Professional Learning

Strand-Based PD Provides Teachers With Autonomy

A strand-based approach to professional development allows teachers to focus deeply on one aspect of the teaching process for the year.

June 28, 2024
Brian Stauffer / The iSpot

I’ve watched a room erupt into applause when an administrator announced that it was the last professional development (PD) day of the year. I would bet others have had similar experiences. Constraints from district mandates, a lack of trust, and insufficient time and funding can often make PD feel ineffective and like a waste of time.

It’s not that administrators aren’t investing in PD. A study by The New Teacher Project titled “The Mirage” found that the average yearly investment per teacher was around $18,000, which sounds astronomical until you factor in curriculum specialists, instructional coaches, and purchased PD. The scary part is that they found that only three in 10 teachers demonstrated growth in their practice, as measured on their annual evaluation.

When teachers who did report growth were asked, “What activities have helped you grow the most?” the answers were informal collaboration and independent efforts, which had nothing to do with the $18,000 investment. Why doesn’t this kind of investment in professional learning result in teacher growth? And how can schools design more effective professional development? One answer is to embrace a strand-based model of professional learning, which can help address four common problems with PD.

Problem 1: Lack of Cohesion

I’ve been that teacher who rolls their eyes at new initiatives and hunkers down to wait them out until they pass by. Many teachers feel this sort of “initiative whiplash,” and it prevents them from being able to invest consistent time and effort into specific elements of teaching to be able to actually grow in their practice. Without consistency between professional learning times, it is very unlikely that growth will happen.

Solution: Strand-based professional learning. To avoid this kind of rapid change, identify consistent strands of professional learning. These strands shouldn’t be initiatives, but rather key elements of teaching that support those initiatives.

For example, an initiative is something that feels outside of the inherent work of teaching and learning. An example of this could be AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), which is a program that packages teaching practices. While those teaching practices are sound, the perception of an initiative changes how teachers will engage with it. Because it is seen as something “extra” and not embedded into teaching, teachers may not be as motivated to engage in a strand like this.

Instead, elements embedded inside of AVID like inquiry, student talk, or student agency are inherent to the work of teaching and learning in the classroom. They aren’t perceived as something additional to add to teaching, but rather, they just are a part of teaching. Additional strands could include things like formative assessment, grading practices, student engagement, or lesson design—all of which are directly embedded into teaching.

While this may seem like a subtle difference, strands should feel like an existing element of teaching, not something new for teachers to focus on.

Problem 2: Lack of Teacher Autonomy and Choice

We so often focus on choice for students in our classes because we know it’s important for motivation and sustained engagement. Why aren’t teachers afforded the same autonomy?

I know the reply to this is, “Teachers need to be trained in so many things!” I totally get this, but my reply is, “If information is shared in whole group PD and no one’s listening, did it even happen?” Obviously there are still aspects of professional learning that should be whole group, but what would it look like to increase the amount of autonomy for teachers?

Solution: Teacher-selected professional learning strands. Allow teachers to select a strand relevant to their current practice or challenges, and allow them to focus on that strand for the year or term. Once they’ve selected their strand, any learning opportunity that comes up should include opportunities for them to engage in their selected strand. This might include breakout workshops on a PD day, self-selected discussion groups at a lunch-and-learn event, or just access to asynchronous resources.

Problem 3: Lack of Community Around Learning and Growth

Whole group PD often doesn’t allow for teachers to make meaningful connections with each other centered around learning and growth, especially between different content areas or grade levels.

When teachers don’t connect with others, it has an impact on the culture of learning in the school. This is where you end up seeing silos of growth and innovation. Learning communities should extend throughout the school. 

Solution: Strand-based professional learning communities (PLCs). If you have a group of teachers who have selected to work on the same strand, create time for them to meet regularly. Maybe this is just a quick monthly check-in, or maybe it could take the place of one content-area PLC a month, with the goal of creating community and cohesion in the learning process. Although this would take away one traditional PLC meeting a month, it would infuse the other three with an often-much-needed dose of new learning and problem-solving ideas. For example, if you have a teacher who has selected formative assessment as their strand, they are returning back to their content-area PLC or grade-level PLC with new learning that they can share.

Problem 4: Lack of Learning Opportunities

Professional development days often are few and far between, so while they are an important piece of the puzzle, they can’t be relied on as the sole time that professional learning is focused on. 

Solution: Infuse professional learning in varied ways. With PD days not increasing magically in the near future, we have to look for other ways to integrate this learning into the contracted work day. This could mean a strand-based portion of a PD day, but it also could include things like a lunch-and-learn where pizza is provided and teachers show up to sit in table groups to talk about their strand. It also allows instructional coaches to better facilitate learning, as they have strand-based teams already identifying what area they would like to grow in. You could even create asynchronous spaces like a chat group where people can share ideas and ask questions within their strand.

To meet the needs of the ever-changing landscape of education, we need a professional learning system that is robust, allows teachers to focus on a specific topic and really grow in it, and allows teachers the autonomy to pursue their own learning in the ways that work best for them. 

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