Teaching Profession Opinion

Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It

By Jal Mehta — March 04, 2016 6 min read
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Professional development is the rare policy that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners can agree on. Researchers consistently find small or no effects of large-scale conventional PD, policymakers resent spending money on something that has no proven effects, and teachers hate being hauled in for sessions that they perceive are disrespectful and of little value. It might be the only policy I can think of that literally no one wants to defend.

The amount of money at stake here is not trivial. One estimate finds that the listed amount is $3,000 - $5,000 per teacher, and that if the costs of supervisory staff, substitute teachers, transportation, and other expenses were included it would rise to $8,000 - $12,000 per teacher per year. That’s billions and billions of dollars--that achieve no results, or even negative results, if you consider the ways that current PD poisons the relationship between teachers and their districts.

We need to end professional development as we know it. And we should do it Murder on the Orient Express style--with everyone who has been harmed getting in their licks. Let’s call today--March 7th, 2016--the day that traditional professional development finally, mercifully, died. The autopsy reveals an old geezer who was once full of promise but came to be widely despised by almost everyone he touched.

Today is the day because a new report shows us what a different and better way forward would look like. A report released today by Laurie Calvert, Education Policy Advisor at Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (full disclosure, I’m on the commission), argues that we should abandon old-style PD and replace it with teacher-led professional learning. The report provides examples from schools and districts where teacher-led professional learning has had remarkable results. The challenge is to make this the rule and not the exception.

What does better professional learning look like? One part of the answer to this is increasingly well-known in education circles. You’d be hard pressed to talk to anyone who doesn’t think that improving teacher learning requires professional learning that is embedded rather than one-off, that is connected to specific content, and that is differentiated to meet teachers’ needs.

Less known is that there is a whole literature on how adults learn, originating with Malcolm Knowles and his work on andragogy. Knowles and his successors find that much of what we know about how kids learn is parallel to how adults learn, but that there are also some differences. Research on adult learning suggests that adults learn best when:

  • They see the purpose of what they are doing;
  • It is problem-driven rather than content-driven;
  • They bring significant knowledge to the process, which is both an asset, but also means that they have developed conceptual schemas which are difficult to change;
  • Experiences are powerful ways of disrupting these longstanding beliefs and creating more substantial change;
  • Have choice: choice is frequently a powerful driver of meaningful adult learning
  • Adults learn well when they build up a stream of interest in a subject which leads to both formal and informal learning.

The thread that links these ideas is what Calvert identifies in her paper as teacher agency, meaning that teachers have substantial control over their learning. And it is close to the opposite of what teachers experience now. Some of the quotes from teachers in the paper are priceless. Here is one teacher describing PD today: “We walk into a room and get the handouts. We sit and listen to a Power Point, usually without paying attention. Then an hour goes by and we go to the next session.” Here is another describing how they think districts view PD: “We have to force PD down people’s throats, whether they need it or not.” And a third comparing PD to immunizations: “PD is something we go and do. We line up to get vaccinated.”

The paper proposes a series of concrete steps that schools and districts could follow to enhance teacher agency. Perhaps the most important is the first one--that teachers and principals have at least 50 percent representation on district teams that make decisions about professional learning. While there are no silver bullets in education, that one step could create a sea change in the design of professional learning. A second recommendation is to give teachers choice over their professional learning, which radically increases the chances that the learning will be seen as relevant to the learner. Choice can and should happen within more collective efforts by districts and schools to set shared goals, but even within a shared vision, teachers will likely be at different points in terms of what they want or need to know and thus professional learning needs to be differentiated accordingly.

At a higher level, what is at stake here is what kind of field teaching is going to be. We’ve tried it one way: as a bureaucratic hierarchy, where those with administrative authority tell teachers what to do and when. This model may be appropriate in a factory or in other realms where the work can be standardized. But teaching is complex and skilled work, and helping students do increasingly sophisticated and creative work means engaging teachers in that same kind of work. This means we need a more professional model of teaching, one in which we trust and empower teachers to take control over their own learning. We want to attract (and then retain) people to the field who are bright, capable, and want to be trusted to take professional responsibility for their work. We are unlikely to do that if they feel like they are going to be “vaccinated” by their superiors. Conversely, if we had a field in which teachers had control over their work and their learning, we might expect that that would be the kind of a field that people would be eager to join and likely to stay.

My wife is a doctor, and by nature, a somewhat skeptical person. But she really likes professional development; it is consistently useful, practical, interesting, and well-targeted to what she wants to know. The modal presentation is by doctors and for doctors; a presenting doctor talks about a case or a series of cases connected to a particular condition or disease, briefly explores the underlying science, and explains how they treat it and why. Then there is time for discussion, as other doctors offer how they would handle the same case or condition and why. Attending doctors always have choice about which sessions to attend, and only presenters who are highly rated by the audience are asked back. Sometimes there are also talks by MD-PhDs about how the underlying science is evolving in the field, or by people from industry about broader trends in health care. But all of the talks about practice come from practicing doctors. When I asked if they would ever have a non-doctor present on practice, she looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course not,” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “Because we would never take them seriously,” she replied.

Imagine a world where we saw teachers, and their learning, in the same way. Where most professional learning was given by teachers, for teachers, and to teachers. Where the role of districts was to facilitate this professional learning rather than to control teachers (much as we hope teachers will facilitate student learning rather than control students). And imagine a world where teachers owned their professional learning; a world where when the superintendent turned over, the teachers demanded that the professional learning system was so good that it not be touched.

That world is within reach. This report shows that there are districts and schools that are already doing it. Rather than continuing to pour billions of dollars into professional development that we all agree is not working, why not use the money to empower teachers to direct their own learning and create the kind of professional field that our teachers deserve and our children need?

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