Professional Learning

Teacher Development Research Review: Avoiding Pitfalls

Edutopia’s research analyst culled tips and advice from the research on how to make professional development both effective and engaging.

January 25, 2013 Updated November 1, 2015
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All teachers at Bates Middle School are expected to use arts integration. To help train teachers in the fundamentals of art, they have professional development every other week, and at least one per month is on arts integration. Photo credit: Zachary Fink

Every teacher can probably describe a boring or downright ineffective professional-development experience they’ve had. There are many challenges when trying to design a successful and engaging PD program for ongoing teacher education. Whether you’re an administrator looking for useful tips or an educator who wants to hone your own skills, the research-based hints below will help you avoid some of the most common problems and mistakes in PD programs.

Structure Professional Development Time with Purpose

Simply increasing time for professional learning will not in and of itself improve teacher practice. Effective professional learning time must be purposefully structured (Guskey and Yoon, 2009, citing Birman et al., 2000; Garet et al., 2001; Guskey, 1999).

Customize Professional Development Practices

No single professional-development practice, strategy, approach, method, or activity works well under all conditions. Professional development must be focused on both learning and learners and it should actively involve all stakeholders in collectively constructing and re-constructing a shared vision of effective teaching for the local school context. As conditions change, improvement efforts at all levels should be poised to adapt. Borko (2004) has found that successful PD programs work because dedicated facilitators are available to troubleshoot, customize, and adapt PD endeavors to support schools’ specific learning needs. Partnering with universities or professional organizations can help to provide the support infrastructure for professional development (Jaquith, Mindich, Wei, and Darling-Hammond, 2010). Several states provide professional-development infrastructures and resources, such as Missouri’s Regional Professional Development Centers, Colorado’s Educator Effectiveness office, and The Educational Information and Resource Center.

Remember, Learning is a Journey, Not a Destination

Focusing too much on the “weight” of the chicken rather than the “feed” can undermine the process of authentic professional learning and the positive climate necessary for growth. After an extensive review of the professional-development literature, Webster-Wright (2009) proposed that educators shift the discourse from delivering and evaluating PD programs to understanding and supporting authentic professional learning as it is situated in the everyday context where it occurs. Authentic professional learning lends itself to design thinking, an iterative cycle that includes designing, testing, troubleshooting, and redesigning.

Give Constructive Feedback

Authentic professional learning requires methods for reflection and feedback. American Institutes for Research offers a Web-based service called Professional Development Activity Log, which supports longitudinal data collection on professional development implementation and teachers’ self-reported knowledge, skills, and changes in teaching practice. After extensive research on teacher evaluation procedures, the Measures of Effective Teaching Project mentions three different measures to provide teachers with feedback for growth: (1) classroom observations by peer-colleagues using validated scales such as the Framework for Teaching or the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, further described in Gathering Feedback for Teaching (PDF) and Learning About Teaching (PDF), (2) student evaluations using the Tripod survey developed by Ron Ferguson from Harvard, which measures students’ perceptions of teachers’ ability to care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer, and consolidate, and (3) growth in student learning based on standardized test scores over multiple years.

Build Trust Between Administrators and Teaching Staff

Great leaders focus on developing people’s capacities rather than their limitations (Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, and Wahlstrom, 2004; Alliance for Excellent Education, 2011). Teachers generally take three to five years to develop their craft, and changes in teacher knowledge and practice must be rather large to see changes in students’ test scores. Correlational evidence shows that sizable changes in teacher-related variables are associated with much smaller changes in student learning outcomes (Hill, Rowan, and Ball, 2005; Hanushek and Rivkin, 2012). “Strong caring leadership” is a major source of support for teachers (Beltman, Mansfield, and Price, 2011).

Continue to the next section of the Teacher Development Research Review, Annotated Bibliography.

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