What would a good PD be?

We hear often from teachers (including myself) how useless the professional development sessions often are. But what makes them useless, and how could they be useful, meaningful, or interesting?

The number one complaint is that they are just a waste of time–redundant information, mindless activities. I have attended my fair share of those.

Then some PD leaders assume that the best way to teach teachers is to bombard them with consultants and make believe they are brainless. Put them in little groups and have them write quick little responses to little folktales, and then regroup and fill out charts to post on the wall. Once all the charts are on the wall, the teachers are told to circulate in a “gallery walk” and write comments on Post-its to put on the charts. And then, of course, they are told to go implement this in the classroom right away.

Then there are those that teach a hypothesis as though it were truth–for instance, in connection with “brain-based learning.” Neuroscience is a lively and fascinating field, but its findings are not immediately applicable to the classroom, as Dan Willingham has pointed out. Nonetheless, many PDs push “brain-based learning” without acknowledging the uncertainty around the theories.

There are also practical training sessions–how to administer or score tests, how to use computer equipment, etc. Those may be informative, or they may be old news.

But what sort of professional development would actually be good?

It depends much on the school’s programs, curriculum, etc., and the level. But one idea would be to have teachers give each other seminars in their own subject–that is, we’d have an algebra seminar one week, a Dostoevsky seminar the next, and a seminar on the Reformation the following week. (Or maybe one per month.) The seminar leader would basically give a class intended for adults. But since the adults would not all be versed in the field, the instructor would need to adjust to their knowledge levels. There could be prerequisites or required reading for some seminars.

Why would this be useful? Teachers would be teaching in front of each other, seeing each other teach and respond to teaching, and they would all be learning about each other’s subjects. They would be engaged in the subject matter itself, while the seminar leader would gain new angles on pedagogy. They could then discuss how the same material might be presented to students.

Another kind of PD would involve a visit from a special guest with knowledge in a particular field. This scholar would give a presentation and then open the floor for discussion and debate. For instance, there could be PDs on controversies surrounding pedagogy, neuroscience, etc. Teachers would frankly discuss the pros and cons of various approaches and leave with new insights.

There are many other possibilities. But in general the level of PDs would be lifted if (a) they dealt with subject matter at the teachers’ intellectual level; (b) they allowed teachers to lead PDs regularly; and (c) they included philosophical and controversial topics and presented them as such.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Those might well be interesting. But there’s a question that has to be answered before asking, “what would be a good PD?”

    Should there be anything that takes days and half days away from instruction? Is there anything so important that it could legitimately make us come in days earlier in the fall or stay days later in the spring?

  2. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I’d be pretty pissed if I had to spend a half day learning about the Reformation. I know that already. I have been to college. I am re-learning Algebra with my kid, though.

    I do like the practical classes that address a particular skill, such as figuring out how to use our insanely unintuitive software.

    When teachers give PD, it is a lot cheaper for the district, but that saved money somehow never ends up in my pocket :). Maybe I need to submit a bill!

    I think great PD would be time to meet and reflect on classroom practice. We all have the tools we need after 5 or 6 years in the biz; what I know I’m not so good at sometimes is figuring out which tool to use exactly when. If you read some of the teachers forums (like Jim Burke’s Ning), the questions are down in the nitty gritty: how do I reach THIS class, what’s a better what to teach conclusions to this kind of group, etc.

    Roger: I think planning good instruction takes time — and that perhaps our biggest issue in American education is that we completely ignore that fact.

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    Lightly Seasoned–

    My idea was to have the seminars at the highest level possible. I didn’t mean a crash course on the basics of the Reformation. I was thinking of seminars that would take existing knowledge to another level–for instance, a close reading of Erasmus.

    Practical classes and reflections on classroom practice are good ideas too.

  4. At my former school our English department had begun moving toward this model. There were people we recognized as especially knowledgeable in certain areas (a teacher who had been studying and performing in Shakespearean productions since her 9th grade year, for example), and those were the ones we’d have prepare a lesson for us. It was a great way to share materials, so teachers doing the lesson for the first time didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

    I wouldn’t mind taking classes outside of my content area, but I would get annoyed if they were in lieu of a PD that focused on some aspect of my content area. I’d like to see options offered – a PD in the Reformation for the history department I could choose to go to, even though it’s not a time period that comes up often in what I teach.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Lightly Seasoned,

    I think planning good instruction takes time

    I completely agree. I think we also can learn how to do better by working with other teachers. What I am not convinced of is that we should send the kids home for a day or a half day to do so.

  6. Roger: When do we do it, then? This time is not built into our regular schedules. I think the public really believes that lessons appear out of thin air.

    I think one of the things that feeds fad churn is that we keep such a frantic pace that we really don’t know what in any given method is working for whom.

    I’m on an instructional team right now that was given a full day to collaborate and reflect this week. Yes, my students missed a day of instruction, but just being given a space to bounce ideas off other teachers and THINK was incredibly fruitful. I actually had time to solve some problems. Even though absolutely nothing was presented to me, it was one of the most professionally productive days I’ve had in a long time.

  7. –My idea was to have the seminars at the highest level possible. I didn’t mean a crash course on the basics of the Reformation. I was thinking of seminars that would take existing knowledge to another level–for instance, a close reading of Erasmus.

    But the kind of teaching you do to those who have lots of background knowledge is different than the kind of teaching you do to those who don’t. It’s one thing to present a seminar on Erasmus to someone who already knows who Erasmus was, or at least who can recall things about why he mattered by knowing when he was.

