Professional development should be learner-centered

By Devin Vodicka

When I was new in my role as Director of Curriculum and Instruction one of my first projects was to organize the districtwide professional development days before the start of the school year.  I started planning in July for two days in August and quickly found that I could not secure enough trainers to do small groups for all of the educators in the district.  To resolve this challenge, I arranged to have a couple of speakers who would give extended keynote addresses to large groups of teachers.  

From my perspective, the results were disastrous.  Many of the teachers paid little to no attention and they appeared far more interested in socializing with their colleagues.  I surveyed the teachers afterwards and found that they were less inspired and less confident in their abilities as a result of the training.  The painful feedback was ample motivation to take a more inclusive, engaging, and flexible approach from that point forward. 

Unfortunately, my failure in organizing this event is symptomatic of what is often experienced in education.  While an insightful talk can be fabulous (see the success of TED, for example), the reality is that one-time, disconnected trainings that lack interactivity and engagement are far too frequent.  Not only does this send a contradictory signal to our teachers about what we would want to see in terms of powerful learning, it is a tremendous waste of time and resources. Back in 2015, TNTP produced a report called “The Mirage” which estimated that just the top 50 districts in the US were spending at least $8 billion per year on teacher development with little to no evidence of benefits for students.   

The solution is so obvious that it almost shouldn’t need to be said.  We need to provide educators with learning experiences that incorporate the same principles that we want to see for students.  In our learner-centered framework, this begins with establishing whole-learner outcomes.  If we want to develop agency, collaboration, and problem solving, we need to then design learning experiences that promote purposeful action, meaningful interactions, and the ability to apply our knowledge, habits, and skills to make positive contributions in our communities and in the world.  

I recently experienced a wonderful example of a much improved approach to promote professional learning in El Segundo Unified School District in Southern California.  In their model, El Segundo provided teachers with a menu of options, including teacher-led and self-directed sessions, and they also allowed for teachers to participate in-person, from their school, or from their homes.  They provided choice and flexibility and in doing so they incorporated elements of their Graduate Profile into the design of their professional development.  The summer launch was just the beginning of a year-long series of interactions intended to promote collaboration and collective efficacy.  In contrast to the one-time, sit-and-get approach, El Segundo’s plan is ongoing, collaborative, and intentionally systematic.  

https://www.elsegundousd.net/apps/news/article/1153303

Shifting to an empowering model of professional development is imperative for us to implement new and better models of teaching and learning that benefit all students.  Beginning with whole-learner outcomes is foundational.  Designing experiences that incorporate authentic, collaborative, and purposeful learning experiences is best for students and staff.  After all, we are all learners and we all benefit from learner-centered education that empowers us to know who we are, how to thrive in community, and to actively engage in the world as our best selves.  

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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