A Farewell to Pointless PD

Opinion | Professional Development

A Farewell to Pointless PD

By Alvin Crawford     Dec 5, 2014

A Farewell to Pointless PD

This article is part of the guide: From Pre-Fab to Personalized: How Districts Are Retooling Professional Development.

It’s time for technology to change professional development for teachers.

That’s my view. And it’s why I run a company trying to do exactly that.

I see it that way not because of my job but because of the answers to two simple questions.

The first: does professional development need to change? The second: can technology actually do it?

To answer the first question, yes. Among the teachers we work with, this is an article of faith--so obvious it doesn’t require deep exploration. Even so, there’s a great deal of evidence to support the conclusion that professional development isn’t working.

Just ask Linda Darling-Hammond (the respected Professor of Education at Stanford University and Director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future). She was asked about the effectiveness of PD at last year’s Learning Forward Conference in Texas and said that while she believes some districts are doing a great job and could just tweak it around the edges, about 90% of school districts need to think about starting over and redesigning their PD.

Ninety percent.

Or consider the 2009 national research report, which reported that, when asked about their experience in professional development, “most of those teachers…reported that it was totally useless.”

It’s safe to say we have a problem.

That’s not because teachers can’t learn. Or don’t want to.

Professional development isn’t working because of the way it’s done. In the vast majority of cases, districts and schools teach teachers lecture-style--telling, showing and explaining how something can or should be done. Maybe we throw in an occasional PowerPoint presentation.

We’ve learned that simply lecturing to students doesn’t work well and have started to change the way we teach young people. But that knowledge hasn’t changed the way we handle teacher development. At least not yet.

Teacher development studies going back twenty years have shown over and over again that simply exposing a teacher to a new concept or skill has little to no classroom impact.

When you consider the billions we spend nationally on professional development, we have to do better. Real professional development can’t be about checking the box and needs to be obligatory.

On the second question--can technology help?--I think that's a yes.

It’s true that technology in all forms--digital content, social media, interactivity--has been promised to be a savior for education at all levels. And the results are mixed. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, have been mostly a miss. But instant, worldwide Internet connectivity has revolutionized many teaching environments for the better.

Still, professional development is a unique challenge. Herding teachers into a lecture hall a few times a year to review slides and video presentations has not worked and will not work.

To be transformative, strategic professional development needs to be 50 hours or more, reports Center for Public Education’s “Teaching the Teachers” report. And it must be supported by coaching, modeling observation and feedback plus ongoing interaction and peer engagement to refine skills and model successes.

That’s a challenge because if it takes 50 hours--say eight, face-to-face development days of six hours each--to learn, practice, implement and master a new teaching skill, it would take a district with 5,000 teachers five years or more. California has more than 300,000 public school teachers. That math doesn’t work. Traditional methods just aren’t an option.

Importantly, it’s not just about depth-level formal PD but informal, social learning which is just as important in supporting teachers as they adopt new teaching methodologies.

In “Teaching the Teachers,” Allison Gulamhussein explains, “The greatest struggle is not learning a new skill but implementing it.” According to her research this “implementation dip” can only be addressed when learners are connected to groups and individuals who can support them through the implementation process as they translate and apply what they’ve learned to make new best practices their own.

The only way to avoid the implementation dip and reach enough teachers with the right new skills--and stay with them throughout the learning and adoption process--is through technology. Tech tools can make that scale and success approachable--even probable.

Twitter has taken off as a way for teachers to share information with other teachers as they continue to evolve their craft. Online learning, though, has shown to have equal gains in teacher knowledge and student achievement outcomes versus high quality face-to-face professional development using the same content. So if you look at the lower cost and the ability to deploy it to larger audiences in less time, it is an extremely valuable approach to addressing the quality PD gap.

It may be the only approach that holds the promise of success. And it’s more than a promise--many of us have seen these new, tech-driven, interactive systems work.

We need a solution and we need one fast because it’s not just parents and politicians who want great teachers in every classroom--teachers want that too. Most--by far most--teachers are motivated caring professionals who want to do the best job they can. And great professional development is a key to making that a reality.

Alvin Crawford is the CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS).

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