As educators, we’ve all experienced sitting through a two- or three-day workshop and, at the end of it, being overwhelmed with information, tired of sitting and listening, and wondering how we’re going to even begin incorporating what we’ve learned into our daily practice at school. We get back to work, and there’s no feedback from anyone and no time to try what we’ve learned. Time slips by, and we make little to no changes in our instructional practices.
This style of “learning via fire hose” is one of the least effective, yet all-too-commonly-used formats of professional development in education.
A much more effective PD model is to allow teachers to absorb information in small bites, giving teachers time to think about what they’ve learned and to methodically integrate new practices into their existing instruction, and providing them with feedback on their efforts.
We saw how well this worked last year when we were working with the staff at a mid-sized intermediate school on research-based instructional practices.
Instead of conducting three back-to-back days of PD, we spread the face-to-face sessions out over the course of the year.
Day 1 focused on the Classroom Instruction That Works strategies that create the environment for learning: setting objectives, providing feedback, reinforcing effort, providing recognition, and cooperative learning.
Day 2 focused on strategies that help students develop understanding: cues & questions, advance organizers, nonlinguistic representation, summarizing, and note taking.
Day 3 focused on homework, practice, and the two strategies that help students extend and apply knowledge: identifying similarities & differences and generating & testing hypotheses.
Each of these sessions was followed by an implementation assignment. We were able to track how well the implementation was going by reviewing real-time data (see chart) collected with our Power Walkthrough classroom observation system.
Among the changes, we were pleased to see a drop in the predominant use of “practice” as a primary instructional strategy. While providing practice is an excellent strategy that allows students to review and refine what they have learned, we find that it is often over-used in classrooms, leaving little room for deeper learning and developing higher-order thinking skills.
We were happy to see growth in the teachers’ use of “note taking” strategies, which helps students summarize and remember what they learned, as well as growth in the use of “generating and testing hypotheses,” one of the highest-order thinking skills in which we can engage students.
While use of “nonlinguistic representation” as a primary instructional strategy appears low, we did see a definite uptick in nonlinguistic representation being used as a supporting strategy.
The data also helped us show teachers that “providing feedback” to their students was an area they could focus on in future PD and coaching.
By spreading out the PD content over the course of the year, by giving staff time to understand and integrate new learning into their practice, and by providing data and feedback along the way, the school’s teachers were able to see the impact of their hard work and newfound knowledge, and they now have the data they need to set future goals as a professional learning community.
If you’ve tried other strategies for stopping the PD “fire hose,” use the Comments section to let us know what worked well.
Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.