Considering PD Structures

I’m in the midst of an action research course and my topic is evaluating and reflecting on our systems of PD in the district. This post is the literature review I did as part of the research process. This is similar to some of the work I did last year on leadership development and PD and those links to related items are at the bottom of this post.

“Professional development” as a catch-all for staff training has a degree of uncertainty associated which clouds our ability to critically discuss and reflect on programming. As an instructional team, we have not taken time to critically assess and address our effectiveness in presentation or facilitation nor have we done any work to gauge the effectiveness of professional development in changing teacher practice.

In Elkhart, we have worked mainly with self-selected groups of teachers as technical coaches according to the definition provided by Hargreaves & Dawe (1990). Though our sessions contained collaborative elements, they were singularly focused on developing discrete skills to meet an immediate need. As a team, these have been effective in closing a significant digital teaching and learning skill gap present in the teaching staff. We have not, to date, considered specific models of professional development as a mechanism for planning or evaluating the effectiveness of workshops offered in a given school year.

According to Kennedy (2005), comparative research exploring models of professional development is lacking. Her analysis and resulting framework provides helpful questions when assessing and determining the type of offerings for staff. Reflective questions range from the type of accountability organizers want from teachers to determining whether the professional development will focus on transformative practice or serve as a method of skill transmission. It is tempting to always reach for models which support transformative practice, but there are considerations which need to be made for those structures to be truly transformative.

As a district, our efforts have centered on active processes with teachers, but this has been done without an objective measure of what those types of programs actually look like in practice. Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin (1995) summarize our working goal succinctly: “Effective professional development involves teachers both as learners and as teachers and allows them to struggle with the uncertainties that accompany each role,” (emphasis mine). Struggling with uncertainties requires some measure of collaboration, but collaboration alone does not necessarily lead toward transformative ends and can even drive top-down mandates to improve palatability (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990).

To structure collaborative development opportunities, Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin (1995) make a case for policies which “allow [collaborative] structures and extra-school arrangements to come and go and change and evolve as necessary, rather than insist on permanent plans or promises.” This counters many district-driven professional development programs which require stated goals, minutes, and outcomes as “proof” of the event’s efficacy and resultant implementation. The problem with these expectations is that truly collaborative groups are constantly changing their goals or foci to meet changing conditions identified by the group (Burbank & Kauchak, 2003).

In response, a “Transformative Model” (Kennedy, 2005) attempts to move beyond a simple “collaboration” label and build a professional development regimen which pulls the best from skills-based training to into truly collaborative pairs or small groups attempting to make changes in practice. She argues that transformative development must consist of a multi-faceted approach: training where training is needed to open spaces when groups need time to discuss. All work falls under the fold of reflection and evaluation of practice in the classroom. Burbank & Kauchak (2003) modeled a collaborative structure with pre-service and practicing teachers taking part in self-defined action research programs. At the end of the study, there were qualitative differences in the teachers’ responses to the particulars of the study, but most groups agreed that it was a beneficial process and they would consider participating in a similar structure in the future. Hargreaves & Dawe (1990) alluded to the efficacy of truly collaborative research as a way to combat what they termed “contrived collegiality,” where outcomes were predetermined and presented through a “collaborative” session.

Collaboration as a means alone will not change practices. Hargreaves and Dawe’s (1990) warning against contrived collegiality is characterized by collaborative environments with limited scope “to such a degree that true collaboration becomes impossible”. Groups working toward a shared goal of transformative practices is undercut when the professional development structures disallow questioning of classroom, building, or district status quos. If collaborative professional development groups are allowed to “struggle with the uncertainties” (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995) present in education both in and beyond the classroom, the group will be more effective in reaching and implementing strategies to improve practice. This view subtly reinforces Hargreaves & Dawe’s (1990) perspective that collaboration must tackle the hard problems in order to have a lasting impact.

There are several other factors identified which contribute to the strength and efficacy of professional development. These range from continuous, long-term commitments (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990; Richardson, 1990), work that is immediately connected to classroom practice (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Richardson, 1990; Burbank & Kauchak, 2003), and a group dynamic which recognizes the variety of perspectives which inform teaching habits across a wide spectrum of participants (Kennedy, 2005).

As an instructional coach, one of my core responsibilities is to help create a culture of learning amongst members to mitigate division or power dynamics based on experience (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Burbank & Kauchak, 2003), which is particularly evident in mixed-experience groups. In addition to fostering a strong group dynamic, the instructional coaching role becomes facilitative rather than instructive to help teachers address problems of practice (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995). It is easy to fall into an technical coaching position in collaborative groups, but such a role reduces the chances for transformative work to emerge as teachers become trainees rather than practitioners (Kennedy, 2005). This becomes more apparent as districts add instructional coaching positions, but limit the scope of the role to training sessions under the guise of “encouraging teachers to collaborate more…when there is less for them to collaborate about” (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990). Ultimately, the coaching role is most effective when it is used to support teachers through “personal, moral, and socio-political” choices (Hargreaves & Dawe, 1990) rather than technical skill and competence.

In order to fully reflect upon and evaluate our programming, Kennedy’s (2005) framework for professional development will serve as a spectrum on which to categorize our professional development workshops and courses. Hargreaves & Dawe (1990) also provide helpful reflective questions (ie, are teachers equal partners in experimentation and problem solving?) to evaluate just how collaborative our “collaborative” groups are in practice. Once our habits of working are established on the framework, we can address shortcomings in order to build toward more effective coaching with the teachers in the district.


Burbank, M. D., & Kauchak, D. (2003). An alternative model for professional development: Investigations into effective collaboration. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19(5), 499-514. doi:10.1016/S0742-051X(03)00048-9

Darling-Hammond, Linda, and Milbrey W. McLaughlin. “Policies that support professional development in an era of reform.” Phi Delta Kappan, Apr. 1995, p. 597+. Biography In Context, Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.

Hargreaves, A., & Dawe, R. (1990). Paths of professional development: Contrived collegiality, collaborative culture, and the case of peer coaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6(3), 227-241.

Kennedy, A. (2005). Models of continuing professional development: A framework for analysis. Journal of in-service education, 31(2), 235-250.

Richardson, V. (1990). Significant and worthwhile change in teaching practice. Educational Researcher, 19(7), 10-18. doi:10.2307/1176411

Here’s a presentation I did for a class about a year ago over similar themes, but with a leadership spin.

The featured image is by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash.

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