What’s required if professional development is to improve teaching

IMG_1365I think of a “big idea” as one whose acceptance affects many other ideas and practices. Here’s an example:

George Couros, having been asked to share what advice he would give to schools, said: “What I felt was important to share was the notion of educators ‘experiencing’ the type of learning that we talk about in their own professional learning. It is hard for anyone to change until they feel something different.”

That is a truly big idea, an idea that says it is difficult if not impossible for teachers to create in their classrooms what they have not experienced in their own professional development.

As a relatively new teacher I remember an “inservice” in which 100 or so high school teachers were subject to an extended lecture on the importance of group discussion in the high school classroom. So I knew first-hand early in my career the crazy-making experiences (my term, not his) that Couros cautions against in his blog post.

Conversely, I have experienced professional development whose learning processes were aligned with what it recommended for classrooms or school leadership. Madeline Hunter, for instance, taught me as she wanted me to teach my students, and Parker Palmer interacted with me as he hoped I would interact with those I lead. While I may not have always agreed with the methods used, I at least had first-hand experiences to draw upon in deciding when and how to use what I had learned.

What examples do you have of professional development in which the learning processes used matched the way you were expected to teach and/or lead?

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6 Responses to “What’s required if professional development is to improve teaching”


  1. 1 Suzanne Rogers June 18, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I’ve found push back from teachers when we model strategies with teachers. They prefer to not be treated as students. This summer we are changing our schedule to 45/95 minute blocks. So, in our PD in the summer we will model this new timing so that teachers can feel that it is possible. We will not overtly state that we are modeling.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks June 18, 2013 at 11:40 am

      You have raised an issue, Suzanne, that is probably too complex to adequately address here. What I am conceptualizing is a professional development process that from beginning to end closely resembles the way we want teachers to teach. “Modeling” within the professional development would not be an issue because the entire learning process would be an example of what you want teachers to do. That distinction may not be meaningful in your situation because the totality of the professional development experience already closely resembles the teaching/learning processes you wish to see in the classroom.

  2. 3 cathygassenheimerheimer June 18, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Suzanne, I was so interested in your statement that “They prefer to not be treated as students.” I wonder what might happen if you asked them to take a learning stance, not so much as a “student,” but as a leader of learning. In that way, perhaps they can model for their students the type of powerful learning that can be used to engage both teachers and students.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks June 18, 2013 at 11:48 am

      I really appreciate your notion, Cathy, of a “learning stance.” It seems to me that it is a stance with two “legs.” The first leg is that of a student who is being asked to learn a particular piece of content through whatever methodology is being demonstrated. The second leg is metacognitive – that is, learners are asked to stand outside the learning experience and to think more deeply about the methodology and its effects. At least that’s how it seems to me at the moment.

  3. 5 Educational Aspirations June 18, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    I believe this type of professional development has value. I find that value isn’t necessarily the modeling (although that helps), but the reflection piece that might occur near the end of the session. Presenters that allow staff to personally reflect on their teaching practice often leave lasting impressions. I believe that personal reflection piece pays dividends later as teachers incorporate the teaching strategies that were modeled by the presenter.

    • 6 Dennis Sparks June 18, 2013 at 8:03 pm

      I think you are getting at the gist of it… A well-designed experience combined with generous amounts of time for reflection equals significant learning, no matter what the age of the learner.


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