What Should Professional Development Do For You?

What expectations should teachers have when they attend a PD session?

What expectations should teachers have when they attend a PD session?

I’ll acknowledge that the job of a professional development facilitator is not easy. I’ve done it twice and each time, I felt like I didn’t do a very good job. So, I’ll be the first to admit that it is a lot easier to sit and criticize than it is to do the good job.


I went to a PD session today that sold itself as a session on developing “deeper understanding of mathematics pedagogy” and “the capacity to utilize an inquiry approach to instruction.” Add to that the Michigan Association of School Boards awarded the project Michigan’s Best Education Excellence Award just this year. That’s pretty good, right?

The morning session began with a 75-minute talk about the history of the program, the grant, and the logistics of continuing education credits. At this point, the energy was completely out of the room.

… and it never came back.

The afternoon was a bit better largely because they broke us up into groups of teachers and gave us a fairly rich task that included about an hour’s worth of discussion choosing an engaging problem to try with our classrooms and discussing how to pitch the problem, anticipating what methods the students might use to engage the problem, and the possible struggle points.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t potential for some fantastic discussions. The facilitators brought some wonderful starters to the table. “What are some common traits among mathematically powerful students?” and “What makes a rich mathematical task?” are great hooks as long as the fish are biting. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, no one was in the mood to discuss anything.

But, it would be wrong to sat that I came away with nothing. I came away with this: Teachers are an overstressed and undercompensated group of people. Their time is incredibly valuable. So, when they step out of the classroom, the time needs to be effective, efficient, and potent.

But I’ve seen some pretty effective professional development models. I am thinking of the examples put forth Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) and the MathTwitterBlogoSphere (#MTBoS). I got to be a part of one of Dan’s “Perplexity Sessions” this summer and the #MTBoS and I have a longstanding relationship that includes some excellent professional growth. So, why are these PD’s more effective than the one that I attended today? Well to start with they…

1. Start with a bang! Potential buy-in is never higher than at 8:00 am when everyone is still an open book to what may or may not happen over the next few hours. Plus, everyone is nicely caffeinated and a little energized from the change of scenery. If you waste this energy, you won’t get it back. #MTBoS usually hooks people in because educators come looking for help solving a specific problem. The first experience is an effective one. Dan received a bit of an intro from the hosts, but once he got the floor, he wasted no time getting the entire group started DOING something so that he could…

2. Model effective instruction! Dan did this all the way through his session (which lasted 6 hours). The #MTBoS nails this one too. Many, many members of this group are willing to open their classrooms up to the masses through their blogs. I love the question: “What effective teacher moves did you see me do just now?” In order to do that, you mustn’t have the group looking back at your introductory lecture that lasted longer than the class periods that any of those teachers teach.

3. Jam pack the session: Fill it end-to-end with rich tasks one-after-another. I was floored at the amount of ground covered in the Perplexity Session, #MTBoS handles their business in this respect as well. You can go from blog to blog, twitter feed to twitter feed for days on end. You should at least be able to put enough rich tasks in front of the group that keeps them actively engaged practically the entire time so that you can…

4. Draw as much as you can from the group. This one sort of goes back to modeling effective instruction, but that having been said, no one knows the classrooms of the group members like the group members, so build into your individual segments repeated think-pair-shares where the central ideas are being developed, expressed and generalized by the group members. After all, it’s their classes that this material has to go back to. Developing these ideas can help the facilitator, too, because you should…

5. Do a tight, concise debriefing session at the end of each segment that not only ties together the main objective of that segment, but relates it strongly to the rest of the overall session. This needs to address a couple of main points: Why will this help my students, why will this be worth the effort to implement. Dan actually gave the group members a chance to share their “secret skepticisms” to draw out the roadblocks and address them.

It is to these 5 ideas that I will commit. If I should ever facilitate a PD session, I will do my very best to meet each of these five expectations. If you should be there, please hold me to them, because it seems like you should be able to expect your PD to do those things for you.

3 thoughts on “What Should Professional Development Do For You?

  1. Thanks for the feedback, mate. I’d add “Try to have a group that’s smaller than 60.” The group we had was large enough that I couldn’t engage on any kind of meaningful or individual level with many of the participants.

    • To add to that, it seems rare (just by my memory) that a PD would be led by a solo artist. Not having any help with the presentation will exacerbate the fact that there are 60+ people there to learn.

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