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Seeking: A Taxonomy for Professional Development

EdSurge heads down the rabbit hole

At EdSurge we’ve been seriously grokking teacher professional development. Interviews, observations, literature reviews, surveys--whatever it takes to gain insights into a largely static and fragmented area of formal K-12 education. Our purpose with all this snooping around remains the same as any other day--to provide independent, objective information on education technology whether it be through the news, our Product Wiki or our recently released guide, "Teaching Kids to Code."

When we began writing about digital curriculum, we established a taxonomy of products, collected measures of efficacy and interviewed practitioners to fill in the gaps. 

But an unexpected turn happened along this journey to understanding PD: teacher professional development tools don’t fit neatly into well-defined buckets like those for Mathematics or English/Language Arts. There's no scope and sequence for progressing through the teaching practice. We began to realize that our path to creating a landscape of PD tools might be more circuitous than we thought.  

“Straight A Sam" can easily plug in to Khan Academy or Apex Learning or ST Math to master any concept he (or his teacher) fancies. Understanding the efficacy of such tools is straightforward because there is a widely accepted view of how to progress through the underlying disciplines. You can’t perform algebra without knowing how to add, subtract, divide, and multiply. You can’t persuade or inspire thorough writing without building vocabulary and effectively using grammar and punctuation (damn participles!).

But what widely accepted view is there of professional development? Where do you start and end? Which topics are most important? How and when do teachers “plug in” to professional learning?

The short answers are: there is none, everywhere, all of them, and teachers should always be “plugged in.” Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s apparent that any thoughtful response to the questions requires careful consideration of the classroom, school, and district context.

What does good professional development look like?

There’s no shortage of opinions on what constitutes good teacher professional development. EdSurge friend and lifelong educator Mike Berman sees PD as a set of “strategies to practice and develop over time until mastered and implemented with ease,” with much of that development coming through reflection and discussion. Nicole Martin, director of 21st century teaching and learning at the Mount Vernon School tends to agree. Teachers at the suburban Atlanta independent school can request a Google-like “genius hour” to spend experimenting and reflecting upon their practice as they see fit.

Dan Callahan, co-founder of Edcamp, thinks it’s as simple as treating teachers like the professionals they hope to become. As is the case with doctors and lawyers, teachers should seek improvement that's “relevant to what’s happening in [their] classroom right now” since they’re the ones most cognizant of what they don’t know, Callahan notes. Adam Carter and Kieran McMillan from Summit Public Schools echo Callahan’s sentiments, noting that PD “must be delivered when most needed, not as a check box administrator task.”

All interviewees (including more than a few folks who commented on our survey) arrived at the same major conclusion: good professional development should embody the learning environment for a particular school or classroom. Heavy on inquiry-based learning? Seek out PD opportunities that are as open-ended as the assignments you give to students. Transitioning to more data-driven instruction? Then make sure you have a set of metrics to measure your own development against.

Undergoing professional development experiences which model the instruction in your classroom and school provides an informal feedback loop on how to improve your own instruction. That kind of alignment means you're going to learn something about how that pedagogy is received by your students--even if the specific content isn't exactly what you were hoping to get. 

Was that workshop you suffered through really PD?

Traditionally professional development has followed the time-honored workshop format: Call in a few substitutes or pick a district holiday, bring in the experts and coaches and watch innovation happen (or at least cross off an annual requirement). To a lesser extent, conferences have served the same purpose.

Other types of PD involve supplemental coursework, certifications, co-teaching, receiving and providing mentorship, self-observation (video), and perhaps most popular among tech-minded teachers, self-inquiry (aka your Twitter personal learning network).

All of these PD experiences are hobbled by at least one of three major flaws: time, differentiation and accountability.

Even if all courses, certifications, and conferences were of exceptional quality (imagine, folks!), there simply isn't enough time--or money--to shepherd, oh, say, 3.5 million teachers through such training on an annual basis.

Even if the necessary resources to do so were available, it would take an unprecedented effort to meet the needs and wants of each individual teacher.

And even if such an effort were completed, catalogued, and wonderfully organized, how would we know if a teacher successfully implemented the new skill set that he or she developed?

Simply put, preparing math lessons for 8th graders just isn't enough: any 8th grade class is a rich mixture of abilities and needs, including ELL or low-SES or SWD or GATE students. Exchanges over how to teach these varied groups is exactly the kind of assistance many teachers would most like to receive. After all, if such details are unaccounted for, how can we really connect student outcomes to teacher improvement?

'What about the research?'

We’ve collected a ton of buzzwords from the crowd: “differentiated,” “embodied,” “zone of proximal development,” “accountability,” “teacher-centered,” “student-centered,” “reflection.” All point to this idea of just-in-time, culturally and content relevant, measurable, easily digested info bites for educators. (Breath!) Not surprisingly, the same kind of learning many advocate for on behalf of students.

Fortunately the research community appears to be largely in agreement. And a few have gone so far to address the subject from a technological perspective. A white paper from Utah State University’s DigitalCommons@USU nicely distills the “seven characteristics of effective TTPD [technology-related teacher professional development]” as identified by the 2010 National Education Technology Plan from the US Dept of Education. PD should:

  1. Relates to teachers’ content areas;

  2. Is collaborative;

  3. Is consistent with technology goals in the district;

  4. Allows for active engagement with content;

  5. Is tailored to different levels of teachers’ knowledge, skill, and interest

  6. Is sustained;

  7. Includes follow-up activities.

(Here’s a working list of PD literature we’re wading through. Got more we should read? Let us know!)

And so where is our taxonomy?!

One thing is clear from practitioners and researchers alike: teacher PD is not simply an event, or a session, or a workshop. Nor does it fit neatly into buckets for how-to-guides, lesson planning, pedagogical tricks, and tech support. This is one taxonomy for thinking about specific needs, but it does not necessarily lead to improved teacher practice.

Professional development is a process. A habit-forming endeavor. An ongoing individual and institutional professional responsibility to seek, share, develop, and exchange the most needed and desired skill sets.

Dan Callahan rightly pointed out that “teaching is an art and a science.”

EdSurge hopes to get better--every day--at understanding and sharing what's valuable about tools in the PD space. We'll start with just the facts, ma'am: Where to go for what. What it costs. What works and how--at least from the builders' vantage--these tools may help.

But we will remain mindful of the art behind teaching. That means we're still on hunt, still looking for ways to address these fluid, dynamic practices in every tool, topic, and news item--not just lesson planners and comprehensive PD tools--that can help educators. 

We're still gathering feedback on our survey. (Really!) So stay tuned for our final report on what you think about professional development.




About the Author

Regular_leonardmedlock
Leonard is a Product Manager and staff writer at EdSurge. Email: leonard@edsurge.com

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