Brad Gustafson

Dr. Brad Gustafson is a National Distinguished Principal, author, and speaker. He shares a belief that schools should be spaces where relationships, creativity, and innovation thrive. His passion...

PD is Sinking…Here Are 3 Ways to Save It


Most educators really don’t care about what we call PD. They care about their students and want practical solutions to the challenges they encounter in their classrooms. They care about relationships and coherent PD that actually makes change manageable (Gustafson, 2016). Renaming PD will not save it from itself. Neither will making surface-level changes to traditional PD practices.

We can engage in deeply philosophical debates about what we want to call PD until we’re blue in the face, but that won’t change the fact that PD is sinking. Painful PowerPoints have weighed down PD to the point of no return. Teachers being told what to learn and why it matters should no longer be the predominant means of professional learning. What we really need to be talking about instead of WHAT to call (insert a, b, c, or d here) is HOW to save it.

a) Professional Development

b) Professional Learning

c) Personalized PD

d) Other

I need to make a confession here. I’m not proud of it, but there have been times when I planned PD that missed the mark. Recently I was leading a staff meeting and found myself more worried about trying to get everyone out on time than making the time we actually had together meaningful. Although my intent was good, I was more focused on plowing through content than staff learning.

The good news is that it’s never too late to revive a meeting or PD. The practical tips below may sound surprisingly simple, and that’s because they are. I’m succinctly sharing three PD tid-bits combined with recent research on HOW professional learning works.

 1. Be responsive. Different staff do not always value or need the same things (Ham, 2010). In fact, sometimes what one teacher needs as a next step might seem completely out of reach to another person. Teachers are more invested in learning when the learning is perceived as useful and doable (Chien, 2012). Take time to learn about teachers’ needs before PD is planned or presented. Empower staff to identify what, why, and how they’d like to learn.

Try This: Offer staff a choice about how they’d like to learn.  Instead of providing only one option…try providing two.  Some teachers may appreciate the option to interact using an online forum or Twitter chat, while others may value face-to-face conversation about the same topic. 

2. Get them talking. PD that is participatory is inherently more engaging than passive consumption of information (Brooks & Gibson, 2012). Learning comes alive when small groups are empowered to discuss their learning and share personal experiences with one another.

Try This: Start your next meeting by providing staff several pictures to choose from. Ask them to select a photograph that connects to how they feel about a certain PD topic. Encourage them to share the picture they selected along with their analogy with a colleague. There should be lots of additional collaboration throughout the PD session, but before everyone leaves challenge them to state one thing they learned that will change how they think or teach the very next day.

 3. Keep it connected. The connection between PD and student learning should be clear (Duran, 2012). PD should connect the people who are present with one another. It should also support relationships and learning between people who are not physically present. Investing in relationships using digital tools like Twitter, blogging, video, and podcasting can transform learning and bring about levels of collaboration and innovation that were previously unfathomable (Gustafson, 2014).

Try This: Model connectedness by brainstorming what areas of professional interest your staff would like to learn more about. Connect with an author or expert who’d be willing to visit with your staff to discuss their area of interest. You might connect with the author/expert using Voxer, YouTube Live, or Twitter.

 I talk about how to plan and structure several pragmatic ideas like PD breakout sessions, student-led PD, and implementing PD cohorts in my new book, Renegade Leadership. If you’re interested in checking that out you can click HERE. Or…if you’re somebody who plans or leads PD, you probably have a plethora of ideas to share as well. I’d love to connect!

Source: Brad Gustafson

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