Key Building Blocks for Successful Teacher Professional Development

What comprises most teacher professional development today? Some districts send a select number of teachers to seminars. Others attend day-long workshops.  Many districts now are using PLC (professional learning communities) time to fill the function of professional development.  But which of these models lead to the most successful outcomes?  Regardless of your district’s current method of teacher professional development, it’s clear from research in our field that new learning for teachers needs to be sustained over time in order to ensure the kind of meaningful changes in practice that result in improved teaching and learning.

I recently came across Dennis Sparks’ blog – The 6 Fundamental Ingredients of Robust Professional Development – and thought he brought some important perspective forward. Sparks did a great job laying out what makes up successful teacher professional development. Here is what he identifies:

1. It needs to expand teachers’ repertoire of research-based instructional skills
2. It should build teachers’  classroom assessment skills – strengthening capacity in ongoing ‘assessment for learning’
3. It  should be embedded in and connected to teachers’ daily work
4. It should include sustained classroom assistance for implementing new instructional skills
5. At its core it should include a model for a small team of teachers to meet regularly on an ongoing basis as they move new learning into practice
6. It is surrounded by a culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement

This is an important list. Certainly teacher professional development programs that are created with these attributes in mind will be more successful. I’m proud to say that our Keeping Learning on Track™ (KLT™) teacher professional development program, which was created in part by Dylan Wiliam based on research he did with Paul Black, contains five core elements that in many ways exemplify what Dennis Sparks blogged about.

1. Choice – Teachers, like students, need and appreciate choice. Choice within a given framework or focus allows teachers to determine their personal priorities for changes to classroom practice.
2. Flexibility – In addition to choice, teachers need to be allowed to make modifications to make the new learning work best in their own environment.
3. Small Steps – Learning is incremental. It takes time to change practice and to make lasting change, new learning must become a part of the teacher’s routine. Professional development for teachers that allows them to practice, in small steps, supports this idea. Real change occurs when we y apply ourselvesto the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time..
4. Collegial Support – Change in teaching practice is challenging and requires support. Teacher Learning Communities provide teachers with opportunities to develop personal action plans, to report back to a peer group about what happened as a result of implementing those plans, and to reflect and receive feedback and support from colleagues who are working on the same changes in practice.
5. Accountability and Resources– Teachers, like any professionals, need to be held accountable for results AND they must be provided with the time and resources to accomplish meaningful change.

With these elements in place, teachers will find success and enjoy the results of their efforts, and administrators will get the results they are seeking from their professional development investment – better teaching and learning in every classroom for every student.

In this era of heightened accountability focused on teachers, it has never been more important for us to provide professional development that doesn’t just espouse successful theories, but adheres to a structure that facilitates successful outcomes.  It’s not enough for us to give teachers more information about what works; we must also provide a framework for long-term integration of new skills.  School and district leaders must commit to empowering teachers with a comprehensive plan for adopting new practices that accommodates time for new learning as well as professional experimentation, personal reflection, and collaboration around new practices. Because our KLT program includes a structured model for PLCs to become TLCs (Teacher Learning Communities), complete with curriculum for two-years of ongoing professional learning, it provides administrators with a solid foundation for this approach.

Formative assessment practice is an excellent subject for teacher professional development, because it arms teachers to gather information in the moment that will help them make instructional choices that help move students forward into the deeper understandings for which we now hold them accountable. Many education thought leaders today point at formative assessment as key to preparing teachers to meet the new, more rigorous standards of the Common Core.   While sound formative assessment practices are at the heart of our KLT program,  it provides not only a theoretical foundation for these research-proven strategies to improve teaching and learning, but also a model for sustained, embedded professional learning that educators lead themselves. What could be more empowering?

We’d love to hear what you think needs to be part of successful teacher professional development. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.