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Professional Development Opinion

The Importance of ‘Learner-Centered’ Professional Development

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 29, 2022 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What is the best professional-development session you ever participated in, and what made it so good?

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., Justin Lopez-Cardoze, and Marina Rodriguez kicked off this series.

Today, Pat Brown, Mary K. Tedrow, Jeremy Hyler, and Altagracia H. Delgado share their experiences.

‘Knowledge Is Not Passively Received’

Pat Brown is the executive director of STEM for the Fort Zumwalt school district in Missouri and the author of NSTA’s bestselling book series Instructional Sequence Matters:

Effective professional development relates to the cognitive science research on what we know about the best possible learning environments. The books How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000) and How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018) describe three interrelated factors that are essential for ensuring high-quality learning: learner-, knowledge-, and assessment-centeredness.


Fundamental to the idea of learner-centeredness is the idea that all knowledge is constructed through active experience. This means that knowledge is not passively received.

The learner-centered principle is rooted in a long-held constructivist idea that acknowledges people learn best when they actively construct knowledge that builds on prior understanding based on firsthand experiences with data and evidence. Long-lasting understanding is promoted when learners construct knowledge, connect details within a broader framework for understanding, and relate information with the knowledge they already have.

The ideas educators construct serves as the framework from which they try to advance their understanding. How educators think about their ideas, monitor, and reflect on their developing understanding is critical for regulating and being more self-reliant. Thus, professional development is most impactful if it allows educators to play an active role in learning. Passive professional-development experiences do not tap into the most potent, constructivist learning needed to develop deeper conceptual understanding from professional-development experiences.


If we all try to fit new experiences with prior knowledge, as learners, it follows that we learn most readily if the targeted ideas fit in a broader framework for what we should know and be able to do as educators. Knowledge-centered professional development focuses on the types of ideas, practices, and skills educators need to succeed. Knowledge-centered professional development homes in on the most crucial ideas and helps educators organize and optimize learning for educators. We have difficulty implementing overly challenging or multiple unrelated plans. Thus, focused knowledge development is vital to realize the full benefits of professional-development experiences.


Finally, effective professional development is assessment-centered. As educators, we need high standards for learning and frequent feedback so we know we are developing skills necessary for success. Having means to assess our knowledge development is a way to evaluate our growth in knowledge (metacognition) and the effectiveness of our professional development on programmatic changes and student learning.

The Learning Culture

The principles underlying How People Learn and How People Learn II do not operate in isolation but are overlapping and deeply entrenched in one another to form the learning culture of the classroom. While I have described them as separate entities, the best learning environments operate at the nexus of the principles associated with learner-, assessment-, and knowledge-centered domains.

For example, the feedback advocated by assessment-centered learning directly influences individuals and their abilities to reflect on their developing understanding. In addition, the knowledge and standards used to design instruction directly impact the activities used to help people construct knowledge.

Finally, the goals chosen to guide instruction should closely align with the evaluations used to assess student understanding. The ideas behind How People Learn and How People Learn II show that a holistic approach is necessary to accommodate the intricacies of learning. The overlap of these three dimensions can create a positive school culture and climate that focuses on professional growth and uses best practices for adult learners.


Teachers Seen as ‘Knowledge Creators’

Mary K. Tedrow taught in the high school English classroom beginning in 1978, ending her K-12 career as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School in 2016. She currently directs the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester Va. Tedrow is also a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across Content Areas:

The hands-down, not-even-a-close-second professional development of my four-decade-spanning teaching career was the Invitational Summer Institute of the National Writing Project held on the campus of George Mason University in 1998 under the direction of the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

I am not the first, nor hopefully the last, teacher to identify the social practices of the NWP as the transformative milestone in my teaching practice.

What makes it so good?

First, teachers are welcomed as knowledge creators rather than knowledge receivers. Each fellow reflects on and reads about one of their own successful teaching practices and presents a lesson to the fellowship. The premise of the writing project is that teachers already have expertise in delivering instruction worth sharing. A trusting community is formed where that expertise is shared. From the very first day, we were treated with professional respect. Our group spanned K-university. Seeing language development across these grade levels made the experience surprisingly rich.

Secondly, we spent time working as writers. We were immersed in the writing process from invention through revision and finally to publication. The NWP believes we all need to be writers (students and teachers) and the best way to develop a writing process is to experience one.

Finally, we learned by doing. All presentations were demonstration lessons where the teacher/participants experienced the strategies and moves by the teacher presenter. This is far different from sit-and-get presentations. We experienced quickwrites, small-group collaboration, draft writing and revising, writing to learn, and more from a student perspective. We reflected regularly on how these practices could be adapted for use in our classrooms. Regular reflection became a professional habit.