    That has very little to do with teaching someone who has no background knowledge yet; who doesn’t know the whys that follow from the whens, who doesn’t know what the Reformation was reforming, who doesn’t know what language the Bible was in originally, who doesn’t know why which language mattered.

    The pedagogy for adults is different than the pedagogy for children as well. Good PD is specific, and explicit. It improves the teachers by increasing their professional working knowledge of the material they teach, and increases their skills at teaching it. The less vague, the better.

  8. Good planning takes time, time means time away from students or time to pay teachers. I know teachers complain too much about pay already so I’m not going down that path.

    Good PD is ultimately priceless. I’ve not been engaged in much good PD in my short time in the field. I felt that the National Board Certification process was good PD (for me, I know others have had different view) and I know that I am a better practitioner as a result of that endeavor.

    I’m not sure I can necessarily buy into the “let’s dive deeper into Erasmus” idea of PD. Definitely collaborative time with colleagues who teach the same content would be useful…perhaps that’s what you mean. I gave a pretty good sense of “how deep” I need to go with my content, and I wonder if going deeper might not be relevant to my learners just yet (perhaps in future grades and courses). I think most teachers would appreciate strategies and approaches rather than deeper content. There is research which suggests that (at the secondary level) the only students who benefit from teachers having advanced degrees in content are the advanced students, so perhaps more content is not the answer, but better teaching practice to deliver that content.

  9. (let me clarify, better than I was, not better than others!)

  10. Why not apply the same criterion to PD as we would (or would like to) to instruction for the children? i.e., “what does this teacher need to learn or be exposed to in order to improve her/his performance in the area of X?” That would imply a VERY differentiated menu of possibilities — for some, or some groups, more planning time. For some, taking a course at a nearby college or university; for some, coaching on how to effectively manage a specific curriculum; and so on. Far in the past, when I was a teacher in a K-8 school, PD was useless because it was so generic.

  11. Diana Senechal says:

    The reason for an “Erasmus” PD (or the equivalent) would be to have teachers working with interesting subject matter at the top of their knowledge and intelligence. That makes for an intellectually lively atmosphere, which is then felt in the classroom.

    The teacher who is engaged in ideas has a certain quality, hard to pinpoint–an ability to convey that there is more to the subject than meets the eye, more to a topic than the lesson covers. And the teacher’s own intellectual life influences the students. They can sense it.

    It may also keep teachers in the field–just having that sort of intellectual stimulus at school.

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    When do we do it, then?

    After the last bell at 2:15 or 2:30 or 3:00? Though honestly, teacher thinking is often not at a high level at that point.

    One thing that bothers me is the message students get–even if we don’t mean to send it–when they get a day or half day sent home every month. I fear many of them hear that coming every day and engaging with knowledge every day just isn’t that important. They know that other businesses don’t close down at random intervals.

    Having said that, if I had to choose between 3 days of “being given a space to bounce ideas off other teachers and THINK” or three days of the relatively useless generic stuff that we now get, I would not hesitate to choose the former.

  13. After school? But then when would I do my grading and planning?

  14. After dinner and on weekends.

  15. I remember reading of a study by Darling-Hammond at Stanford that found that teachers in other advanced countries get 20 hours a week for planning and collaboration. I get about five. I’d be happy if we did two things: hire more teachers, so as to free up colleagues to do planning, PD, collaboration; and let the kids out at 1 pm. The reduced quantity of schooling would be more than made up for by the increase in quality.

  16. The money and time spent to send me (science teacher) to the state and national conferences is returned 4-fold in implementation in the classroom. Most years, I just ask for sub coverage, and I pick up the rest of the tab.

    I do think that teachers who have expertise in some area can provide valuable PD, but too often, it’s more BS about “literacy in _________ classes” – hey, I know, let’s have the math and science classes teach how to include math/science literacy in the English and Social Studies classes.

    Yeah. That silence you hear is the same as my enthusiasm about the literacy stuff.

    Departmental planning time, and closely-related department time (math/science, English/Social Studies, etc.) is probably more important. On our own this week, the science dept. got together for about 40 minutes, and hammered out some plans for making sure that all standards were addressed in this grading period. No forms to fill out, no reimbursement needed. It was more important than PD that DOESN’T address my needs.

    When are schools going to get with the program and stop pushing everything from the top-down? Education will improve when bottom-up initiatives become standard.

  17. Roger Sweeny says:

    I’d be happy if we did two things: hire more teachers, so as to free up colleagues to do planning, PD, collaboration; and let the kids out at 1 pm. The reduced quantity of schooling would be more than made up for by the increase in quality.

    But that would defeat one of the major purposes of universal schooling: which is day care. Parents know that for eight hours a day their kids are safe, neither too hot nor too cold. They’re not doing drugs or alcohol. No one is getting pregnant or catching a sexually transmitted disease. No one’s being exposed to Satan worship or homophobia or any of thousands of other bad ideas. Young people are rewarded for pro-social behavior and punished for the opposite. Days are filled with harmless activities, which keep kids occupied and make them more employable at the end of the day.

    If we let them out at 1:00, who knows what they’ll do?

  18. Roger Sweeny says:


    Right now I’m reading Steven Stanley’s Earth System History, a detailed look at the interconnected physical and biological changes of the last 4 billion years. To me it’s fascinating. As I read, I am “working with interesting subject matter at the top of [my] knowledge and intelligence.” I think it helps keep me “intellectually lively” and makes me a more interesting teacher, even though most of it is not directly related to what I teach.

    However, I think it would be a bad idea to have a PD about it for the whole school, or even the whole science department. It wouldn’t engage most people like it does me. And it would take hours from their lives, hours that they could probably use in ways that are more appropriate for them.