Professional development alternatives to the workshop
Beyond workshops and trainings, part 2 of our blog series on professional development for teachers focuses on bridging the “implementation” gap between what’s being shared during workshops and what’s being practiced in the classroom.
Collaborative lesson design; co-teaching; and observation are feedback are three alternatives and complements to workshops to improve teachers’ professional development. Learn more about each model here.
July 12, 2018 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center|
Teacher in front of the blackboard at Billy Town Public, Liberia.
CREDIT: GPE/ Kelley Lynch

Last month’s post anatomized the strengths and weaknesses the workshop, concluding with its greatest limitation—the fact that it focuses on knowledge transfer versus helping teachers implement what they have learned.

Preached and practiced

This month’s post shares three alternatives and complements to workshops that bridge this “implementation gap” (1). While each model is self-contained and discrete in its own right, the three models outlined here are also interconnected and often form part of a school-based continuum of support. As we will see, these approaches can be used as follow-up for workshops or in place of workshops.

They can be used as stand-alone models of professional development or part of a coaching program (2). Most important, I am not simply advocating these models; I have used them and seen teachers implement new ideas and innovations as a result.

Collaborative lesson design

 Co-teaching via Skype in Indonesia from the teacher perspective (2008). Photo Credit:

Co-teaching via Skype in Indonesia from the teacher perspective (2008).

Photo Credit: Mary Burns

In collaborative lesson design, the professional development provider (another teacher, a head teacher, a coach) works with a teacher or group of teachers to design a lesson or series of lessons around some desired approach (for example an instructional method or a reading comprehension strategy).  This occurs via a design process (like Understanding by Design or the 5Es), helping teachers develop measurable learning outcomes, engaging instructional activities and choosing an assessment toll to measure these outcomes.

In my experience, this is one of the most powerful forms of professional learning, mainly because many teachers may have never been taught anything about instructional design—and designing lessons, teaching them and assessing learning is the core of “teaching.”

Lesson design encompasses the central elements of teaching—content, curriculum, instruction, assessment and the interaction among each. Lesson design with a group of peers, facilitated by a knowledgeable professional development expert, can be extraordinarily rich. It engenders deep conversations about teaching and learning. It links theory with practice. It promotes action and reflection.

It focuses teachers on both the big ideas and the nitty gritty of teaching—materials preparation, grouping, designing learning outcomes, matching outcomes to instruction and assessment, etc. Above all, it allows teachers to capture the knowledge learned in workshop (or seminar or class) and begin to make it actionable.


 Co-teaching in Indonesia via the coach’s perspective (2008). Photo: Mary Burns Photo Credit:

Co-teaching in Indonesia via the coach’s perspective (2008).

Photo Credit: Mary Burns

Co-teaching is what it sounds like—two teachers or a teacher and coach teach a lesson together (like the ones designed as part of a collaborative design process). Photos 1 and 2 show distance co-teaching in Indonesia with a teacher in one location (image 1) and her coach in another (image 2).

There are numerous models of co-teaching. For example, co-teachers can temporally or spatially divide their roles, teaching either in parallel or sequentially. The coach might teach the more complex aspects while the teacher observes. Alternatively, the teacher might teach the more difficult parts of a lesson while the coach observes.

Co-teaching has its challenges. Co-teachers may have different working styles and personalities and both have to give up some degree of control. Co-teaching is highly demanding in terms of logistics and organization. Since you are not the teacher of record, it can also be incredibly intimidating to co-teach students whom you do not know and with whom you may have no relationship.

These challenges notwithstanding, the benefits of co-teaching are many. There is no better way to help teachers implement what they have learned from a workshop or course. Co-teaching helps teachers with classroom management and provides real-time modeling, structure and support. This, along with its highly collegial and collaborative nature, makes future implementation of new practices less daunting.

Observation and feedback

Observation and feedback is formal or informal observation of a teacher’s practice in the classroom by a peer or external observer in order to improve specific or general aspects of the teacher’s practice.

In the observation and feedback form of professional development, a skilled and prepared observer, in consultation with the teacher, observes a fixed portion of a classroom lesson. There is typically a pre-observation meeting in which the teacher and observer discuss the teacher’s class, goals, areas of focus where the teacher would like support or feedback, and where the observer explains the observation process. In such a meeting, the observer shares with the teacher any observation tool he/she is using.

