George Lucas Educational Foundation

Can We Personalize Professional Development?

Can We Personalize Professional Development?

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I attended EducampPhilly this past weekend, and held a session about whether differentiated instruction/personalized learning was a viable model for professional development, and to hear from teachers on what they thought were the problems or barriers to implementing this model.

On the whole, it seemed to be something the teachers in the room and the one administrator in the room seemed to think held some promise. I wrote a blog post about this over at our differentiated instruction blog about the possibilities of using differentiated and personalized learning, and especially a project-based learning mode, as a model for more engaging, useful and interesting professional development.

I would love to hear what you think, including how you think something like this might play out in your district. Could this model meet more professional development needs? What barriers are there to having teachers create their own individualized learning plans? How could accountability be measured? How could administrators and tech staff, for example, support this? Is this just a utopian (edutopian?) dream?

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Nicole Wolf-Camplin's picture
Nicole Wolf-Camplin
Academic Dean - Scattergood Friends School

When I arrived at my small private school (8 FTE teachers distributed among 20 staff members) I inherited a personal learning plan model of professional development. Each teacher set three goals for the year and reported on them twice during the year in informal meetings to the staff and a more formal evaluation with me (dean of faculty). We continued it over the next year, and I chose to change the second year to a more rigorous PLC model whereby the teaching staff self-selected into one of two groups examining different topics. Some drawbacks I noticed to the individualized plan:
1. Some teachers were more motivated than others to pursue their learning; the ones who needed more up to date skills were not necessarily the ones motivated to do more learning. A better or more experienced administrator might have been able to do a better job of supervising.
2. It was difficult to budget for teachers individualized plans; some required texts or online memberships, others wanted to attend far flung conferences and it would take time to develop a more equitable way of distributing funds for learning activities.
3. Professional development did not lead to overall goals for improving the school. Because individual teacher's goals were somewhat idiosyncratic, while one teacher may or may not improve performance in his/her area of expertise, it did not serve to forward discussions about what we as a school community should be doing to make progress on an institutional basis. It never felt like we were "pulling together."

I don't think any of these problems is necessarily insurmountable. I raise them to give others on this path some ideas to consider while making their plans.

To follow this individual learning plan model, we had teacher input into topics for our PLC groups. First the entire teaching staff gathered to generate ideas we might need to learn more about in order for our school to address problems we recognized and improve what we do. From the 25 topics generated, we prioritized three that we thought we as a teaching staff could conceivably address at low cost and high efficacy. Then we held a caucus (we're in Iowa after all) where over refreshments, teachers could campaign for the topics they felt were most important to study.

We ended up with a tie that resulted in two groups: one looking at assessment issues, particularly formative assessment, and the other looking at topics of differentiation. Each group was free to set its goals and meeting schedule. As one might have predicted, the "differentiation group" further differentiated into sub-topics of personal interest (i.e. ELL students, ways to motivate boys, gifted students, etc.). However, the monthly meetings held by the group introduced an accountability to all members and created a sense of shared learning. The assessment group (largely math and science teachers) met more often and developed a tighter structure for self improvement. Both groups met to discuss progress twice during the year. This approach seems to have struck a balance between individual learning goals and group accountability and greater cohesion/common vocabularies.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

As we start to look more and more at how to meet teacher learning, this is incredibly valuable information to have. There are always some folks who are not engaged, just like students, but the more folks participate, the more they get out of it as well.

Thank you again for sharing!

Anyone else out there with personalized learning plans for PD experience?

Lolo's picture
System Staff Development, Secondary Principal

As part of our system professonal development process, all staff must complete an Annual Learning Plan that aligns with the School Improvement Plan. They are then responsible for finding the PD they need (be it workshops, readings) to reach their individual goal. We have recently started with a Leadership Learning Plan for aspiring leaders, and also make use of the Ontario Principals' Council self-assessment. I believe that individualized PD is extremely beneficial.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
teacher, curriculum writer, author of Teaching in Mind

Individualizing professional development for teachers is no less "edutopian" than individualizing learning for students. Because of the vast differences in teacher beliefs, attitudes and values, the ways in which teachers receive and/or implement (or fail to implement) the ideas that professional deveopment provides are equally diverse.

In order for meaningful change to occur in the classroom, teachers must first understand why they make the choices they do... this requires not only an awareness of the factors that influence those choices, but also a considerable amount of self-reflection.

A high school principal in Remond, Washington based her staff professional development on the ideas in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education. She purchased a copy for each teacher in the school. Teachers worked through the book in small groups, using one another as sounding-boards to explore their own thinking, developing projects, and reporting back to the group. The process was individualized because:
Each teacher had an investment in the process (unlike many professional development methods.)
Teachers did not feel that they were being "told" what works and how to teach (what works for one teacher does NOT necessarily work for all teachers.)
Teachers were encouraged to reflect on their own thinking about individual decisions they made in the classroom and how those decision influenced their students.
As they realized how their beliefs, attitudes, and values affect, not only what they perceive, but how they behave, they were motivated to change their thinking, which in turn changed their behaviors and outcomes.

Trying to reform education while ignoring the profound impact that the thinking of individual teachers has on the process is quite likely an exercise in futility.

Butch Fernando's picture
Butch Fernando
HR and Organization Development at PAREF Northfield School

Differences in family upbringing of the teachers themselves, and early youth environmental influences account for the wide range of the continuous desire of adults to keep on learning and improving oneself. Some innovative programs may temporarily motivate a short term learning desire, but this should be bolstered with refresher programs specifically tailored to induce a longer term desire for continuous development. I think it would be better for everyone if the school instead focused on improving its selection and hiring processes and systems. Although, administrators should also expect that a batting average of 30% percent of being able to hire strongly self-motivated teachers would be already a very good hiring performance. Problem is that it takes a minimum of six months to be able to actually see who will turn out to be the good performers vs the mediocre ones. Wish I had a crystal ball!

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