by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Professional development programs for teachers generally fall into two broad categories of structure: traditional and reform. The traditional structure of professional development for teachers is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, where all teachers, regardless of their differences, are provided the same professional development. Traditional forms of professional development include once a year motivational speakers and guest experts, as well as short workshops (typically one afternoon or day). Colbert et al. (2008) refers to this form of professional development as “the ‘sit and get’ model, which imposes professional development on teachers in a top-down, non-collaborative manner” (p. 136). These forms of professional development are the most popular in school districts because they are often logistically easier to implement. Millions of dollars are wasted annually across the educational system on traditional forms of professional development that fail to have a lasting impact on teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes.
Despite the popularity and common use of traditional forms of professional development in school districts, they are heavily criticized in the literature on professional development. This criticism is based on the idea that in traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches, all teachers receive the same professional development program regardless of their individual subject area, grade level, level of experience, developmental level, or needs. Watts (1980) equated this to a generic antibiotic that is given to all patients regardless of their illness or even if they are ill at all. A major issue in this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is that although teachers share a common link with regard to their overall profession as a teacher, they represent a diverse spectrum of ages, experience levels, subjects and grade levels taught, personalities, learning processes, and ethnicities. Due to this diversity in skills, capacities, and needs, for professional development to be more effective, it should be individualized and differentiated to fit teachers’ needs and developmental levels.
Individualized and differentiated learning processes factor heavily into pedagogical approaches in terms of student learning in the school system, where the needs of student learners are recognized and addressed in daily lesson plans. In recent years, traditional forms of professional development are starting to be replaced by reform styles of professional development that factor in the individual needs and developmental levels of the teachers. These reform style professional development practices include collaboration between teachers and professional learning communities, job-embedded practices, coaching and mentoring, lesson study groups, and networking. These reform style professional development practices are effectively shifting the focus of professional development away from large-scale district programs and onto the individual needs and goals of teachers and school site teams. For example, reform style professional development practices allow teachers at different levels of expertise in technology integration to receive training at their level, rather than all learning how to power on their device.
It is time to end the fascination with traditional one-shot guest speakers who cannot have a lasting impact on teachers’ instructional practices or students’ learning outcomes. It is time to end the sessions where Math teachers spend three hours learning how to have students write better essays. It is time to stop treating all teachers as though they don’t know anything on a topic by starting with the basics. It is time to give teachers the support they need to continue to excel in their profession. It is time to recognize teachers as individuals with specific needs, learning processes, and interests. It is time to shift the paradigm of professional development from an antiquated ineffective model to formats that can make a difference in the lives of teachers and in turn the lives of students. It is time to treat the professional learning of teachers the same as we treat student learning in our classrooms with differentiated learning opportunities and time to follow-up on their learning.
Colbert, J.A., Brown, R.S., Choi, S., & Thomas, S. (2008). An investigation of the impacts of teacher-driven professional development on pedagogy and student learning. Teacher Education Quarterly, 35(2), 135-154.
Watts, H. (1980). Starting out, moving on, running ahead or how the teachers’ center can attend to stages in teachers’ development. Occasional Paper No. 8. San Francisco, CA: Far West Lab for Educational Research and Development.