George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Setting Up Hands-On PD

Just as students need to practice what they’re learning, educators need chances to use the skills they acquire in professional development.

March 26, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Professional development is a prerequisite for teachers, but if we want professional learning to have more of an impact, shouldn’t we shift our attention from content to skills? Through the Educators’ Lab, we design PD workshops that facilitate innovation and implementation. This means creating spaces where teachers have the freedom to apply their skills to generate ideas, design learning experiences, make improvements, or solve problems relevant to their practice right now so they can best support their students. 

Innovation is a product of mindset and skill set, and it’s the skill building that ensures educators can apply their learning. Too often, educators talk about skills that students need without reflecting upon if teachers can develop and flex these very same skills. From the 4Cs (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration) to the skills of the future, we need to create environments that encourage people to use their skills. School leaders can ensure that professional learning models the same types of environments and learning experiences they want to see in the classroom. 

To get started, reflect on the professional learnings you offer your staff. Do they support teachers in tapping into their strengths and skills? Do they model the type of pedagogy you want to see in the classroom? If not, it’s time to make some changes. The concept of skills-based professional learning is fairly simple. Create experiences that help learners build skills instead of just mastering content. Here are a few ways to do this.

a Learner-Centered Approach

Adults don’t appreciate being passive learners any more than kids do. Teachers are professionals and want to be active agents in their own learning. Professional learning should give them the opportunity to build upon their expertise, experiences, and ideas so that they can apply new learning in a way that’s relevant. 

To achieve this objective, let’s practice what we preach. Consider, for example, project-based learning, personalized learning, play-based learning, and inquiry-based learning—why not use those same models for teachers with their own learning?

Curiosity and Creative Problem-Solving

In the same way teachers ask students to fall in love with a problem, and then apply a range of knowledge and skills to do something about it, we’re asking administrators to use the professional learning space. Do you ask your teachers what problems they care about or want to solve and how you can use time together to address them?

When we run innovation workshops, teachers unusually fall into two camps: the curious—those who already have something they’re interested in learning about or an idea they’d like to try—or the creative problem-solvers—those who have noticed a pain point in the classroom and want to do something about it. Depending on the day, teachers can fall into either category, but either way, giving teachers a chance to work on their ideas or solutions enables them to engage in the innovation process and utilize a wide range of skills.

From empathy to critical thinking to project management to leadership, letting teachers innovate naturally encourages skill building in a way that’s impactful for students. The question for administrators is, do you let them explore their own ideas or support them in materializing their solutions to challenges?

From Compliance to Agency

There can be a lot of box checking in the professional development department. It’s important to distinguish between training and true professional learning and to dispel the notion that professional learning takes place only on designated days or by attending mandated sessions. Ask yourself, “Would teachers naturally want to show up for the training I’m offering, or are they doing it because they have to?”

If you want teachers to show up on their own, they need formats that facilitate agency. Instead of hosting a fully developed workshop, offer an event that invites teachers to engage in a topic and encourages them to use their skills to solve or investigate the topic.

For instance, create a theme or host a brainstorming session around something you want teachers in your building to solve or investigate: How do we create a culture of belonging, or how might we improve our instructional practices? This invites teachers to be active participants in the question and drive their own learning. These types of light-touch agendas help teachers use their agency to set and work toward goals throughout the year.


Recognize that trust is a big part of skills-based professional learning. You can’t predict what teachers will learn, produce, or create with their skills, but if you trust your staff, assume that they’ll be using their skills for the good of their students.

Teachers want to know you have their back. Skills-based professional learning says, “I trust you as the professional you are to figure this out.”

What can this look like?

There are a variety of ways to design skills-based professional learning. Our skills-based professional learning has largely been about creating a guided opportunity that facilitates the innovation process for teachers. From our experience, telling people to innovate or collaborate or implement isn’t necessarily enough to support people to be better innovators; they need the experiences that take them through the process. 

There are many skills people employ that facilitate innovation. When Lakota Local School District in Ohio asked our team how we might organize a series of virtual modules for their system, which uses  badges to equate to recertification hours, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to break down the process so teachers could build skills based on their innovation journey. 

We chose to focus on four phases of the innovation process, as well as a space for inspiration.

1. Problem-Finding: We created modules to help teachers uncover areas for professional growth. This phase emphasized critical thinking, synthesis, mental health, and empathy as teachers uncovered an area they wanted to develop, an idea they’d like to try, or a solution for a problem. 

2. Brainstorming: Here the focus was more on skills involving creativity, collaboration, resourcefulness, communication, and human-centered design so that teachers could push their thinking. This is especially important when facilitating skills around teamwork and collaboration. 

3. Implementation: This phase allows teachers to flex their leadership and project management skills as they work to get ideas in motion. These modules  also help teachers gain hours for the work it takes to materialize innovations and can provide motivation to complete tasks. 

4. Impact: This helps teachers assess efforts and monitor their own growth. It enables a safe way to take healthy risks in the classroom.

Plus, Inspiration: This is simply a space for curiosity, inquiry, and play. We might need inspiration before or during our innovation process.

Creating skills-based professional learning opportunities helps educators personalize their professional learning, hone useful skills, and work on ideas and innovations that improve student outcomes. The emphasis on skills helps teachers replicate similar processes with students, thus improving their practice as they apply ideas to their context and realize actual innovations. The shift from content to skills seems to simultaneously shift the learning experience from talk to action. It’s what we want for students. Let’s do it for teachers.

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