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Ending the “fire hose” model of PD learning

By March 27, 2014June 13th, 201613 Comments

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.

As we looked over the data, we saw that teachers’ instructional practices were changing over the course of the year. They were implementing what they were learning in the PD sessions.

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.

2011_Hubbell_WEBElizabeth 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.



Sarah Gopalani is a researcher in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, where she conducts quantitative and qualitative analyses in support of research and evaluation team projects.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • If we were teaching someone to play a new sport we would never dream of sitting them down and explaining the rules and techniques of the game and then telling them to go away and put it all into practice. Of course not. We need coaches all along. So it is with teaching. Skill development comes over time.
    But I think there is also a place for extended pd, where teachers can immerse themselves in a community of fellow learners and focus on deepening their understandings and finding new ideas, well away from the pressures of teaching. I recall the feedback from a small group of my teachers when I sent them on a two day residential conference. They came back invigorated and reaffirmed about their own value. Much of this was because they had been given the time and space to listen, to think and discuss over an extended period of time. The lavish morning teas and nice hotel rooms helped!
    Teaching can become a very lonely profession and having time to be with one’s peers for more than just an hour at the end of the day can be powerful.
    So while I understand and agree with the criticism of the ‘fire hose’ model of pd, I think there is a place for the two or three day extended pd opportunity as long as we understand its purposes.

  • Hi Patricia,
    Thank you for your comment! I loved your sports metaphor and, you’re right, expecting someone to learn everything at once and then put it into practice would be silly.
    I can also see your point, however, about the need for focused learning and connection time away from the activity and buzz of their workplace. As long as they are allowed a process to incorporate what they’ve learned and are given feedback along the way, those few days can be well worth the time spent.

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    I see this problem in my work all the time. The districts and schools that make the most progress are the ones the end the fire hose approach. Thank you for such a well written article.

  • Cerissa Thomas says:

    I agree with this belief. Professional development over time will be successful for teachers and students. What benefit is it to know theory if it is not transferred to the practice of teaching? Moreover, I feel PD focus should be on authentic issues that are challenging teachers every day in the classroom. Teachers would take the time to listen and use it more if it is dealing with struggles they daily face. When teachers are able to reflect together and exchange ideas, this will lead to successful achievements in schools. Teachers need to have a variety of activities that will engage them to want use it in a classroom setting. This will make teachers more prone to collaborate and ponder on questions they may be facing. However, this type of communication compressed in a few days will not benefit teachers in the long-term.

  • Cassandra says:

    I also see this problem a lot in school districts. We have had 2-3 day long PD and there is so much information and it seems its all crammed in the brain. So what we do is, after each day we make and take activities that we will try in the classroom. We make activities and use the information from the PD in the activity. So when you are ready, that activity is already made.

  • Professional Development in my district seems to be to bring in someone who comes to tell you how to do your job and most people on our staff are pretty irritated by the end of the PD. It seems like a gravy train job where people come in a day or two and tell you how inefficient you do things in your class are and this is the “right way”. If we could just take a little more time and get more feed back and have more user friendly presenters I just feel that more people would get way more out of these PD experiences. I love the idea of not overwhelming people and spraying them with a firehose and make them feel as though they could never ever implement all of this information that was just thrown at them.

  • Hi everyone! Thank you so much for your comments. It sounds as though this topic resonated with lots of people and that you also struggle with the “firehose” model.
    One recommendation we give to clients is to break up the content in a way that makes sense over the course of the school year. For example, some clients choose to learn one of the 9 CITW categories of strategies each month. Others choose to learn one of the three framework components each quarter. This helps to keep the learning manageable and set goals at each juncture.
    Others have engaged in peer learning/observation models, blogging/Tweeting/Google+ implementation ideas, or using something like BlendSpace for short capstone projects.
    What are other ideas for keeping the learning going and for keeping it manageable?

