Professional Development: Why does it go wrong?

I sat in one of the worst PDs ever this week.

It didn’t build on what those of us in the room knew. It didn’t engage us in conversations or activities that were relevant. It shared products and not processes. At times, it treated us like we were no different that the children we teach. I’m sure many of you have sat in similar ones.

Most likely, the people giving the workshop had good intentions. Some of them were probably effective at teaching children math. But they were completely ineffective at teaching teachers.

I’ve come to realize that we don’t do a good job of providing the people who give PD with the right tools to facilitate teacher learning. They have to make it up as they go.

When I started doing professional development, I had no idea what I was doing. So I started reading a bit of the research out there about what makes for good PD.   This classic by Ball and Cohen was a good start.

Using what we already know about effective PD as guidance, I started making lesson plans for each PD session I did.

Over the years, I developed a list of questions that help guide my planning:

  • What is the objective of the workshop?
  • What should teachers know or be able to do at the end that they didn’t know before?
  • What is the motivation for teachers to be interested in this topic?
  • What prior knowledge and experiences do the group of teachers I am working with bring to the sessions?
  • How can I build on these experiences?
  • What is the best task sequence that meets the teachers where they are and helps them develop new understandings?
  • What activities facilitate teacher learning?
  • How do I engage teachers in productive struggle so that they construct their own understanding of the topic?
  • How will I know if participants met the objective? What assessments will I use throughout?
  • How will I differentiate the lesson for different learners? What interventions will I use? What enrichment will I provide?

This doesn’t look all that different than the questions I ask when I teach kids math. However, the answers are.

I’m still working on what theories to use to help me answer these questions. I’m spending some time looking through the research to help me with this.

Even if we don’t have all the answers, the effective PDs I go to are a result of someone carefully thinking through a lot of these questions.   The ineffective ones could be improved a great deal by thinking more carefully about them.

What do you think? How do you plan PD?

6 thoughts on “Professional Development: Why does it go wrong?

  1. Maureen Clements

    This is an excellent list of questions, Nicora. I especially like your point that this is essentially what we (should) look at when we plan lessons for our students. I find that I can answer these questions far more easily when I am working with teachers I know, which speaks volumes to the need for site embedded PD, or the PD I enjoy doing most which supports the work I am also doing with teachers in their classroom with some follow up or in the best cases instructional coaching.

    1. Nicora Placa Post author

      You are so right Maureen–it is much easier when you already have knowledge of the teachers you are working with. It’s the same when I do lessons with students I don’t know well–I’m immediately at a disadvantage because I don’t know what their current level of understanding is!

  2. goldenoj

    Much like you say above, I plan like any lesson. I usually think about connecting teachers to at least one new resource in addition, since that’s how some of them manage their own PD or that’s what some are looking for. Also I try to do preassessment with teachers about current practice and what they see as their needs/wants.

    1. Nicora Placa Post author

      Good points. Do you do the pre-assessment prior to meeting them? Or at the start of the session?

  3. Dan Meyer

    When I plan my PD I try to keep in mind the hallway of mirrors that is teachers teaching teachers how to teach.

    So my current PD addresses the problematization of math curriculum – how to interest students in what you’d like them to learn by turning it into a problem. So at the start of the workshop I try to problematize that learning, calling into question other, common theories of student engagement before offering problematization as one solution.

    I don’t know if that effort ever sinks in for teachers, but at least no one will catch a strange reflection in that hallway of mirrors.

    1. Nicora Placa Post author

      I like the analogy to the hallway of mirrors–it’s a great description of this strange work we do.
      I also like your framework– engage the teachers in first thinking about a problem and then provide the tools to solve it. It makes perfect sense and aligns with your thinking about student learning.
      I am still wondering about how we get better at knowing if our efforts ever sink in.