The changes following the summer were immediate and ongoing. After feeling the confidence born of living up to expectations, I strove to create that climate for students. We wrote frequently in low-pressure situations long before students were asked for high-stakes writing. We shared our thoughts. I asked for student evaluations just as my leaders had included me in on the evaluation process. (What worked? What would you do differently?)

The NWP model works because teachers are treated the way we are often told to treat students but rarely experience ourselves in our working lives. The weeks spent in the summer changed my classroom into a place I did not want to leave and kept me in a continual search for solutions to my own classroom-based inquiries.


Learning How to Teach Writing

Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and media-literacy teacher in Michigan. He has co-authored Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education), From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age, as well as Ask, Explore, Write. Jeremy blogs at MiddleWeb and hosts his own podcast, Middle School Hallways. He can be found on Twitter @jeremybballer and at his website jeremyhyler40.com:

The best professional development I have ever been a part of was the summer institute for the Chippewa River Writing Project, a satellite site of the National Writing Project.

I attended the summer institute as my flame for teaching was almost burnt out. I really wasn’t sure how to reach students with their writing anymore. The professional development was a four-week intense writing institute where I learned not only how to write as a teacher but how to teach good writing to my students. In addition, I also learned what it meant to give meaningful feedback to peers and students.

Throughout the institute, I watched teachers become vulnerable with their own writing. They also shared their own writing lessons they did in their classrooms to get constructive feedback on what was quality instructional practice and what could be improved. As an added bonus, we were all taught how to effectively add technology into our classroom. We learned about Google Documents and created beautiful digital stories throughout the institute, along with being introduced to other digital tools.

For me, it was the best professional development because it lit my teaching fire again. I had renewed passion for what I wanted to do with my students. It was organized in a way that helped me build confidence in my own writing, so I could share it with my students and help them with the struggles they may have in being confident writers. Furthermore, I learned there are a network of teachers out there beyond the walls of my own school who are willing to help and be supportive when it comes to teaching. My writing-project peers are the best!

The support and the network of educators I have been exposed to because I attended the summer institute have led me down a road of continuous opportunities. Ever since I have been a part of the Chippewa River Writing Project, I have co-authored three books, presented at many conferences both in my own state and nationally, and have had many leadership roles. Without the writing project, my voice would have never been heard.

It continues to be the best professional development even today because I have been a part of the summer institute leadership team and have also been a participant for two additional summers. Plus, I continue to work on the leadership team to bring the best professional-development opportunities to teachers across the nation. I would highly recommend without hesitation to anyone to attend the summer institute at their local writing project site and make their voice heard.


‘Research-Based Strategies’

Altagracia H. Delgado (Grace) has been in the education field for 27 years. In those years, she has worked as a bilingual teacher, literacy coach, and school and central-office administrator. Grace is currently the executive director of multilingual services for the Aldine ISD, in the Houston area:

A few years ago, I participated in the Center for Applied Linguistics’ Spanish Literacy Institute: Fostering Spanish Language and Literacy Development. In this training, we learned research-based strategies to provide effective language and literacy instruction in Spanish in transitional bilingual and dual-language education programs.

The sessions were interactive and provided engaging activities for teaching academic language and literacy in Spanish and English to students in elementary grades instructional programs where Spanish and English are the languages of instruction. The presenters taught us about classroom practices by framing the understanding of how Spanish and English linguistic features are the same and different, helping us see where connections can be facilitated, where languages connect, and where specific instruction needs to be given due to the differences.

This training was the best I have ever attended because it modeled for us what real bilingual and dual-language classrooms teachers need to do during their day. By providing the sessions in both English and Spanish and having a combination of research and interaction among adults, we were able to experience the daily interactions of multilingual students and their teachers. The information was practical and applicable in a classroom setting, but it also provided answers for the many questions bilingual educators encounter in their professions, specifically those addressing the similarities and differences in the languages and how to systematically teach language acquisition for Spanish-speaking students.

Although this professional-development session took place six years ago, I still lean back on the principles learned at that time, especially when working with teachers of emergent bilingual students. In the years after that training, I have had the opportunity to provide professional-development sessions to classroom teachers and school leaders and I have used many of the practices and research learned during this training to engage adults in their own learning. I have also been able to witness teachers’ classrooms where the learning and connections have happened, as they have been able to apply this knowledge and experiences with their multilingual students.


Thanks to Pat, Mary, Jeremy, and Altagracia for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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