George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

4 Ways to Get More From Professional Learning

The steps teachers take after professional learning sessions are key—making changes in teaching practices takes sustained effort.

July 30, 2021
FatCamera / iStock

Every year teachers are expected to participate in professional development (PD). Yet, research shows that PD does not always result in changes in pedagogical approaches or application of best practices in the classroom. Just as with student learners, learning among teachers is situational and based on shared experiences. Learners take an active role to understand and interpret their experiences, construct knowledge based on previous knowledge and their perceptions, and change mental constructs of their surroundings.

Teachers need opportunities to apply and integrate their understanding into specific, authentic contexts to engage in deeper understanding; otherwise those concepts remain abstract rather than concrete learning moments.

According to research, PD that maximizes learning, resulting in sustained growth in instructional practices, includes the following: content, coherency, collective participation, best practices, and sustained support.

  • Content refers to clear theoretical and practical components of what participants should learn and be able to do as it relates to their teaching.
  • Coherency is the alignment of reform-based practices and standards with the content of the PD.
  • Collective participation is socialization with opportunities for groups of teachers to talk and collaborate.
  • Best practices refers to the inclusion of research-based approaches.
  • Sustained support ensures that teachers engage in the learning process through reflection and evaluation and revision of their pedagogical approaches with guidance and support from others.

Unfortunately, teachers do not always have a choice in the PD they participate in, and not all PD aligns with the characteristics known to produce positive growth. Regardless, there are many ways in which teachers can maximize their learning from any PD experience.

4 Strategies to Maximize the Impact of PD

1. Seek out models: An exemplary PD session should model examples of best practice, as this provides a practical demonstration of the application of theoretical knowledge. Teachers may need to see additional modeling that is with students (not teacher participants) and related to their teaching context. Find a teacher who demonstrates the skill or strategy you are mastering, and ask to observe or share a video of their teaching. Often school and district educational leaders can help find a match or contact the facilitator of the PD.

As you observe the teacher modeling, focus on the application of theoretical knowledge as it relates to this particular teacher’s personality and style. Also, observe the reactions of the students. The goal is not to replicate the model but to learn how the teacher owns the strategy for their context.

2. Create an instructional development plan: The probability of sustained changes to our instructional practice increases when we create specific and measurable goals that are connected to our actions, not those of the students. The goal should be small, specific, and measurable so that we can also monitor and reflect on our progress. As with any goal, there must be a plan for implementation that includes exactly what you will do differently, how you will do it differently, what resources and support you need, who you will seek guidance from, and how you will monitor and reflect on the learning impacts.

Start with no more than three goals, and for each goal create an instructional development plan that includes its implementation approach, method for monitoring and reflecting, and expected learning outcomes. Having your instructional development plan specified in writing will increase accountability.

3. Find a mentor: Think about that one teacher you really admire, the one all the students seem to learn so much from and whose class they enjoy. This teacher seems to have experienced everything and is full of practical teaching wisdom. Or perhaps it’s a teacher who attended the same PD previously and is known for their mastery of the content. Ask this teacher if they would be willing to be a mentor teacher.

Mentorship can take many different forms, so determine what your needs are and what the other person is willing or able to do. Maybe it’s just having lunch together or an after-school coffee. The mentee could also observe the mentor to learn new teaching strategies, or perhaps the mentor observes the mentee to give feedback. Sometimes schools are willing to find coverage for teachers to observe each other. If not, perhaps a video observation would be possible.

4. Create a community of practice (CoP): Creating a CoP has great potential for personal development, not simply by receiving feedback from colleagues, but also through the act of empathizing and brainstorming solutions, which can lead to some of our best reflections on teaching and learning. Communities of practice are maximized when there’s an intrinsic motivation for participation. Perhaps your CoP attended the same PD and wanted to help each other with implementation and monitoring of specific goals. Or maybe your school delegates the attendance of members to different PD to share with the group to develop the direction of future work.

Within the CoP, teachers can create instructional development plans, so that colleagues can offer support, guidance, and feedback toward the achievement of those goals and even accountability to keep each other on track. This leads to sustained support that is much needed in instructional growth.

Any of the above suggestions will increase the content, coherency, collective participation, best practices, and sustained support to maximize the learning gains from PD and ultimately lead to sustained changes in our instructional practices.

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