Susan Riley | April 2014

Designing Professional Development for the 21st Century

Today, we’re discussing designing professional development for the 21st century and there’s a big reason why. It’s the same everywhere I go: teachers are frustrated with professional development.  The models are outdated and people are on information overload.  There’s not enough time in the day to plan for lessons, provide instruction, assess student progress and attend to all of the extra duties that come with teaching, much less gather the energy to attend a professional development session.  And time out of the classroom is too precious to be wasted on full-day sessions that may or may not make a difference in your classroom tomorrow.

On the other hand, there are so many new initiatives, standards, and requirements that you are in desperate need of professional development, right?  How are you supposed to understand and teach new standards without time to unpack them?  New teacher evaluations coming down the pike for next year?  How can you write an SLO/SGO with integrity in your own content area?  So while you don’t have time for traditional professional development, you also don’t have time to waste your energy on lesson or assessment planning when a few hours of good professional development could have saved you hours of frustration.

I’ve been thinking through this quite a bit for the last year or so and I’m not sure I have any better answers than you do at this point.  I’ve seen districts try new ideas for PD delivery only to have them fail just as miserably as the traditional model of “sit and get.”  Professional development needs to change, but at the same time, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all change.   Here’s what I DO know for sure: there are things that no longer work and things that are worth a try given their success for others.  Let’s take a look at both sides.

arts integration masterclass

What No Longer Works

Professional development can no longer look like a large group being lectured to by a sage from the stage.  Whether it’s at a national conference or a monthly staff meeting, teachers deserve better than a pure lecture format.  One of the most frustrating things for me as a consultant to see is when other consultants zoom into a professional development day, share nice presentations, hand out a few notes or samples and then leaves without any kind of follow-up.  That is neither professional nor does it develop anybody.

Professional development should be reflective of how we want our classrooms to look.  If we would want our students moving, collaborating, investigating, and sharing – that’s what our PD should look like as well.  Professional developers should be able to present information quickly and then give the bulk of the time for active learning, while they become facilitators from the side.

Another traditional professional development concept that needs be retired is the idea of a hard and fast time for professional development.  We are all busy and we all have different learning preferences.  Some people need a quiet space to read, while others enjoy lively conversations.  Some people prefer to watch videos or listen to speakers, while others enjoy scrolling through Twitter chats, with 5 tabs open on their browser and the TV on in the background.  To attempt to coral all educators into one space for a set time without any flexibility in the delivery is archaic.  This includes staff meetings, district-level supports, and conferences.  Flexibility and choice are not optional anymore.

Finally, professional development cannot be broad brush strokes.  How often have you sat in professional development sessions where the presenter was speaking to or about the biggest common denominator?  What if that had nothing to do with your content area, experiences, or talents?  That’s a complete waste of time.  Just like students need to have their learning experiences differentiated, adults also need professional development that connects with their needs and skill sets.

To extrapolate this further, providing broad swaths of professional development for one hour on something as large as “unpacking math standards” is a waste of time as well.  What can you accomplish on that broad topic in an hour?  Certainly not enough to bring clarity to the topic, and people will most likely leave that kind of session feeling more overwhelmed than they were before they entered.

What is Worth Considering

Knowing what doesn’t work in professional development, here’s a few ideas that have seen some success and may be worth considering as you plan for or attend your next professional development.

Whenever possible, include choice.  Whether it be through an EdCamp which allows teachers to design the entire conference experience around their own interests and skills or through a hybrid model of delivery, choice is absolutely essential to 21st century professional development.  Providing a session in person, as well as live streamed online and then sharing the link to the recording provides busy professionals with the ability to learn on their time.  If delivering content in one platform, either in person or online, offer flexibility in when the session is offered as well as how to participate.  We do this for our online classes and it has been met with tremendous success.

Teachers love being able to decide how and when they will engage in their learning.  Honor professionals as professionals and stop trying to hold them to a set time or rigid outcome in the name of accountability.  Accountability lies in the actions that are taken after the professional development is over, not during the session.

Empower educators.  There is nothing better than teachers who teach other teachers.  This is a professional learning growth explosion for both the teachers in the audience and the teacher presenting.  Plus, teachers know and understand what their colleagues need and how to help each other.  There is tremendous power in this model.

Foster a PD Lab culture.  Set up different learning experiences throughout the space (school, conference center, etc) and let teachers investigate their own learning pathway.  Build in opportunities for teachers to share what they have learned throughout the time, work collaboratively with their peers on a project or to explore evidence about a topic.  This maximizes their time and produces meaningful group learning simultaneously.

Bring in the students.  Whenever possible, encourage teachers and students to share and present things that are (or are not) working in their classrooms together.  This puts the attention right where it belongs: on student learning and growth.  Plus, it brings about a new perspective both about and for the students who are involved.  Next evolution: partnering and presenting with parents.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to professional development.  Yet, we have seen more innovative ideas in how professional development is shared over the last 5 years than we have in the history of education.  Let’s continue to tinker with this process until we find a model that works for our own individual needs and then commit to it and enjoy the process of learning once again.

What models of professional development have you experienced?  What worked and what didn’t? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Susan Riley is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. This is the world’s largest online resource for educators interested in integrating the arts. She has presented at events and authored articles for many educational organizations including The US Department of Education, Palmetto State Arts Education, Edutopia, Education Week, Americans for the Arts, ASCD, and NPR. She regularly presents at national and international events each year. She is the author of three books and is a sought-after collaborator for innovative educational projects around the globe. Susan brings creativity, practicality, dedication and passion to the education landscape. She is well-respected for her pioneering work in the fields of Arts Integration and STEAM education with a standards-based approach. As an educator who taught for 10 years in public schools, as well as served in central office leadership, she understands the fast-paced change, challenges and promise of 21st century schools. As an entrepreneur, she has successfully taken what was once a simple education blog and developed it into a rapidly-growing and highly-respected educational institution. Her team of 15+ teachers, leaders and coaches support over over 500,000 educators each month worldwide. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan