What makes for effective PLD?


At a meeting I attended last week a group of people were discussing approaches they might use to 'bring teachers up to speed' with the ideas and approaches they were discussing (in this case, computational thinking). The discussion that ensued raised all of the usual issues around why it's difficult to find effective PLD solutions: teachers are time poor, the overloaded curriculum, lack of expertise, reluctance to change etc. When turning their attention to finding a solution the predictable list appeared: provide more teacher only days (TODs), introduce a range of incentives (carrots), introduce mandatory requirements (sticks) etc. The discussion also ventured into the problem with providing PLD support that is 'just in time' rather than that which is 'just in case'.

As one of the few professionals in the group whose work is built around designing and delivering professional learning and development, I was asked to offer my thoughts on what makes for effective professional learning and development. Having spent much time exploring what the literature says about this, and being involved in significant national research efforts to identify the same, my list was easy to share:

Effective professional learning and development has the following four characteristics:

  1. It is in-depth
  2. It is provided over time
  3. It is related to practice
  4. It is contextually relevant

I use this list as my litmus test when designing PLD approaches with principals and schools. Based on more recent experience, I think I'd add a fifth point: 5. It is collaborative. I see this increasingly as the differentiating factor in the level of success with PLD programmes in schools I work with.

Clearly, it would be easy then to eliminate the one-day workshop, or attendance at a one-off seminar or conference if using this list. So too a one-size fits all style of 'course' that is 'delivered' on a large scale with no provision for customisation or adapting to a personal need. 

This sort of thinking is certainly contributing to the current government policy in NZ, where the 'evidence' suggests that most forms of PLD to date have been ineffective, and that a new approach needs to be taken. In NZ's case this appears to be based on recognising the expertise that exists within schools and clusters and providing support for internally designed and developed approaches to PLD. 

Teachers know bestSuch moves are not surprising. In the US, similar dissatisfaction with existing PLD approaches has been reported, with a recent publication titled "Teachers Know Best" from the Boston Publishing group, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, reporting that large majorities of teachers do not believe that professional development is helping them prepare for the changing nature of their jobs, including using technology and digital learning tools, analyzing student data to differentiate instruction, and implementing the Common Core State Standards and other standards. The report provides a detailed breakdown of the types of PLD that teachers consider work or don't compared with what is provided.

Based on their research, the report authors suggest that principals and teachers in the US largely agree on what effective PLD looks like, and it is summarised in the paper as:

Characteristics of professional development associated with improving student achievement:

  • Sustained and content specific
  • Teacher learning goals aligned with standards
  • Involving active learning techniques (e.g., observing expert teachers, leading discussions)
  • Including established teams to facilitate “collective participation” and teachers using data in making instructional decisions

Two formats that hold promise:

  • Coaching has been shown to improve teachers’ abilities to adopt and implement new teaching practices
  • Collaboration helps to build relational trust in the school building, which enables teachers to more effectively make difficult decisions

In a recent blog post titled Developing Great Teaching that explores these same issues I referenced a report from the Teacher Development Trust which identifies 8 characteristics of effective PLD (repeated below) 

  • Duration: effective professional development lasts at least two semesters, and needs a ‘rhythm’ of follow-up and consolidation;
  • Targeted: the content should be relevant to the teachers’ needs and day-to-day experiences;
  • Aligned: no single activity is universally effective – instead it is a combination that reinforced the message from different perspectives that works;
  • Content: successful development must consider both subject knowledge and subject-specific teaching techniques;
  • Activities: successful development features common types of activities including discussion, experimentation and analysis and reflection;
  • External input: constructive external input provides new perspectives and challenges orthodoxies;
  • Collaboration: peer support gives participants an opportunity to work together and refine new approaches;
  • Leadership: effective leaders get involved in development, define opportunities and provide the support needed to embed change.

While there are some differences in each of the three lists above, there are also some very strong alignments. These are the sorts of things that we need to be taking notice of and building our future PLD programmes around.

It's too easy to look at PLD in a 'fractured' sort of way, thinking about each PLD event in isolation, without appreciating how, if a systemic view was taken, these elements could actually be aligned and understood as a part of a continuum of development, rather than an isolated experience. This is where the analysis in the Gates report is weakened, as it examines the reported effectiveness of each PD event (i.e. workshops, conferences, in-class observation etc.) without referencing how that might 'fit' within the overall programme of development of a school or district. Clearly, since the reports were based on teacher perceptions, those who were surveyed didn't have an appreciation of that – or the survey design didn't allow them to report that. 

Back to the NZ scene, I'm very excited about the increased emphasis on supporting schools and clusters to take a more proactive role in designing and developing their own PLD processes and approaches as clearly the mandated, imposed sorts of approaches are becoming less relevant where the needs are so diverse. There's a danger we must be aware of, however, in that cluster leaders will themselves need to be fully aware of and able to lead PLD approaches that are founded on the key principles that the research and evidence reveals, or else they two run the risk of implementing some of the very same practices that we know don't work. 

The secret is to take a system-level view, one that is designed to take all staff on a journey, over time, towards achieving both personal and school/cluster goals. and which has strategic means of measuring impact and outcomes. 

3 thoughts on “What makes for effective PLD?

  1. In order to be effective, teacher PLD needs to be teacher-initiated. 

    I love the phrase that I think comes from Dr Lorraine Munroe, that secondary schools have "over-permeable boundaries."  We are pushed and pulled from all directions – students, parents, school leadership, community, subject associations and advisors, national curriculum and assessment requirements, and more often than not they are contradictory.

    The teacher is a professional who has spent many years training in the university and many more years training in the classroom, and actually knows a thing or two, including, what will aid the teaching and learing that occurs in their own classroom.

    Effective PLD has to be teacher-initiated or else it becomes an exercise in compliance and box ticking. 

  2. Hello Derek. After 28 years of secondary teaching, I fully agree with your thoughts about the challenges of creating effective PLD programmes. Digital technologies have highlighted just how problematic this can be, especially when school managers may not fully appreciate the dynamic shift that has taken place in our classrooms and the need to nurture the growth of their staff consistently over several seasons, not just one.

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