(Sadeugra /iStock)

It’s no secret that a lot of professional development given to teachers is worthless. Teachers themselves have complained about it for years. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has repeatedly declared that PD is largely a waste of billions of dollars a year. A 2013 report by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education noted that most teachers aren’t given the kind of professional development that would actually help them, and it called the most prevalent model of PD nothing short of “abysmal.”  And early this month a study of 10,000 teachers by the nonprofit TNTP said that teacher workshops and training that cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year is largely a waste (although some critics took issue with the methodology of the study).

[A professional development video that shows why teachers are going out of their mind]

So, yes, a lot of PD for teachers is awful. But not all of it — and that’s the story that gets short shrift. Here’s a post by three educators about PD that does in fact work, written by Howard Gardner, Clayton Lewis, and Jim Reese.

Gardner is the renowned Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-founder and senior director of Project Zero, an educational research group at the Harvard education schools composed of multiple, independently sponsored research projects with the aim of understanding and enhancing high-level thinking and learning across disciplines. Lewis is the head of the private Washington International School in the nation’s capital. Reese is director of Studies at Washington International School and a consultant with Project Zero.

 

By Howard Gardner, Clayton Lewis & Jim Reese

An Aug. 4 Washington Post article on the TNTP study on professional development in schools (“Study: Billions of dollars in annual teacher training is largely a waste”) left the impression with some that all of the money spent has little to no impact on teacher effectiveness.

Our experience strongly suggests otherwise; teacher professional development can be not only effective but transformative. For 20 years we have held summer institutes for teachers and administrators at Project Zero, an educational research group in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And, for the last two years, we’ve brought those ideas to hundreds of educators in the Washington, D.C. area. To make our case, it is important to step back and reflect on the disheartening state of current educational reform.

For starters, the skill of teaching has been de-emphasized and devalued over the last two decades. Too many leaders of so-called educational reform have promoted the notion that the “right” curriculum in schools and repeated testing of children will solve our education problems. Such an attempt to create a one-size-fits-all “teacher-proof” model ignores not only the particular context in which learning takes place from classroom to classroom, but also the needs and abilities of individual children.

Ironically, though this approach is well-motivated as a way to help disadvantaged populations across the nation, especially in the inner city, in fact much of the focus of national and state education policy designed to close the achievement gap has led instead to drill-and-kill. Drill children until they are skilled at taking tests; kill their joy of learning and their curiosity about the world. Under this regimen, teachers have suffered as well.

It’s time we drastically alter course and deploy professional development funding more intelligently. Our own experience at Project Zero, now in its 48th year of developing research-based pedagogical frameworks, tools and strategies, and then providing high-quality professional development focused on their use in practice, presents a compelling counter-narrative.

As one example, over 20 years ago Project Zero researchers, alongside master teachers, developed the Teaching for Understanding framework. This approach enables access to and deep learning around complex topics; it invariably generates enthusiasm among educators exploring it. A professional development model has been built around understanding as the goal of learning, and educators wrestle with challenges they face in ongoing learning groups, ultimately creating action plans to be put into place back at school.

Over time, schools have sent teams of teachers and administrators to these institutes, creating conditions for continued professional development throughout the school year. Noting the enthusiasm for this approach to professional learning, we have begun holding regional conferences around the country and abroad. In Washington, D.C., alone, over 1,000 educators belong to a “DC-Project Zero” group that offers free professional development around the nation’s capital throughout the academic year and a robust summer institute. Similar “movements” exist in Memphis, TN; Pittsburgh, PA; Oakland Co., MI; the San Francisco Bay Area; New York City; and across Australia.

We gladly acknowledge that other organizations providing high-quality professional development for teachers also garner high praise year after year.  They include the Library of Congress, which just completed a summer institute on the Civil Rights Movement, and Facing History and Ourselves. These efforts are successful because they share certain beliefs about the ways teachers learn best:

  • Treat educators as the professionals they are.
  • Aim to end the practice of teaching being viewed a solitary endeavor; like other professionals teachers improve when they are engaged in collaborative learning, identifying best practices and critiquing one another.
  • Acknowledge that context matters. A practice that works in one classroom most likely will need to be adapted or significantly altered to be effective in another.
  • Strive to develop the dispositions in teachers that we also want to cultivate in children: curiosity, flexibility in thinking, open-mindedness, empathy, and an ability to reason with evidence.
  • Make learning relevant and meaningful. We know it is vital for children; it is just as important for teachers.

The TNTP study is indeed a sobering call for radical change in the way we support teachers. Moving away from the status quo and toward high-quality professional development across the nation, the report states:

We must acknowledge that getting there will take much more than tinkering with the types or amount of professional development teachers receive, or further scaling other aspects of our current approach. It will require a new conversation about teacher development—one that asks fundamentally different questions about what better teaching means and how to achieve it.

We couldn’t agree more. That conversation has been well launched and is already in high gear. Isn’t it time national policymakers paid closer attention?