Teachers as Critical Consumers of Professional Development

What should teachers consider when met with professional development?
Teachers as Critical Consumers of Professional Development

Most educators are currently enjoying their summer break; a bit of relaxation, life is a touch slower, and drinking coffee becomes more of a treat to be savored in the morning than a necessity for survival.  Many educators also take this time for professional growth. This can be in the form of reading books, blogs, edchats, conferences, and more. While a lot of this information can be beneficial, I fear we have entered into a situation in education where everything is believed, where any and all information that is presented is immediately taken as fact.  From the standpoint of a teacher, I do sympathize a bit with a lack of time and resources to verify the validity and reliability of all professional development…especially if the PD is mandated by administration. It just makes sense to believe that a person or company presenting a new gadget, system, or strategy would have studies and evidence to show their PD is effective, but that isn’t always so.  

Here is a statement I saw yesterday on twitter:

“We don’t have time for journals and studies.  We need right-now solutions for real practitioners.”

This is a very alarming statement from an author and publisher who frequently presents at conferences.  Effectively, what they are telling me with the above statement is they don’t care if we know whether a new gadget, system, or strategy actually works…give it to the teachers anyway…scary.  As a classroom teacher, this lack of consideration is quite appalling and makes me question their motives. Nevermind that his/her statement was directed at two college professors…I guess they aren’t considered ‘real practitioners’ by some. 

I was witness to another example of recklessness on the part of a PD presenter last year.  This presenter is currently a professor at a university with books written, articles published, and numerous presentations under their belt.  While attending a session intended for elementary educators, I heard this person state that students shouldn’t be sitting while they are learning.  They would learn better if they stood, because when they sit, blood pools in their posterior and that blood cannot be used by the brain. I had to leave the session early, so I could not ask the presenter for any verification of this statement’s reliability and/or validity.  I later emailed the presenter, but never received a response. I have also mentioned the presenter’s statement to several cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists; none were aware of any evidence or studies that support the presenter’s assertions. 

Now, I don’t believe teachers should be cynical in their view of professional development, but rather be critical consumers of PD.  What do I mean by this?  When I consider any type of professional development, I ask three questions of the material or presentation:

1. What does the evidence say?

Whether the professional development be from a text or in person, I look for the resources and references used.  This may mean I need to ask the presenter or perhaps email an author/researcher. If there is no evidence, the next questions don’t really matter.

2. Does this apply to my classroom?

If the evidence says the gadget, system, or strategy can improve outcomes in the classroom, I next need the tool to be applicable to my classroom.  I often sit with art and band instructors in PD sessions that focus on reading or math strategies that rarely affect their classroom. For those teachers, the session, whether evidence-based or not, is of little use.  Even if the PD shows evidence of effectiveness, if the material isn’t applicable to my classroom, it is quite useless to myself and my students.

3. How can I adapt this for my students to improve the classroom?

Knowing the particular strengths and weaknesses of my students and classroom, I consider exactly how/when/where I can employ the gadget, system, or strategy during lessons.  How can I maximize the benefits of the professional development? For me, this is one of the most exciting (I’m a nerd) aspects of teaching…constructing the lessons and planning for maximizing time and effectiveness.


So, why does all of this matter?  Why do we need to know that things work in the classroom?

Without evidence of effectiveness, teachers could be implementing practices that have no positive effect in the classroom…wasting their time and the student’s time.  On another level, this is how myths of education begin to take hold; myths like learning stylesthe learning pyramid, left/right brain stuff, we only use 10% of our brain, brain gyms, etc.  It is important to stop these myths/fads before they do damage to the classroom.  Just this past week, I met with other educators, professors, researchers, at the U. S. Department of Education to discuss this very topic.  

So, what’s next?  What constitutes ‘good’ evidence?  That is a messy can of worms.  Perhaps there’s a blog post in the future on this topic.  In the meantime, look at Dr. Gary Jones’ blog.  He does a wonderful job of explaining the complexities of research and their possible applications in the classroom.

Has your view of professional development changed a bit?

How will you be a critical consumer of PD in the future?

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Go to the profile of Glenn Watson
over 5 years ago

Here is the thing about professional development.   The consumers of it don’t pay for it.  That is a recipe for inefficiency.   Administrators hear about some new talker or they hire a friend and they force teachers to come and listen.  Would the teachers listen to this person is they had to pay for it?  Usually the answer is no.  There is some good professional development out there.  And some of it is free to the teacher but the thing good PD has in common is teachers are not forced to go.  They decide to go and if they decided not to go then the presenter is not paid.  So the presenter is incentivized to provide value,  to not a principal or assistant superintendent but to the teacher.   Think about AP training in the summer.  The hotel, food and fees are paid by the school but the teacher must voluntarily give up his or her own time to go.   The teacher is paying for at least a part of the training with their time.   And you can bet your last dollar they would not go if the training was not useful. Compare that to most of the training teachers get while at work.  The trainer is selected by an administrator.  There is. It reason for the presenter to provide value to the teacher.  All he has to do is convince the administrator and then he gets paid.

This reminds me of school lunches.   They are universally terrible.  Why?   The school has no incentive to make the food taste good.   Would any of these cafeterias  survive in the real world?   They would not last a day, because the actual consumer is not in the loop.