Flipping teacher professional development
Learn the benefits of flipping professional development for teachers
May 25, 2016 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
12 minutes read
Hidassie School. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. November 2012. Credit: GPE/Midastouch

Could we improve teacher learning by inverting the normal professional development (PD) paradigm - swapping the information acquisition that normally occurs inside a “training” with the design, application and practice that normally occurs outside?

“Flipping” (the British adjective) PD

Consider the following. Despite increased variety, the workshop is still the staple of teachers’ professional development menu. Darling-Hammand and colleagues (2009) report that the workshop is used in 91% of professional development in the US. In the PD funded by donors, ministries of education, or multilateral agencies that I’ve either conducted, evaluated, observed, or been invited to, the figure is close to 100%.

The focus of many workshops is still highly knowledge or theory-centered versus practice-centered. Returning to their classrooms, teachers are left alone to face the harder task of designing and applying what they have learned. It’s little wonder that many regard professional development as a waste of time—something to be endured as opposed to embraced.

“Flipping” (the gerund) PD

The flipped professional development model, though widely used for student learning, has been little used for teacher learning, particularly in low-resource contexts.  

In a flipped approach, teachers learn content via videos, simulations, multimedia, or online or print materials before the face-to-face workshop.

This provides the opportunity to engage with and reflect on new or proposed ideas and information. Then during the formal face-to-face sessions, teachers can engage in deeper, inquiry- and design-based learning as they create, practice and revise classroom activities or tools based on this information.

Benefits of flipped PD: A phased approach to learning

Though perceived as somewhat novel, teachers have been flipping instruction avant le mot—long before Khan Academy videos. Further, many programs have begun to at least explore flipped teacher PD. Below are some advantages we’ve seen at EDC from flipped professional development.

First, the flipped approach re-imagines the professional development paradigm. In “traditional” professional development, formal teacher learning is often a one-time event and the teacher is actively processing information only after a session, exactly when he/she is facing the most pressure with the least support. A flipped approach, in contrast, builds out professional development in a three-phase process — a before, during and after (Doolittle, 2014).

Figure 1 diagrams the contrast between the two approaches.

 Figure 1: A standard versus flipped professional development sequence

The phased approach provides more “windows of opportunity” (Dolittle, 2014) for the teacher to actively process information. For example, in the “before” phase, when teachers are interacting with content, they can replay or revisit parts of what they’re trying to learn, take a break and come back to the content—something that is not possible in a live workshop.

In the “during” phase—the face-to-face workshop—teachers engage in higher-level learning—creating classroom activities, and practicing, evaluating and revising these activities.

In the “after” phase, teachers begin to “lock in” what they’ve learned and here support is crucial. But even without a strong support mechanism, having had gone through actively designing and debriefing their designs in a session with experts and fellow teachers at least offers a better chance they will be able to continue the practice in their classrooms.

Greater retention and better use of resources

The image used here is licensed by Creative Commons for public use and downloaded from Photos for Class.

Third, though there is limited research on flipped learning for teachers, the foundational aspects of flipped learning are in fact supported by research. Adult and young learners benefit from distributed learning—interacting with content in shorter chunks over a longer period of time—versus condensed learning (the weeklong workshop, akin to cramming for an exam, may be great for short-term memory but contributes little to long-term learning).

Additionally, research on technology-based learning (Means, et al. 2009) suggests that a blended approach— combining technology-based learning with face-to-face learning—results in greater retention and application of information than is the case with a purely online or face-to-face experience.

Fourth, a flipped PD model can potentially conserve scarce professional development funds. Rather than using “experts” (international and otherwise) for direct instruction (the “easier stuff”), information can be communicated via technology to multiple audiences.

This frees up our experts to help teachers during the face-to-face workshop with the “harder stuff”— designing, applying and refining new knowledge—and directs funds to what matters most.

Consequently, a flipped PD approach could also potentially begin to shift teacher training away from a steady diet of workshops to more beneficial forms of professional development—or eliminate workshops altogether to focus more directly on school-based support.

Challenges of flipped PD

There are clearly many challenges associated with flipping professional development—the most obvious being a robust Internet connection to access all that great content.

There are numerous workarounds to poor Internet access—caching servers, mailing DVDs to schools in remote areas (as EDC did in a blended learning project several years back), audio/radio programs, phone-based education apps, and print materials.

The good news is rapid rates of growth of access to broadband Internet, cellular networks, and ownership of smart phones within the past decade and among the world’s poorest households (GSMA, 2016; World Bank, 2016).

A greater challenge is appropriate content and the need to balance what is desirable with what is possible. Finding and creating high-quality video-based models of local-language, country-specific teacher practices can be difficult to find and expensive to create.

Capitalizing on open content and crowdsourcing can help to some degree, so too perhaps encouraging implementing agencies to turn over all of the content we create during the life of a project so it can be stored on an open-access donor platform. But in many contexts content will need to be created and particular care taken to make sure the content in high-quality and interactive versus creating videos that replicate live, “talking head” lectures.

A third challenge involves holding teachers accountable for completing the “before the PD” work. I encountered this last summer in South-East Asia, after assigning teachers a pre-workshop reading and video—which they did not do. As a result, the intended learning activity was an ersatz version of what was anticipated.

That changed in a subsequent workshop when we used a free digital assessment tool to verify proof of completing the pre-workshop activities. Assessing teacher understanding, via digital assessment tools or paper-based “entrance tickets” is imperative in flipped professional development. It establishes accountability and helps instructors check for teacher understanding before moving on to higher-level activities of the workshop.

Flipping: fads versus fundamentals

The greatest risk associated with flipped professional development may be the usual inflation of expectations around technology and the tendency to focus on the digital content for pre-workshop consumption rather than on the more important instructional goals.

We shouldn’t forget that flipped learning rests on a very traditional strategy of conveying content prior to class. What makes it potentially powerful is the opportunity for teachers to actively process and implement content “before, during, after” professional development regardless of what - or even if - technology is involved.

What also makes it potentially powerful is that it can move professional development away from information conveyance to “just-in-time” assistance for teachers as they are actively learning to design and trouble-shoot innovative teaching strategies.

In so many parts of the globe, professional development models the very same bad practice we exhort teachers to abandon. Flipping PD may be a way to change this model—providing information, skills-building, and support in the most efficient way possible.

But we’ll only get there if we keep the focus on the hard work of teaching and learning - not on the technology.


The image used here is licensed by Creative Commons for public use and downloaded from Photos for Class.


Burns, M. (2016, February). Twelve rules for flipping your classroom. E-Learning Industry. Available http://tinyurl.com/hvw8aut (Though not referenced in the post, this addresses some of the weaknesses associated with flipped learning)

Darling-Hammond, L., Chung Wei, R., Andree, A., & Richardson, N. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.

Doolittle, P. (2014, May 21). Flipping the classroom: Leveraging technology in the design of instruction to foster student learning. Teaching with Technology Symposium, Medford, MA: Tufts University.

GSMA. (2016). The mobile economy 2016. Available https://www.gsmaintelligence.com

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009, June). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.

World Bank. (2016). Digital dividends: Exploring the relationship between broadband and economic growth. Available http://tinyurl.com/gs5ch78

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