The 6 Characteristics of High-Quality Professional Development and Learning: Part 1

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

The 6 Characteristics of High-Quality Professional Development and Learning: Part 1We’ve all been there: that professional development (PD) session that either put us to sleep or made us cringe. During my teaching career, I sat through many PD sessions where presenters told me what to do but didn’t follow their own advice. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this third chapter of my career to righting the wrongs of past poor professional development and to placing a greater focus on honing professional learning.

There is a distinct difference between professional development and professional learning. Professional development tends to be a one-size-fits-all, one-stop workshop intended to disseminate a common message or to introduce or reinforce a bigger idea. Professional learning on the other hand, is a long-term, targeted approach to addressing the specific needs of teachers and administrators, based on evidence surrounding the needs of the students and the school community.

In 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This bipartisan education law puts a greater emphasis on equal opportunity for all students. More protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-needs students, higher academic standards, more focus on assessment data, support for local innovations, and significant increases in accountability are all components of ESSA.

High-quality professional development and learning are also included. ESSA lays out six requirements for improving learning and professional development for teachers. In this two-part blog post, I highlight the six characteristics and methods that ensure teachers and administrators are getting what they need, when they need it, to move all students toward greater success.

1. Sustained

Learning takes time! Traditionally, professional development has been designed with the masses in mind—not considering what each teacher needs in order to improve student learning—whereas professional learning requires that every teacher be considered an individual with differing needs over time. In my experience, districts and buildings limit their professional development or professional learning to one or a few sessions—mainly due to budget limitations.

Here are some ideas to consider in making professional development and learning sustainable.

Based on a sound vision or mission for educator growth, create a three-to-five-year plan. Adequate time to learn, practice, implement, and review must be a part of the proposal. The plan should be flexible enough to make changes when necessary and must be supported and respected by all within the school community, including district-level management.

Experts can be costly, but the resources designed by those experts may not be as costly. Along with working with an expert, purchase the materials created by the expert for teachers to refer to when constructing lessons or reflecting on practice. Use these resources for Professional Learning Community (PLC) time or book-study groups.

Consider virtual trainings. While this may not be a preferred way of learning for more seasoned staff, younger teachers may find this way of interacting in learning new ideas beneficial. The great thing about webinars, learning series, or video productions is that they can be viewed at any time. Just like everyone, educators have busy lives. Finding ways to get to the learning on an individual’s time can be a great way to honor the professionalism of your staff.

2. Focused

People (including students) learn best when we find value and worth in what we are being taught. Just like the students in our classrooms, each teacher needs something different to achieve success. Professional development and professional learning need to be based on data, whether through survey, self-assessment, or evaluation observation.

Here are some ways to achieve focus.

For professional development, review the data collected to decide on major themes or areas of general needs. Larger topics needing introduction or reinforcement are good for all teachers, keeping in mind that there need to be examples or generalized strategies offered to all participants throughout the workshop session.

For professional learning, ask each educator to choose one to three areas of personal training needs. Encourage teachers to seek out learning options (such as attending conferences or viewing online courses) or provide them with the resources they need to get the training.

Ensure the development or learning is centered around content and student needs. Based on the specifics of curriculum and the diversities of students, the elements should include intentional emphasis on discipline-specific pedagogies as well as strategies and techniques to address the varied needs within the classroom.

3. Collaborative

Learning in isolation may be difficult for some people. Whether a team is learning new ideas or reinvigorating old ones, collaboration can be extremely valuable. A collaborative culture provides opportunities for peers to learn from one another, increase collegiality, and unify supports for all students.

Building a collaborative culture can be achieved in these ways.

Encourage cross-district (teachers in different buildings) or cross-content (teachers from different departments or grade levels) partnerships, either in person or virtual. These partnerships enhance ideas and increase educators’ understanding of various student populations.

Design PLC time or staff, team, department, or administrative meeting time for educators to discuss common issues or learn new strategies or techniques. Building this time into already scheduled meetings alleviates the concern of professional learning being “something more we have to do.”

Use peer or expert coaching to support growth. Learning from one another is just one of the many benefits of coaching, for the coached as well as for the coach. Newer teachers can share advances in technology while seasoned teachers can share the wisdom of “having been there, done that.”

Check back soon to learn about the remaining three characteristics of high-quality professional development.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners

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Croft, A., J.G. Coggshall, M. Dolan, & E. Powers. “Job-Embedded Professional Development:
What It Is, Who Is Responsible, and How to Get It Done Well.” Issue Brief. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, 2010.

Darling-Hammond, L., M.E. Hyler, & M. Gardner. Effective Teacher Professional Development.
Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, 2017.

S. 1177 (114th): Every Student Succeeds Act

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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