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.