Is that a trick question, you ask?
Yes and no. We can all come up with the typical reasons that professional development for teachers is important; and of course, one of them is that a certain level of it is required. But when you go deeper, what are the driving forces behind the best practices in professional development?
In a 2017 report on what constitutes effective professional development, the Learning Policy Institute reviewed 35 studies that met their methodological criteria that linked the practice with student outcomes.
“Teacher professional learning is of increasing interest as one way to support the increasingly complex skills students need to learn in preparation for further education and work in the 21st century,” the report says. “Sophisticated forms of teaching are needed to develop student competencies such as deep mastery of challenging content, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, effective communication and collaboration, and self-direction. In turn, effective professional development is needed to help teachers learn and refine the pedagogies required to teach these skills.”
The report noted that some studies spotlighted professional development initiatives that didn’t seem to make a difference, and set out to discover the components of effective professional development, which it defined as “structured professional learning that results in changes in teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes.” Some of those components, they determined, were:
- Specific, content-focused strategies that fell in line with the teachers’ own classrooms;
- ‘Active-learning models – including interactive activities – that get away from the traditional lecture format;
- Collaborative learning: sharing ideas and networking with others in similar positions, which ultimately changes a culture;
- Best-practices models: When teachers can visualize a curriculum through actual models of lesson plans, student work and observations of peers, it gives them an advantage when creating their own;
- Feedback, reflection and time: High-quality professional development included time for feedback and thoughtful reflection on possible changes to their routines. It also was of sufficient duration to give teachers enough time to really learn, and possibly assimilate, any changes.
“While some teachers are more naturally gifted than others, all effective teaching is the result of study, reflection, practice, and hard work,” says Learning Forward’s report on professional development. “A teacher can never know enough about how a student learns, what impedes the student’s learning, and how the teacher’s instruction can increase the student’s learning. Professional development is the only means for teachers to gain such knowledge. Whether students are high, low, or average achievers, they will learn more if their teachers regularlyengage in high-quality professional development.”
Does this mean that the only good professional development is in person, rather than online? Not at all. Online learning has evolved to include group discussion, projects and shared reports. Online professional development can meet a teacher’s need for continuing education while still providing the elements of best-practices models.
This is important for a couple of reasons. One, teachers are busy people, and often must fit their professional development courses into the pockets of time they have available. Two, self-direction allows a teacher to mold a course into the model he or she most needs in the classroom at that point in time.
“Unlike traditional professional development, self-directed professional development opens learning possibilities for educators in any place and at any time,” writes RethinkEd. “It allows educators to acquire a wide variety of skills and gain access to training outside the classroom at their own pace.”
Some of the reasons why self-directed courses actually offer more than traditional courses:
- The textbooks, videos and other instructional materials are high-quality and consistent across the board;
- Teachers can take the time they need to master a difficult concept without worrying about running out of time;
- Online and self-directed courses are available to educators and other individuals (assistant teachers, for example, or Individualized Education Program providers) who may not have access to traditional teacher-development sessions.
Dominican University of California’s Online Professional Learning Program (DominicanCAonline.com) offers hundreds of online professional development courses for teachers – and administration – at all levels.
A professional learning or continuing education program has to be flexible, comprehensive, and current, and we pride ourselves on all three. In addition to classes that expand your skills in teaching language arts, math, science, social studies and reading, we offer high-level classes about different aspects of teaching itself, such as:
- Administration: A series of classes on teacher evaluation focused on improving both pedagogical skill and student achievement.
- Classroom management: One of our premiere departments, courses include inductive learning, strategies for teaching students with ADHD and autism, research methods, creating an inclusive classroom environment, lesson planning, critical thinking, innovation and more.
- Educational outreach: Specifically geared toward helping Teacher Associate/Union Representatives build an educational outreach program that is more effective in their schools and communities.
- Special education: Multidisciplinary approaches in the classroom that cover everything from Asperger’s to autism, from inclusivity to discipline, from emotional and behavioral disorders to UDL readiness in the classroom.
- Technology: It is imperative for teachers to update their skills and their teaching protocols. Learning to use iPads, Google Docs, Twitter, Smartboard, coding and more will enhance your classroom from Day 1.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that many schools are confined to only a few days of PD per year,” writes ActivelyLearn. “Teachers spend a handful of days in marathon-long sessions of workshops and meetings with the expectation that they can improve their practice in short, intensive bursts of learning. But this isn’t how learning happens.” The site suggests on-demand resources that can extend professional development beyond a day, including online courses.
You may also be interested in our related blog post about teaching for success in the real world.