George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Development

The Benefits of Differentiation in Professional Development

Strategies like flipping instruction and providing opportunities for repeated practice work as well for adults as they do for students.

August 26, 2020
Three adults having a meeting
julief514 / iStock

Although many teachers have made strides in providing innovative, individualized learning, most of them still receive one-size-fits-all professional development. We know that differentiation is a powerful vehicle for student success—and these same approaches can support teacher development.

I believe it’s time to transform professional development, which is too often passive, into professional learning, which is engaging, rigorous, task-oriented, and experimental. Every teacher deserves personalized learning they can engage with at their own pace, in a community that provides opportunities to collaborate with peers.

The Benefits of Blended Learning

Blended learning combines in-person and digital off-site learning. The key benefit of blended learning for teachers is flexibility—educators can control the time, place, and pace at which they learn. Incorporating blended models for professional learning creates an environment that caters to the individual needs of each teacher.

Blended learning takes a variety of forms: Teachers might learn a new tool in a traditional face-to-face setting led by an expert, then engage in self-directed learning and online chats. Alternatively, they might begin learning from instructional videos, explore scenarios in a series of face-to-face sessions, and then practice independently.

In a model that has come to influence others, the University of Central Florida and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee employed a blended program for staff in which instructors met biweekly face to face to learn directly from each other. Their learning was sustained through deep reflection and metacognitive dialogue via online discussion forums. At the program’s end, 87 percent of participants reported a more positive outlook on teaching—and said that they’d changed their approach to teaching as a result of the program.

Professional learning is most effective when it’s ongoing, active, specific to learners’ needs, supported throughout implementation, and consistent with institutional vision. After the Montour School District of Pennsylvania established a digital community for educators to engage in year-round, on-demand professional learning, they determined that there was a 600 percent increase in staff participation.

Why Flip Professional Learning?

A flipped classroom approach is just as effective for educators as it is for students. When professional learning is flipped, teachers learn in a collaborative setting, then continue to explore asynchronously, often aided by websites and apps like Flipgrid and Padlet. Learning management systems such as  Blackboard, Canvas, Google Classroom, and Schoology are popular communication tools that extend discussions and collaboration. The G Suite for Education is also a versatile platform for communities of learners to remotely share, collaborate, and store materials.

AVID Center offers a two-day digital learning experience for educators through a Canvas course. Morning sessions are synchronous and led by a facilitator, while the afternoons are asynchronous. This allows participants to explore, practice new tools, and freely discuss with peers. Microsoft for Education offers guided virtual workshops and webinars that conclude with opportunities to explore tools on their site.

Planning an Accountability System

Professional learning must be strategically planned before it’s implemented. Here are five steps to create an accountability system that leads to lasting change.

1. Design and implement a goal-oriented plan. There should be a collaborative effort to determine the needs of the whole campus, the desired student and academic outcomes, and the time frame. 

2. Recruit teacher leaders to share their expertise. Solicit a member from each campus department who is confident in content. Provide a Google Form interest sign-up sheet to collect potential candidates.

3. Establish site-based professional learning communities (PLCs) for ongoing learning. These communities should meet regularly to support, reflect, and collaborate.

4. Utilize a learning management system to facilitate asynchronous learning.

5. Create opportunities for educators to observe their peers utilizing the new tools and materials—and to provide feedback based on their observations. Remember that observation and feedback play an integral part in ensuring that the plan is followed with fidelity.

Teachers will need encouragement to participate and explore new strategies. To do this, survey the campus to gather ideas based on teachers’ interests. You might consider incentives such as a brag board, a bulletin board to post accolades, social media posts, or continuing education credit hours.

Research reveals that short-term PD without follow-up doesn’t work. Authentic learning occurs from opportunities to communicate, think critically, explore, and hone a new craft. Like students in a classroom, teachers require active learning and consistent opportunities to activate new knowledge and skills. It takes a minimum of 20 separate instances and as many as 50 hours of instruction, practice, and coaching before anyone can master a new strategy.

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George Lucas Educational Foundation