What is professional development?

Everyone knows that “professional development for educators is important.” It’s one of those phrases you hear all the time without really thinking about it. I did a session at last year’s K12 Online conference called “Challenging Assumptions About Professional Development” that talked about some of the myths we believe about professional development, especially regarding technology. But even then, I didn’t think much about the question, “what is professional development?”

I’ve done some web research, and found lots of terrific resources about things like the essential elements of professional development, methodologies, how to do it, and much more. But what I didn’t find is a simple breakdown of the kinds of professional development that teachers can participate in. Because in my mind, breaking down the kinds of professional development into simple groups gives us a “map” of the possibilities. Sort of like food groups – it can help create a balanced diet.

Here’s my list – I’m open to suggestions…

1. Academic coursework

  • degree/professional certification awarded at completion

2. Workshops/sessions

  • workshops
  • in-services
  • conferences

3. Formal research

  • publish research
  • participate in research
  • apply research to your own situation

4. Informal

  • collegial activities
  • Personal Learning Networks
  • mentoring
  • being a mentor
  • reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos about education/teaching
  • blogging or creating other content related to education

5. Classroom embedded

  • learning from/collaborating with students
  • workshops given in a real classroom situation
  • in-classroom mentor teacher
  • team teaching
  • student teaching
  • observation

6. Action research

  • deliberate reflective practice to change your teaching

My suspicion, of course, is that most professional development falls mainly into one or two traditional groups. I’ll explore this in a future blog post, and how we might create a more “balanced diet” of professional development for teachers by combining different forms of professional development to balance strengths and weaknesses of each type.


5 Replies to “What is professional development?”

  1. I’m the Professional Development coordinator for my district and we have been having this exact conversation as we revise our district’s Professional Development Plan. (This document is required to be turned in and reviewed by state ed in NY, so this discussion is happening a lot in this neck of the woods.)

    Another item that is driving this discussion in NY is a new “professional certification” for teachers which replaces our “permanent” certification. Now teachers must submit that they have done at least 175 hours of PD in a five year period. Not too strenuous a requirement if you break it down to 35 hours a year. But the state leaves it up to districts to decide exactly what PD is and how many hours they will credit for certain events. We are giving credit for serving on the boards of professional organizations, for publishing in educational journals, for receiving National Board Certification, etc…

    What is interesting is how to record and verify less structured PD? How do we reliably record the professional conversations and collaborations that happen spontaneously or in a less structured setting? Not all or our collaborations or mentor relationships are “scheduled” so to speak. As a result, they are often not recorded or honored. As a result what appears on a teacher’s transcript are the scheduled sit and learn events. Then I think…only seeing those sit and git sessions on a transcript leads to teachers believing that those are the only valued or honored PD opportunities.

    We are looking for ways to easily record, verify, and honor the less structured–but arguably more effective and inspiring–discussions and collaborations that take place.

    I think you have a good list.

    I think the key is to strive to offer “programs” rather than “events”. Events are the “sit and git” model. Programs are ongoing and entail much more reflection and growth on the part of the teacher. Ideally the follow up sessions to an initial face to face “class” could be a journal, posting to a wiki, creating a project, etc….The idea is to offer something different than the initial training.

    Maybe we can extend your diet metaphor to talk about a well balanced meal. First course: instructor led class. Second course: journaling or posting to a blog or wiki, consult with PLC Third course: create a study group, etc….

  2. When finishing my grad studies in Ed Admin at Univ of Wisconsin in 1999, Paul Bredeson was in the middle of creating a book about how we see PD in a different way. The book “Designs for Learning: A New Architecture for Professional Development in Schools” (2003) look at PD using a framework of 5 paths:

    1. Prof Dev Outside Work: attending Professional Conference, College courses, Workshops
    2. Prof Dev About Work: In-service, Training, Staff development
    3. Prof Dev In Work: Co-teaching, trying out new ideas, reflection in action, learning by doing
    4. Prof Dev Beyond Work: Personal reading, travel, music lessons
    5. Prof Dev As Work: Collaborative inquiry, mentoring, joint/team planning, curriculum development

    In working with him, I found this much more viable and focuses on the WORK of educators rather than the PD which supports the work. It also enables educators to see that PD is part of their work lives in multiple ways.

    The book is an easy read and very valuable.

  3. @Mike I’m definitely planning to extend the metaphor. I’m thinking more “blending” though, not courses. Stay tuned!

    @Stuart This book sounds interesting. I was looking for a way to sort the types of PD into groups that provide similar evidence of success and similar strengths and weaknesses.

    Looking at PD from the perspective of Community of Practice, I think that situating it is a key part of defining the impact. That’s why I think that what a teacher can learn IN their own classroom (what I called classroom-embedded) is so important. Research also shows that training that happens as close as possible to the actual conditions and real situation is most effective. For teachers, this is their classroom. Think airline pilots and simulators, or doctors learning surgery. When it comes down to it, situating professional development in the classroom could be extremely valuable, but is rarely practiced after student teaching. Why? Because it’s expensive. Why are in-services widely used? Because they are relatively cheap to run.

  4. Hi Sylvia, You might enjoy reading the Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration on Teacher Professional Learning and Development by Helen Timperley, Aaron Wilson, Heather Barrar, and Irene Fung, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

    It critiques international and New Zealand research in this area – provides heaps of valuable insights – You can download the pdf from the Education Counts page here

  5. One of the issues we have to confront as educators looking at professional learning is our reliance on “craft practice’ – check out the following observation from

    However, while the examples of research identified above arise out of substantial traditions of R & D much of this research is unknown to many teachers, educational leaders, policy workers, policy makers and even teacher educators. There has been a strong tradition leaning towards craft practice within education and teacher education.

    ‘Craft practice’ is used here to mean the model of teaching where practice is based on teachers’ experience, where there is discussion about teaching matters but involvement in other teachers’ day-to-day practice in classrooms occurs normally only in the context of pre-service practica. There is emphasis on management and discipline, evaluation is based on judgement about how the teaching went rather than consideration of the children’s learning, and the prevailing norms and practices of classrooms are maintained. A craft practice approach does not involve engagement with R & D around pedagogy.

    Doyle (1990)9 provides a contrasting framework of a ‘reflective professional’ approach to teaching which focuses on reflective capacities of observation, analysis, interpretation and decision-making linked to data about children’s learning. The knowledge base for the reflective professional is not exclusive of, and values the craft knowledge of skilled teachers but also includes pedagogical, subject, socio-cultural and other knowledge from the social sciences and the use of formative assessment and inquiry processes to inform teaching. Evidence-based practices become embedded within everyday educational practice.

    Despite the fact that research about pedagogy is a potentially invaluable record of the work of teachers, there is stronger ownership of that knowledge by researchers than teachers and teachers are rarely named as co-authors of research reports about their work. Teachers have often had reason to find the educational research they have encountered of little appeal or practical help (Kennedy, 1997)10.

    From Dr Adrienne Alton-Lee, Chief Education Adviser Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis Programme Medium Term Strategy Policy Division, New Zealand Ministry of Education 4th Annual Policy Conference: Policy Evolution 29 March, 2006

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