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What works and what doesn’t in teacher professional development

By on October 25, 2022 0

When done well, professional development can improve teacher practice and the experience of students. But when done poorly, it can have little or no impact and end up frustrating teachers who see no relevance to their work. And it’s all part of an expensive $18 billion market. with little quality control.

A new paper, published by the Research Partnership for Professional Learning and authored by researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education and Brown University, examines the literature to understand what works in professional development and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

“Teachers in different schools, in different subjects, in different districts have very different experiences of their professional learning,” said John Papay, associate professor of education and economics at Brown and co-author of the paper. “Some of them we know can be effective, and some of them we know are not effective. The challenge is how to sustain this investment and focus on professional learning and teacher development throughout the career while working to make it more effective? »

The research review analyzed both individual studies and syntheses of teacher professional learning, relying primarily on studies that identified a causal impact of PD on teaching and learning. However, the researchers noted that their review cannot say with certainty that PD formats and content are the only factors driving the success of student outcomes.

He finds that the most effective forms of professional development focus on improving what teachers do in the classroom, that is, their daily practice. It also has an element of accountability, so that teachers are motivated to change and improve.

Here are five takeaways from the report.

1. The PYP should focus on instructional practices rather than content knowledge

Over the past two decades, professional development has focused on building teachers’ content knowledge, said Heather Hill, senior researcher and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the paper. The idea was that if teachers had a solid understanding of, say, how fractions work, they would be better at teaching fractions.

But the body of literature suggests that’s not necessarily the case, Hill said, adding that the achievement was “personally a little earth-shattering.”

Instead, professional development focused on changing teachers’ instructional practices, for example by identifying key teaching strategies and providing support for implementing these changes in the classroom, has been found to be more effective. to improve student achievement.

A study in the review directly compared PD in basic science that focused on deepening content knowledge to PD that focused on analyzing lecture videos. Teachers spent the same amount of time in both professional development experiences. Students of teachers who did the Lesson Analysis PD outperformed students of teachers who did the Content Deepening PD by 20 percentile points on a research-developed assessment.

The researchers speculated that content-focused professional development might not last long enough for teachers to learn enough about the subject to really make a difference in their teaching. Additionally, these types of professional development programs often don’t offer much support for daily practice, and teachers need to be able to connect their learning to their existing teaching materials or lesson plans, the researchers said. .

2. The DP should prioritize concrete materials for practice over general principles

There are two approaches to PD that may be at odds. The first is to give teachers materials such as curricula, lessons, and assessment items that offer concrete ways to achieve the goal, but may leave them without a solid understanding of the learning philosophy behind the new approach. The second is to focus on more general managers to promote broader and more lasting changes in teaching, but leave it up to teachers themselves to integrate these changes into their existing courses, materials and assessments.

For example, a PYP approach might focus on helping teachers learn to use the elements of formative assessment in their classroom and providing them with models; the other approach might emphasize design principles so that teachers can create their own new formative assessment elements.

The research review found that it is more effective to focus the PYP on concrete material than to teach general principles, which usually ends up requiring teachers to do extra work in their spare time. The PD that provides day-to-day support is more likely to increase adoption and improve the quality of implementation.

“It needs to be job-relevant in a way that teachers can see how it enhances their practice and doesn’t require them to do extra work,” Hill said.

3. Have follow-up meetings after the PD or coaching

According to the research review, an inexpensive way to increase the effectiveness of a PD program is to add a follow-up meeting after implementation. Teachers can share their experiences implementing learned practices and receive feedback from colleagues and program facilitators. They can also ask questions and express concerns about parts of the new program that are particularly difficult to implement.

These sessions are usually collaborative, so teachers can share ideas with each other and perhaps even improve the program by customizing it to meet the needs of their students and the school.

Additionally, the paper notes that follow-up sessions provide some accountability – teachers are more likely to implement the practices if they know they will have to report how it went to their colleagues and animators.

4. The PD should help teachers build relationships with students

Previous research has shown that strong teacher-student relationships can lead to higher student engagement, better attendance, better grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower dropout rates. . These effects were strong even after controlling for differences in students’ individual, family, and school backgrounds.

These relationships can be fostered and enhanced through targeted professional learning, the researchers found.

The University of Virginia School of Education offers professional development support focused on improving teacher-student interactions. The program, called MyTeachingPartnerhas been associated with student learning gains and a narrowing of the racial discipline gap in high school.

Hill said he’s seen facilitators from these trainings share easy-to-implement strategies for teachers to better connect with students. For example, one facilitator urged teachers to stand at the door as students arrive at the start of class, greeting them individually and asking questions about their life outside of school (such as how a basketball match).

These are “at first glance, very simple strategies that can actually be quite powerful,” Hill said.

5. Teacher coaching and collaboration are key strategies

The research review highlighted the effectiveness of peer collaboration and coaching. Evidence suggests that teachers can and do learn from each other, and that when schools encourage collaboration, teacher practice and student achievement improve. Coaching – which can include teaching modeling, lesson co-planning, direct feedback, and other consultation and support – has also been shown to improve the quality of classroom teaching and outcomes. students.

However, the design of these practices is important. Collaboration should be focused on shared and specific improvement goals rather than meetings aimed at vaguely improving practice. And teachers should have dedicated, protected time to work and learn together.

Meanwhile, coaching is most effective when it is more focused, when coaches can focus on working with teachers rather than administrative tasks, and when coaches also benefit from professional development. and management support.

Yet the realities of school operations these days often don’t allow for these conditions, the researchers said. Many schools struggle to staff classrooms, and coaches are often tapped to act as substitute teachers, taking them away from the core functions of their job. And collaboration time can be jeopardized when teachers have to cover other classes.

“There’s coaching as it is in the literature, and coaching that exists in schools,” Hill said.

Educators have a lot to do this school year, and teacher stress levels are still high, according to surveys. Yet teachers are tasked with helping students recover unfinished learning in the wake of the pandemicwhich makes effective professional development more important than ever, the researchers said.

“Finding opportunities for teachers to engage in professional learning seems especially critical now because that kind of support, that kind of ongoing development…makes teachers feel more satisfied. [in their jobs, which can] relieve burnout,” Papay said. “Eliminating professional learning or not prioritizing it will, in some ways, lead to greater downstream challenges.”