The actual classroom observation is followed by a post-observation meeting where the teacher self-assesses, the observer provides feedback using a structured or semi-structured feedback protocol, and together, the observer and teacher come up with an action plan for improving the observed activity.

Unfortunately, classroom observations are often designed and carried out in ways that undermine their potential. Observations are often used for accountability, reporting, or evaluation purposes versus support and improvement (no, you can’t have it all!).

They are often something we do to, as opposed to with, teachers. Observers may be poorly prepared and have never taught. Data may be too eagerly used as confirmation that yes, our program is amazing even though we cannot generalize from a single measure and despite the many threats to the validity of observation data (confirmation bias, Hawthorne Effect, Halo Effect, measurement error, etc.).

Observers may be using a newly created observation tool that lacks sensitivity and reliability. The observation tool may be too high-inference to be accurate (without the requisite training on the difference between a “3” and a “4” on a Likert scale) or so low-inference (using a binary checklist) that qualitative distinctions about teacher practice are impossible. Observers may offer no feedback, or feedback that is neither precise, meaningful nor actionable. Finally, observations and feedback may occur so infrequently that their utility is severely hampered. 

However, when done for the right purpose, with the right people, procedures and protocols, and consistently over time, observation and feedback do much to bridge the implementation gap.  First, they capitalize on the learning power of formative assessment. Learning new skills is hard to master. Observation and feedback provide the teacher and the professional development provider with data on the mechanics and techniques of teaching to improve practice.

Next, teachers receive real-time (or close to it) feedback on their efforts. SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) feedback provides teachers with specific techniques to close the implementation gap—to move from where they are to where they want to be. Finally, observation and feedback has an emotional component. Feedback is critical to ensure that teachers don’t give up but learn from their mistakes to improve with each with iteration. With continuous observation, the feedback cycle should get tighter and improvement more measurable.

The anti-workshop

Collectively, these three models of professional development are the antithesis of everything that is “wrong” with the workshop.

First, they are the anti-workshop—personalized, differentiated, in vivo, discipline-based, and involve distributed practice. They are authentic, job-embedded professional development.

Second, they make implementation far more certain than the “spray and pray” of the workshop. In my own experience over the last two decades, both as a coach who carried out the above practices, and as a designer of coaching programs, these models of professional development result in much higher rates of quality implementation versus workshop-only professional development.

In Indonesia, for example, EDC’s 2008-2011 coaching program witnessed implementation rates of 98% using the above approaches versus single-digit implementation rates for our workshop-only professional development.

Such results are consistent with research demonstrating that teachers who receive ongoing support during the implementation phase—versus teachers who simply attend workshops—are far more open to instructional change and far more likely to make such changes (Knight & Cornett, 2009).

However, helping teachers design activities, co-teaching these activities with them, and carrying out observation and quality feedback demands highly skilled people who understand teaching so deeply that they can work with teachers in these highly differentiated and individualized ways. It is far easier to stand and deliver a “training” than it is to work with teachers in the three professional development models described here.

Groundhog Day

All well and good, many will say, but we cannot afford the professional development models described in this blog post. Such an assertion, so common in donor-funded projects, is a result of the dominant, and in many cases, uninvestigated and unsubstantiated narrative that the field cannot “afford” research-proven, school-based models of professional development. In many cases, it is not a lack of funds; it is a failure of imagination.

Thus, despite solid evidence to the contrary, many programs continue to invest in disjointed, episodic workshops over ongoing, school-based and support-based professional development that can help teachers transfer knowledge from the training room to the classroom. Projects and programs continue to do so despite the fact that workshops are both expensive (planes, trains, automobiles, hotels, conference rooms, per diems, etc.) and ineffective (Yoon, et al. 2007).

This mindset will only shift when decision makers commit to quality professional learning. In the meantime, if we want to improve professional development for teachers, we have to end where we started: with the workshop.  The next, and last post in this series, focuses on that.


  1. For more models of teacher professional development, see, Five Models of Teacher-Centered Professional Development.
  2. Because coaching is such a broad topic, I will save discussions on that for another time.


Knight, J. & Cornett, J. (2009). Studying the impact of instructional coaching. Lawrence, KS: Kansas Coaching Project for the Center on Research on Learning.

Yoon, K.S, Duncan, T., Wen-Yu Lee, S., Scarloss, B. & Shapley, K.L. (2007). Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Issues and Answers Report, REL 2007 – No. 033. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest.

Part 1 of this 3-part series: Workshops 101 for teacher professional development

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