training and improving the overall professional development experience, said Smokorowski. She likes having teachers learn new skills in cohorts, and works to build in what she calls, “milestone reflection time.” This summer, for instance, Smokorowski is running a multi-day training for about 30 teachers. After it concludes, and the school year is well underway, she’ll follow-up, checking to see if participants have made progress toward implementing what they learned. She will also ask: What do you still need to know? What could I have done differently to help you be better prepared?
Ignoring the value of collaboration
The problem: Districts often don’t ask teachers what they need from professional development. And they’ll often tap outside experts, instead of finding someone in the school building—or the broader district—who has stellar skills in a particular area. “If Suzie down the hall is a rock star when it comes to differentiating instruction, she is a hidden treasure,” Sanders said. “How do we tap into what she is doing and what she is doing well?”
How to address it: Districts need to get feedback from teachers about what they need and how they learn. And they should be willing to tap students to help inform professional development, Sanders said. What’s more, districts should bring together educators who can benefit from teamwork, even if their jobs don’t seem to be obviously connected. Virtual meetings have made that easier to do. For instance, in the Baltimore City school district, 5th grade science teachers will meet with 6th grade science teachers to talk about expectations and transitions. Special education teachers and those who work with English-language learners have also joined in science teacher trainings and in collaborative planning. The district says, “We’ll make space for you,” said Kara Ball, an elementary science and STEM education specialist with the district.
Failing to offer choice
The problem: “Teachers are all at different places,” said Steve Langford, the chief information officer for the Beaverton school district, near Portland, Ore. Teachers are expected to differentiate instruction for students who have different abilities and needs, and districts need to model that with their PD, he said. “We don’t have the luxury of developing a single tech PD, “ for everyone,” Langford said.
How to address it: The pandemic has spurred schools to rethink their professional development, sometimes in ways that led to greater personalization. Holly Doe, director of technology for the Bedford schools, near Manchester, N.H., said her district typically holds big PD events for all its teachers at the high school. But because of the pandemic, that wasn’t a possibility. So instead, the district offered online resources on key topics. Officials even created three types of sessions: bite-size, snack size, and meal size, so that educators could choose not just the area they needed help in, but also the time length. “There was choice in that day, and that choice was huge,” Doe said. The district is still planning its professional development for next year, and will take the positive teacher feedback on the virtual approach into account.
Discounting teacher PD fatigue
The problem: This has been one of the toughest school years imaginable. Most teachers’ technology skills have grown exponentially, but they may not have the bandwidth right now to absorb much more professional development, said Spencer Kiper, an instructional technologist in Louisiana’s Caddo Parish public school system. “You have people who are just severely burned out and do not have capacity to learn one more thing to help themselves survive instructionally with students.”
How to address it: Give teachers time to reflect on all they’ve learned and how it can reshape their practice, but only after they’ve “had a nap. They all need a nap,” Smokorowski said. During the pandemic, teachers banded together to help each other through a difficult time, and many of them became much more comfortable using technology, she explained. “But after school returns to in-person learning, “My fear is that we will go back to normal when we need to get back to better,” Smokorowski said. Teachers need space to ask themselves, “‘How are you going to make it better now that you have these nerd skills?’”