  • Emily says:

    Great article…and so very true in this day and age of education. With such frequent state mandates and changes, PD is never-ending and overwhelming. If we think about it, we do not expect our students to learn with the “fire hose” method: we scaffold and break it up. They hear the lesson, get to practice and discuss over a period of days/weeks, we break everything up with activities, then they implement later – continually practicing over time. If we rushed our students like we rushed PD, no one would every get anywhere with their learning!
    I do agree with Patricia’s comment that sometimes in cannot be helped and is necessary for teachers. However, it would be ideal if after a 2-3 day long PD, teachers could have the following week to chunk their teaching, using these methods.

  • Caitlin Ronne says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I agree, using PD with a “fire hose” approach is so ineffective. At the school that I am currently teaching in, we have monthly meetings and we rotate between Science, Social Studies, and Math integration. We meet by grade level and in vertical teams to discuss the strategies. When we meet as a grade level we look at our data and find ways to use the strategies to support our areas of weakness. Once we have identified these places our instructional coaches work with us to implement them in the classroom.
    We have a very effective Professional Learning Community at my school and I believe that this is mainly because our focus is in learning rather than just teaching as well as perfecting one or two strategies a year. This has proven to be integral in developing our strengths as teachers.
    I do think that there is a benefit to two or three day intensives as long as the school allows you the support and time that you need throughout the year to implement those strategies. However, by developing our skills over the course of the year we are able to look more closely at our data to develop action plans on how best to support our students. By providing us with different activities and learning communities to be a part of we, not only, feel knowledgable about the content area, but also well supported through out the year.
    Again, thank you for sharing these insights. I believe that if more schools and districts took this approach, their teachers would be energized and prepared to implement the initiatives that the districts are calling for.

  • Jaclyn says:

    This article completely resonated with me and my experiences at my school. I am just like my students, I need a little bit of information at a time, time to practice, and then I can learn more from there. It is so crazy that in college we are taught, as teachers, to give bits of information over time, but teachers are expected to learn everything immediately. If we don’t expect our students to learn that way, how does administration expect adults to learn that way? It seems ridiculous that so many times that administration goes against all that we are taught to do.
    My school is now training all teachers in the SIOP method because we have such a high ESL population. We have to receive training for 20 hours before we can be certified. We have been learning different strategies and methods for our ESL students over the whole school year. It has been so much more effective than if we did this over a 3 day span. I am able to use what I have learned in one session in my classroom and then I have a better idea of what can come next. Also, many times I find that at the end of a PD the instructor asks if we have any questions. I honestly never have a question because I have no idea how this will work in my classroom. After I use whatever it is I learned in my classroom, then I have many questions. So I completely agree that dropping this “fire house” method for PD is very beneficial for all teachers.

  • Sarah says:

    I cannot agree more with this article! As a beginning teacher, I find the PD’s that my district mandates as dry, uninformative, and lacking of support in areas that we truly need focus. They dump ideas and information and research into our laps, and expect us to implement it immediately. I love that this article recognizes that we need time in between PD’s to utilize the information given to us, and begin to use our new knowledge in an effective way. This is the same idea as giving our students wait time. Teachers need wait time in order to learn how to implement practices into their classrooms and learn to grow into a stronger, more effective educator.

  • John Lenwell says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article on stategies for making teacher inservice meaninful and of real value. In my almost 20 years of teaching, this “fire hose method” you spoke about seems to be rule and not the exception. I often find myself wondering if the folks in charge of the inservice have properly focused and reflected on the main issues at hand at all, or just decided to put out the fire immediately by dumping as much “water/new practices” as possible, often doing nothing more than drowning the teachers in too much information with little or no training or time to implement them. With increasing demands on teachers time, often being taken from planning or collaberation time, I applaud your efforts at bringing meaning and value to inservice events.

  • Catherine Herr says:

    This post expressed many of the thoughts and conversations that I have had with my colleagues regarding our beginning of the year PD. We spend 2-3 days in meetings where we sit and listen as someone talks at us. We are introduced to many new instructional ideas all at once and we get excited for each one, but there are so many that by the time we leave it’s hard to recall what we were excited about.
    I think the idea of spreading the information out over multiple days allows us an opportunity to process what we have learned and to try the new ideas in our classrooms.
    I understand the need for the beginning of the year meetings, but our minds are on so many other things at that time that the instructional information would be better received if we had one during the first week, followed by one the next month we would be more receptive to the information.

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