Finding the “third way” of professional development

Dennis Sparks

It is common to simplify complex things by thinking of them in binary ways—yes/no, black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure, and so on.

As a result, we often don’t see shades of gray or “third ways” to solve problems.

Many conversations about improving the quality of professional learning are framed in binary ways, particularly the emotionally-laden issue of who controls it—administrators or teachers.

In these conversations administrator-driven professional development is typically viewed as top-down, out of touch, and often demeaning. It is characterized by “sit and get,” irrelevance, and boredom.

Teacher-driven professional development, on the other hand, is described as motivating, relevant, and immediately useful.

I can say that from my decades of experience in a variety of settings that teacher planned and implemented professional development can be just as ineffective (or effective) as that planned by administrators. There are wonderful examples of long-standing teacher-directed professional development that demonstrably improves teaching and learning. And there are some that make little or no difference.

Fortunately, there is a third way in which professional development is “directed” by stretching, clearly-defined goals for student learning.

The “third way” has as its overarching purpose the continuous improvement of the quality of teaching and learning for all students in all classrooms in all schools. There are undoubtedly many other valuable purposes for professional development, but if that purpose is not fulfilled, in my mind, professional development has failed, no matter what other benefits it may provide.

The third way involves finding the appropriate blend of team-based learning/collaboration within the school in which all teachers participate and individualized approaches, including the use of social/learning media, for improving the knowledge and skills of teachers to provide tailored solutions for their unique challenges.

Such a blending of team-based and individualized methods requires skillful leadership that acknowledges the value of both non-negotiable team-based learning for the benefit of all students and individualized teacher learning goals and methods.

That means that when professional development is effectively lead and well designed it is both/and, not either/or.


6 Responses to “Finding the “third way” of professional development”

  1. 1 Jane Kise (@JaneKise) March 26, 2014 at 6:55 am

    Spot on post, Dennis. Top-down AND Bottom-up is a universal “polarity” — where two alternatives are equally valuable and interdependent. Many of the pendulum swings in education come because we treat polarities as problems to solve rather than polarities that must be carefully leveraged. Barry Johnson developed the concepts into great facilitation tools for business and allowed me to incorporate them into my newest Corwin book Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences. Sorry for the shameless advertising, but the book walks readers through the polarities existing in four of the biggest issues in education today (standards, teacher accountability, educating the whole child, and content/process) and then provides tools for leaders to use day in and day out for better “third way” conversations.

  2. 4 Joanne Mattiucci March 26, 2014 at 9:53 am

    I agree that this is spot on, Dennis, and will be sharing it with individuals and groups within my District as we work together to plan professional development. AND is a powerful word! I also appreciate the heads up about the Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences book, thank you Jane.

    • 5 Dennis Sparks March 26, 2014 at 10:27 am

      I can’t think of a higher compliment, Joanne, than that you will be sharing it with others in your district as you plan PD. Next week’s post will be on a closely-related topic, and I am eager to see how you and other readers respond to it.

  3. 6 daynarichardson45 March 27, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Perfect!! BOTH/AND is the key to possibility thinking and solution finding. Removing the buts, needs, and shoulds help move us forward.

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