Five Models of Teacher-Centered Professional Development

Beyond Workshops and Trainings

Aberash Tsegaye and teacher Roman Getiye Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (c) GPE/Midastouch

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts critiquing the hegemony of the cascade (train-the-trainers) approach (here, here and here) and promoting teacher centered professional development. In the spirit of “better-late-than-never,” I return again to this theme of teacher-centered professional development. Specifically, what are some models of teacher-centered professional development? What are some alternatives to duopoly of workshops and the cascade approach? To answer such questions, this post offers five models of teacher-centered professional development (PD) that I’ve seen used well in (all but one) low-income countries.

1. Observation/Assessment

In this model, the professional development provider—a master teacher in a school, a specialist, perhaps a very experienced teacher colleague—observes teachers in their classrooms, assessing their instructional practices and providing structured feedback. This model of PD may be used as a support measure following workshops or periodically throughout the school year as a form of peer coaching (Sparks & Loucks-Horsley, 1989). Using something as simple as a spreadsheet graph, a trained observer can provide an immediate visual snapshot of a teacher’s performance, as we did in one EDC project in Indonesia, and combined with per coaching observation/assessment can help teachers refine specific areas of practice.

2. Open Classrooms

Teachers want to see other teachers in action. In an open classroom model, teachers create lessons and invite colleagues to observe the lesson and provide feedback in a post-observation session.

The focus of open classroom is on teacher behavior. I first saw an open classroom in action in Azerbaijan in 2003 and have used this model in every face-to-face professional development program I’ve designed since (and with success in India, United States and Indonesia). When the observation is followed by structured discussion and information sharing, watching more skilled colleagues in action, it benefits both parties— those conducting the lesson and those observing (Gaible & Burns, 2007).

3. Lesson Study

Lesson study is a well-studied and highly successful form of professional development—if teachers are provided the time, support, resources and skilled facilitation needed to make it a success. Lesson study has been used as a dominant form of professional development in Japan for years. Japan’s curriculum focuses in depth on fewer curriculum topics and Japanese educational culture has a longer tradition of outside observers in classrooms.

In lesson study, teachers collaboratively plan, develop, or improve a lesson; field test the lesson in a classroom; observe it; make changes; and collect data to see the impact of the lesson on student learning. This usually occurs over a period of months.

Lesson study has been shown to be a proven way of enhancing teachers’ design and instructional skills (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). However, there is a fairly high entry barrier: It is extremely comprehensive, focusing on all aspects of instruction, and is therefore time- and resource-intensive. It demands that teachers have foundational skills in all aspects of teaching. It also demands that professional development providers be skilled across a range of areas (content, instructional design, knowledge of instructional and assessment models). Oftentimes, implementing educational organizations or consulting firms do not have staff with such developed skills, and thus often deem lesson study “impractical” for poor countries— but in fact designing lessons is a core teacher competency.

4. Study Groups

Teachers benefit from formal discussions and interactions with peers around critical issues. In study groups teachers collaborate, as a single large group or in smaller teams, to study a particular issue with the goal of solving a common problem or creating and implementing a plan to attain a common goal. The study—the reading, discussion, writing and reflection, led by a skilled facilitator—is the key component of a study group. During the study process they may use print-based resources, classroom materials (such as work created by students) and their experiences as part of their approach to the problem.

5. Looking at Student Work

“Looking at Student Work” (LASW) is a model of teacher collaborative self-study and formative assessment that focuses on examining student work and assessing the way the teacher designed the particular activity being reviewed. Having participated in LASW activities as an instructional coach in urban schools in the United States, I saw firsthand the power of teachers collaboratively examining student’s work. Linking it back to how students learn, and how the lesson was designed, and then restructuring lessons based on this information is a key component.

This type of professional development uses highly structured protocols that make the examination of student work non-threatening and keep the focus off what the teacher did or did not do and instead on evidence of student learning.

The LASW folks have a great step-by-step website, which, though dated, provides more information for interested readers.

Pedagogies of Patience and Perseverance

What makes these forms of professional development teacher-centered and worthy options (ceteris paribus—all things being equal) for developing countries?

First, they start from where the teacher is in terms of his/her practice and offer planning, modeling, supervision and support that are differentiated and individualized. Next, they focus on the core behaviors of teaching—how students learn, how to design lessons that really target student learning, and the best ways to teach those lessons—all within the context of schools and classrooms. Third, they are active—eschewing the usual sitzprobe professional development sessions and involving teachers in the hard work of thinking about how students learn and how they themselves teach, and designing learning experiences that bridge the two. Fourth, they are highly structured, iterative and support based so that teachers can plan, practice, receive feedback and improve what they do.

Finally, these models build professional learning communities in which teachers, “enlisting colleagues to help them critique and improve implementation of a particular idea or strategy, can customize, personalize, and adapt new skills and concepts to their particular setting” (Burns, 2011: 190).

The community-based aspect of the above models can reinforce and institutionalize many of the main points learned in professional development workshops and indeed can increase, not just the human capital of teachers, but the social capital of schools. A recent U.S. study of “knowledge spillovers” among teachers, indicates that teachers who interact regularly with higher performing peers often improve their performance as a result (Jackson & Bruegmann, 2009).

The above models represent a shift in the psychology, pedagogy and pace of current paradigms of professional development. These models recognize that professional learning for teachers is iterative and developmental and that change occurs not at twitch-speed but at a much more evolutionary pace. They also show that instruction and support for teachers must be characterized by perseverance, practice and patience if we want teacher learning to be deep and sustained.

Mary Burns is a senior technology specialist and a professional development specialist at Education Development Center (EDC).




Mary Burns is the senior learning technologist specialist at Education Development Center. She has worked in five continents as a teacher, instructional coach, evaluator, professional development provider,...

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