A Guide to Proficiency-Based Professional Development

A Guide to Proficiency-Based Professional Development

Chris Isherwood

I work in a small Maine city-district that takes its innovations seriously! We were an early adopter of middle school and high school 1-to-1 devices in Maine, and one of the first districts in the country to go 1-to-1 with ipads in primary grades. Added to that, we are trying to meet the needs of all students through proficiency-based, customized learning.

So it is no surprise that we have been thinking a little differently about professional development lately. We’ve been working toward big and little changes to how we go about PD. In addition to thinking about PD as more than just workshops, reading and online courses, we are shifting our entire perspective on PD towards one focused on proficiency.

Like other districts, we worry about past investments in professional development that have resulted in very little change in practice. We think this is because professional development of the past has been incomplete.

Over time, our understanding has expanded to include three overarching categories: clarity, support for foundational knowledge and support for achieving proficiency. Below, I describe how we’re working to develop and deliver within each category.


We want to create a sense of transparency around professional learning. We want our educators to clearly understand the skills, strategies and knowledge we want them to develop (and will support them to develop). We think there are three strategies we need to achieve this clarity.

A Professional Learning Curriculum – If we have an initiative (whether that be technology integration, proficiency-based learning, etc.), what skills do our educators need to become good at? As with young learners, adult learners can excel when we are transparent about what we would like them to learn. What are the skills we want our educators to become proficient in, and how can we best teach them?

A Professional Learning Progress Management System – Just like with student learning, we need to manage, acknowledge and certify adult learning. What system will we use to help make the professional curriculum and pathways transparent, to certify teacher proficiencies as they move through their professional curriculum, and to record and manage their certifications (like micro-credentials or badges)?

How to Answer, “But What Does It Look Like?” – Models and examples can help teachers develop a sense of what the strategy would look like in action. Teachers often have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do, but not a practical understanding. These models and examples play a critical role in helping them become able to try this new idea in their own classroom.

Support for Foundational Knowledge

Teachers need support in learning the basics. These strategies are closest to traditional professional development.

“Same Page” Trainings – These are introductory workshops, getting teachers on the same page about a new set of concepts, skills, or strategies they will be working to implement, such as strategies for building a learner-centered culture or leveraging QR codes and videos to support students being independent learners. We used to think that when a teacher left a workshop, they were then proficient in the new skill, or at least that’s how the old system treats them. Now we think of these “same page” sessions as just the beginning. The real learning happens when teachers go back to their classrooms and try out the strategy.

Reusable Learning Objects – Instead of having to wait for a workshop or for the Tech Integrator or Instructional Coach to visit a classroom, these how-to articles, lessons, short courses, videos and other digital resources, aligned to our professional learning curriculum, are available to a teacher as he or she needs them.

Support for Achieving Proficiency

Now that a teacher has the basics, how does the school support him or her becoming skilled at implementing the practice? We see three key strategies.

Lesson Invention and Tryouts – There is much to any new system that needs to be designed or invented (or at least adapted for our schools). The work teachers do to design, invent, prototype, refine, perfect and share these systems and strategies is valuable professional learning for all of us. Even relatively simple ideas or strategies, if they are truly new to a teacher, require some level of “invention” for that educator to put them into action. Embedded in the idea of lesson invention and tryouts is the notion of continuous improvement. They give teachers the chance to try a skill in the classroom, reflect on how it went and how it could be done better, and then try it out again with the improvements.

Coaching and Feedback – Just as reflection is an important component of continuous improvement, so are coaching and feedback. Coaching and feedback include the teacher working with any Technology Integrator, Instructional Coach, administrator or peer. These people can model lessons or strategies, co-design or plan with the teacher, observe and/or provide formative feedback to support the teacher’s professional growth. Their collaboration helps increase the level of fidelity with which the teacher can implement the strategy.

Teacher Face-to-Face Time – Teachers need time to sit with other teachers working on the same initiatives to share experiences, ideas and resources, as well as, to ask questions and seek support. They need a chance to share things that they have tried that worked, and to seek assistance with those things they are still challenged by. And the notion of “face-to-face” can extend well beyond her school or district via the blogs and social networks the teacher builds and follows.

We acknowledge that all three categories of professional learning are necessary, and complement each other. To share a set of expectations with teachers (the professional curriculum) without providing training and support is the irresponsible expectation that they can change practices without supports. To offer workshops without defining the desired broader professional learning at best leaves gaps in teachers’ learning and at worst becomes a collection of random workshops. Further, it is too much to expect teachers to get to proficiency without foundational supports. Successful changes in classroom practice come when there is clarity, as well as support for both building foundational understandings and growing to proficiency.

If your initiative isn’t progressing the way you would like, if you aren’t seeing the the classroom changes you’d like to see, I’d invite you to look at the strategies within the three categories. How can you ensure you’re attending to each?

A version of this article was originally published on the Multiple Pathways Blog.

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