Six strategies to improve teacher training workshops
This is the conclusion of a three-part blog series on workshops used for teachers’ professional development.
August 06, 2018 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center|
Teacher and students trace letters in the air with their fingers. Couronne Nord 1 Primary School, Niamey, Niger.
CREDIT: GPE/Kelly Lynch

Workshops are the "death and taxes" of donor-funded professional development. Because they are a one-to-many mode of professional learning and conform to conventional beliefs on what constitutes teacher learning, they will always be with us.

As discussed in the first post in this series, workshops have real strengths—they are good formats for exposing teachers to new information and new colleagues. They also have serious weaknesses, most critically the fact that they end when teachers need the greatest amount of support—at the point of implementation ("implementation gap"). I believe that workshops should be part of a suite of professional development offerings for teachers, but with upgrading of how they are commonly designed and run. This blog offers six suggestions that I hope will be useful in improving workshops.

A workshop in Abuja, Nigeria, 2014. Credit: Mary Burns
A workshop in Abuja, Nigeria, 2014.
CREDIT: Mary Burns

1.Flip them

Give teachers the content before the workshop, via video, readings, audio and use the actual workshop as a space where teachers can practice and apply that content. Such a flipped approach helps teachers develop, not simply knowledge of a particular practice, but knowledge within a particular practice. I’ve written about flipping PD previously and outlined its many benefits.

A better workshop model—one that focuses on more practice and less knowledge transfer
A better workshop model—one that focuses on more practice and less knowledge transfer

2.Flip them again

Yes…we have moved content outside the workshop where it can be learned independently. However, we want to flip what happens in the workshop itself. (The temptation is simply too great to give teachers content outside the workshop and again inside the workshop.)

To flip the workshop itself, we can design workshops that look like the figure below—heaviest on design and practice or a problem of practice—and lightest on information—where participants are interacting with information they are consolidating, evaluating and beginning to think about what parts of that information to apply in their classrooms.

This is an approach we’ve used with great success at EDC and at SEDL (where we began doing this in the mid-1990s). To illustrate, in a multi-day workshop, teachers might spend perhaps a day interacting with new information—not too much and of a concrete and practical nature. They spend more time—two days—designing lessons, with support from other teachers and the facilitator, so they can implement this approach in their class. They spend most of their time (three days) practicing these lessons—with their professional development provider, with small teams and then, in a simulation or “micro-teaching,” with all teachers who act as students. They receive multiple levels of highly structured feedback and have time to revise activities based on this feedback.

Such an approach has numerous benefits:

  • It “flips” the role of the professional development provider (facilitator) to a coach and thus models for teachers how they can interact with their own students.
  • It allows teachers to dive deep into a few things versus jet skiing over everything.
  • It allows teachers to interact with content in applied and challenging ways as they wrestle with design and instruction.
  • It gives teachers models of intended practice in action.
  • It provides teachers with immediate, structured feedback.
  • Most important, the “microteaching” component builds teacher confidence, thus increasing the likelihood that teachers will indeed implement what they’ve learned.
  • They will have tried this new activity with peers, received feedback on what worked and did not, and will be more prepared to do it with students. This approach helps to bridge the “implementation gap” between the workshop and the classroom.
A black-chinned hummingbird feeds its young.
Don’t do this! A black-chinned hummingbird feeds its young.
CREDIT: NPS/Sally King

3.Flipping one more time

What?? How much flipping can we do…? Just one more. Because sometimes you just have to share new information….

The typical deductive workshop approach of knowledge transfer often involves spoon-feeding learners (teachers or teacher educators) new content and having them interact with the content to confirm its correctness (“Here are the 5 or 6Ts—now discuss/practice at your table…”). We can argue about the degree to which this approach helps teachers learn that content, but there is one point with which we cannot argue — it puts teachers in “receptive” mode.  

A better approach to helping teachers learn new content is to flip this traditional, deductive model of learning content to a more inductive one in which learners are responsible for generating information and where learning is hard.

For example, the facilitator could give learners a problem or challenge to solve. Learners would struggle to find solutions, test what works and doesn’t, reflect on what they “got” and where they still need help—and at that point the facilitator could introduce any needed information.

Rather than introducing decontextualized content, new information is situated in a problem, explained at the point at which it is needed, and thus made more resonant and “sticky.” By engaging with the unknowns of a problem in a collaborative and structured environment, we can help learners not simply ingest content but generate knowledge and develop problem-solving mindsets. (I will discuss this approach in detail in the next blog post.)

4.Do them in schools

Most workshops are in vitro affairs—held in the climactically pleasant, clean, well-resourced and functioning hotel ballroom. This may be easier for providers but is less helpful for teachers, many of whom will find the transfer of learning to their hot, crowded, poorly resourced classrooms impossible.

Thus, this fourth suggestion is to hold workshops, or at least some of them, in the school where teachers teach. Yes, it may be hot, with little space and fewer resources, but this in vivo approach is good for teachers. Teachers will see that (fill-in-the blank) can work, with modifications, in a tiny classroom and thus removing the plausible deniability of “I can’t do this in my school” that many teachers may not say, but certainly think, when the weeklong hotel workshop concludes.

It is also good for those of us who lead workshops. We will directly confront the issues that teachers encounter every day—heat, lack of space, lack of supplies, lack of electricity and so forth. We’ll experience discomfort and dissonance and understand experientially the teacher’s reality. Most importantly, we will be able to better capitalize on that empathy to improve the design of future workshops, activities and learning experiences.

And if we are lucky, some students may be hanging around on the workshop days and join in.

5.Use teachers

To carry out the suggestions above, the workshop facilitator needs to know the content of the workshop. He/she needs to understand instruction and assessment; classroom management; communication and facilitation techniques; and how to design engaging lessons. He/she needs to understand students and what motivates them; classrooms and what drives learning; and teachers and motivates them and what they are more likely to accept and reject. This entails major roles for actual teachers to design and carry out workshops for other teachers. IREX does this for its program in Georgia (1).

6.Make workshops continuous versus episodic

Professional development—whether observation and feedback, coaching or workshops—only works when it is ongoing and continuous versus sporadic and episodic.  One of the most successful models with which I’ve been involved occurred over three years where every month we held a Saturday workshop followed by five days of in-school coaching.

Eventually, in year three, when teachers did not need such intensive support, we shifted to workshops every two months and coaching even less (teachers no longer needed me; they had each other).  As teachers become more comfortable with new content and approaches, the role of external PD expert will attenuate (2).

Ongoing workshops that actualize the suggestions outlined in this post can do much to address existing weaknesses of workshops. They can help teachers, not simply learn new information, but wrestle with the affective, behavioral, and cognitive dimensions of that information. They can provide the time, space, support and social context for professional learning and relationship building around the same set of topics with the same cohort of people over an extended period. They can help teachers design and implement new classroom practices and provide teachers with communities to support those practices so they are more “ready” to apply them in their classes. They can promote the risk-taking, shared practice, honest reflection and self-examination so necessary to help teachers begin to transfer learning from the “training room” to the “classroom.” 

Workshops that follow the suggestions above may not completely breach the implementation gap, but they can help to narrow it.


  1. I have not mentioned standards for quality professional development quality and professional development providers but these are clearly important. Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) is a great place to find more on this.
  2. Disclosure: A project with which I am affiliated.
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