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Professional Development and Why it Matters

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What is Professional Learning?

In the world of education, professional learning is the term used to encompass a diverse collection of methods that have the goal of improving teacher performance and thereby student outcomes.  Some of the methods used are advanced professional learning workshops or clinics, specialized training events, and formal educational courses. Professional learning has been proven to be an effective way to increase educators’ performance so much so that it is often a requirement for all teachers to perform a mandated amount each year.

Benefits of Professional Learning

The most important benefit of professional learning is that it improves student learning outcomes.  By keeping teachers up to date on the latest teaching techniques and increasing their knowledge base on the subject material in their field, they are able to deliver a highly relevant and engaging level of instruction in a way that better serves their pupils.  A study conducted by the U.S Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences has shown an approximately 21% increase in student achievement that can be attributed to a good professional learning program. In addition, when educators improve their skills and the outcomes they deliver through professional learning, they become more effective educators and achieve a higher level of job satisfaction.

Professional Learning Models

There are numerous models for professional learning programs; here are a few examples that have shown to be effective.  The first is the Observation and Assessment model which involves an experienced professional learning provider observing a teacher in action in the classroom and providing them with structured feedback.  A variation on that model is the Open Classroom model where a teacher invites colleagues in to observe them delivering a lesson and ask them to provide feedback afterward. Lesson Study is another model in which teachers collaboratively work on a lesson over a period of time.  During that period they observe, collect data, and ultimately make changes to improve it. Finally, the Training model involves having an expert teacher design and present the learning activities and objectives for a particular course of focused study.

Types of Professional Learning for Teachers

There are 2 primary types of professional learning for teachers: workshops and in-class observation.  Workshops can take many forms but generally speaking, they are instructional events that occur in a single session or on a periodic basis that concentrate on relevant and proven methods for improving performance using research-based best practices derived from educational literature.  A typical workshop can consist of a presentation where new information is delivered to teachers, a collaborative group discussion of the topics presented, and individual contemplation or exercise based on the material.         

In-class observation can be accomplished in a few ways as well.  A traditional method of observation is when a mentor, coach, or expert colleague/administrator physically sits in on a teacher delivering a lesson, providing feedback afterward.  Similarly, a fellow teacher or group of peers will watch a teacher and provide them with constructive criticism and helpful suggestions. A relatively newer tool for in-class observation is video observation, in which a teacher’s lesson is filmed for later review and feedback from others, or may be reviewed by the teacher themselves to gain perspective on their own performance in action.

Professional Learning Strategies

There are a few common strategies that can be employed to make professional learning more effective.  One easy one is to keep it simple. By reducing the number of goals or priorities for PD it allows teachers to focus on those that are the most important and deeply integrate those practices into their routine.  A complementary strategy is to be patient. Even with a reduced load of goals, it takes time for newly learned information to be fully implemented and for results to be seen. This leads to the strategy of support which lets teachers know that their administration is committed to their professional learning and will provide all necessary follow-up support to ensure their success.  Finally, a strong professional learning strategy is to make sure there is a full feedback loop to help the teachers see the data and changes brought on by implementing what they learned in their PD program and adjust their teaching accordingly.

Professional Learning Online

There is an enormous quantity of online courses available to teachers.  Good online courses teach the most current best-practices available, are interactive, support collaboration, and allow teachers to learn at their own pace.  Mobile-friendly courses help make participation easier and more convenient for educators. Video observation and sharing are also accessible online. This tool makes it easier for teachers to get coaching help and receive feedback irrespective of their location.  There are online forums, support groups, and resources out there as well which can contribute to a successful online PD experience.

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