A participant shares her group’s work at our recent session at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington D.C.

I always go to new professional development with an air of excitement.  My brain is whirring with all of the possibilities. I begin to fantasize about the incredible things I might learn, the incredible stories I might hear, the incredible people I just might meet.

And while, oftentimes, the people do not disappoint, the reality of most professional development sessions rarely meet my fantasies.

It usually goes something like this:

1) I see a fascinating title.

It usually involves one of the big buzzwords, whether it’s STEM, PBL, personalization, or whatever the hot topic is.  The title soaks into my synapses, and my brain begins to fantasize.  I imagine learning something entirely new and groundbreaking. I imagine I’ll be able to see, in action, something I’ve never been able to see before.

2) I walk to the session. I find a seat.

I usually try to sit somewhere towards the front–assuming that I’ll be able to participate, ask questions, and otherwise collaborate in the co-construction of knowledge. I imagine other participants will feel the same, that we’ll be critically discussing the topic at hand, pushing into the presenters’ knowledge and adding in our own.

3) The presentation starts, and I watch a series of slides that are heavy in text.

My fantasy for an engaging session slowly begins to deflate.  I find myself disengaging, merely listening to a bunch of information, some of which I already knew, some of which adds color to pre-existing knowledge, little of which gives me actionable steps for the next time I walk into my own classroom.

4) My mind goes in and out of consciousness.

I wonder about e-mails I have to answer, I look at the program to figure out where I’m heading next, and I start to think about where I’m going to get lunch and how much longer I have to sit here and pretend that I’m engaged.

5) The presentation ends, participants clap, and everyone stands up, virtually unaffected.

As a result, much of the information that has been shared has slipped through my mind’s sieve, most of which has been lost for eternity.  The better part of the latter 45-minutes-to-an-hour remains a waste.

Our Major “PD” Problem

I have a sneaky suspicion that my experience is not unique.  In fact, most educators I know don’t like going to professional development for this very reason.  They find it boring, non-actionable, and preachy.  It is, in essence, the experience I’ve described above.

What’s most ironic about it all, though, that we don’t practice what we preach in these sessions.  Most of these sessions, especially the more “innovative” of the bunch, advocate for problem- or project-based learning, for personalization, or for student agency and advocacy.  But the format of many of these professional development sessions is incongruous to these philosophies.  The session on project-based learning is, more often than not, a lecture, disseminated to passive learners sitting in rows; the session on better teacher preparation is no more practical than it is actionable; the session on personalization is all but personal, and more so one-size-fits-all.

In fact, many of these are united by one common characteristic: they are lofty, philosophical, and at times, no better than a diatribe. They may eloquently point out problems and maybe even potential solutions, but alas, there is nothing to ground them.  They inspire no action.  They do not embody the change they wish to see.

Reimagining Professional Development

Knowing this, my colleague and I attempted to reimagine our recent session on personalization at the National Board Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington D.C.  One of our most critical underlying assumptions was that we needed to practice what we preach.  The session was on personalization, and our specific message was not only that the concept of personalization is something that the education community is still defining, but also that personalization does not lie solely in the hands of the educators: it lies in the hands of the children, as well.

It’s a much ignored assumption that learning needs to be personalized for students.  We neglect to see that children can actually do a lot to personalize their own experience, when given the tools to do so.  So, in our session, we aimed to foster just that environment for our participants, so that they could bring their own bits of knowledge, draw on experiences unique to their personal learning journey as an educator, and build a collective definition for personalization, as opposed to one that my colleague and I pre-packaged and delivered to them for consumption.

We began by having our fellow educators examine some student samples–five to be exact–at many different age levels.  The educators were expected to identify specific pieces of evidence they noticed within the samples, suggest an interpretation of that evidence, and follow up with any remaining questions, very similar to Project Zero’s See-Think-Wonder thinking routine, all with the intention of developing broad insights about the student that could inform a “personalized” approach.


They chose their groups, collaborated with peers, and otherwise went through the process of getting to know each of these children through the evidence they “presented” in the samples. As they dug deeper, they saw the nuances; they asked lots of questions about interests, affinities, challenges, and contexts.  It was through this active inquiry and problem-based approach, that the educators were able to construct a malleable definition of personalization, all through collaborating with peers and engaging in a meaningful dialogue.

The room had a vibrant energy.  It was so vibrant that at times it was difficult to get the entire group of 40+ teachers to transition back for the group share-outs and discussions.  In fact, it was difficult to get them to stop sharing, showing my colleague and me that we truly had sparked a long-term inquiry around personalization, one that has most likely transcended the confines of the four walls of that tiny room, and of the conference itself.

This was, in turn, congruent with how we felt about personalization, what we expect it to be, and how we personalize in our own classrooms, living up to the thesis of the session, meanwhile removing any and all absolutes.  The participants in the session were able chart their own path, albeit given some constraints around the original provocation and topic we all decided we’d be learning about that day.

Professional development–at least in the education world–should be more like this all the time.  It should be a dialogue, free of absolutes, transparent with assumptions, and fully committed to a fruitful collaboration between knowledgeable, nuanced, and experienced colleagues.  If by some chance, we could change this way of educating teachers, perhaps we could, in fact, change the way our schools run entirely.

2 thoughts

  1. Sounds like a great session! I went to the T&L Conference a couple of years ago and had mostly great lectures, and a couple of duller lectures… nothing like what you created here. Since that time I’ve been a part of a couple of really fantastic PD sessions. They look like what “best practices” tell us we should do with students: engagement, relevancy, and depth.

  2. I’m so blessed to be at a TAP school, where PD is always within contract hours ( students go home early on Fridays) and is always about us, our students and their needs, our data, or student work, our research into the best practices and strategies to grow our students. Led by Master Teachers who know us and our kids because they teach at our school, our PD is a busy collaboration of like minded learners, working together toward goals. This is how it ought to be for everyone.

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