Workshops 101 for teacher professional development

This is the 1st post of a 3-part series on workshops for professional development of teachers

Teacher training college educators in a weeklong assessment workshop in Tamale, Ghana. Credit: Mary Burns

Teacher training college educators in a weeklong assessment workshop in Tamale, Ghana

Credit: Mary Burns

The “workshop.”

It is the staple of teacher professional development programs across the globe—in rich countries and poor countries, in donor-funded projects and non-donor funded ones. No other professional development format is so tightly, and traditionally, intertwined with teacher professional development. Indeed, for many, the workshop is teacher professional development.

Yet, among many professional development providers and teachers, the workshop has come under heightened criticism as an ineffective form of teacher professional learning. Many lament the mono-diet of workshops that often constitute teachers’ only experiences of professional learning.

But are workshops really that bad—or good? If they really are as limited as critics claim, why do we always use them as the cornerstone of teacher professional development? How do we make them better or move beyond them altogether? What other models of professional development should we be using?

This scrum of questions is the focus of the next three posts. This first post orients us to the classic professional development workshop—what it is, its strengths and its weaknesses.

Workshops 101

If you’ve accidentally landed on this post (versus that sports site you were looking for) and have found yourself suddenly and unexpectedly curious about the “workshop,” read on. For the 99.9% of readers who are familiar with workshops, feel free to skip to the next section!

Think of a workshop like a classroom. In the classic donor-funded workshop, the “teacher” is a “facilitator” (typically an expert in the field or an expert within the organization that won the contract) and the “students” are educators (for example, teachers, teacher educators or principals) who travel domestically, regionally or even internationally to attend the workshop.

Like a classroom, the purpose of the workshop is to transfer learning (about an early grade reading program, a work-readiness curriculum, etc.). There are often ice-breaking activities, demonstrations, lectures via PowerPoint, readings, modeling, discussion (lots of discussion), videos, writing on chart paper (many trees are sacrificed to the workshop).

Workshops typically take place in some central location (a capital city) in a facility with relatively good infrastructure and amenities (air conditioning, Internet, stable electricity supply). This sequence of events may happen several times a year (if the project is well funded) or once a year (if it’s not) or once (if the funding situation is really dire).

The workshop, which can last a day, a few days or a week, typically concludes with exhortations, promises and the very best of intentions to return to one’s school and implement something that has been learned. (This almost never happens.)

More ambitiously, in many projects, the workshop marks the beginning of the “cascade” or “train-the-trainers” approach and these workshop participants, now “master trainers,” are tasked with teaching teachers who teach teachers, ad infinitum.

Typically, there is some kind of evaluation on the last day of the workshop. Response bias; gratitude for any opportunity for professional learning; a lack of experience with other types of professional learning; or a genuine belief that this was a terrific learning experience cumulatively result in a substantial portion of attendees reporting the workshop as a very positive experience. (A point worth noting since it is contrary to some reported research on teacher satisfaction with workshops.)

The good…

Workshops have much to commend them, which is why they are so universal.

  1. Workshops are good for exposing people to new ideas, techniques and colleagues. By bringing together diverse groups of people who would normally not meet each other, workshops instantiate the notion of the “strength of weak ties.” Weak ties are mechanisms through which we learn novel information. Since we tend to form “strong ties” with similar peers (teachers who teach in the same school), we often know and share the same information. Workshops introduce teachers to new peers with whom they would not normally interact. As such, they can learn new content, gather new perspectives and synthesize ideas from a colleague in region X, school Y, or country Z.
  2. Because they are group-based and accommodate so many learners, workshops are a good vehicle for helping to instill and foster an esprit du corps and a sense of mission among a program’s teachers. I can’t think of a better professional development format for “kicking off” or “launching” a professional development intervention. The workshop structure can create energy and enthusiasm that can supply an initial thrust of momentum to a project. As a corollary to this, workshops represent opportunities for the beginnings of communities of learning and of practice among teachers who will be working together over time.
  3. Because they replicate the one-to-many traditional format of a classroom, workshops are a familiar and recognizable form of teacher professional development requiring little explanation or justification to donors, managers, principals, government officials (unlike, say, study groups or open classrooms).

  4. Workshops attempt to promote standardization, uniformity and equity of access to learning. One size may not fit all but all are fitted in this one size in a workshop (granted, workshops will vary according to who leads and who attends them and the overall group dynamics). There is real value for any project/program/initiative in attempting to standardize content, language, and build a shared system of beliefs and values.
  5. Because they are a one-to-many model of teacher learning, they promise scale. Scale, of course, is the ultimate goal of donor-funded education projects. No other professional development format allows us to hoover up 70 grade 1-3 teachers and park them for a week in a workshop in a hotel in Ouagadougou or Kigali or Guatemala City.

The bad…

However, workshops have numerous flaws.

  1. They are facilitator-centered and as such may model a traditional and hierarchical type of professional development. By their design, workshops suggest (albeit inadvertently and unwittingly) that information rests with the omniscient facilitator whose charge is knowledge transfer to “less knowledgeable” teachers. While the facilitator may be an expert in the topic s/he is sharing, s/he may not have deep experience teaching or teaching in the same context as the workshop teachers.  Often, before a workshop, facilitators may know little to nothing about the teachers they are teaching; and the one-to-many nature, coupled with cultural and linguistic differences (in the case of international workshops) makes it challenging to get to know teachers on an individual basis, further reinforcing this hierarchy.
  2. Workshops can, and often do, promote a highly didactic and passive form of learning. This is exacerbated by the traditional deductive approach of the workshop: the facilitator gives information (theory); teachers discuss it at their tables or do some mini-activity, and report out to the group on their views of that concept (confirmation of theory). Then the facilitator moves onto the next topic. Rinse and repeat.

  3. Workshops turn professional learning into an “event” versus a process. They are often so logistically challenging and costly to organize that they devour the professional development budget, leaving little else for other forms of professional learning that might be more effective. This workshop-centric focus on professional learning often unwittingly conveys the notion that upon the conclusion of the workshop, all official teacher learning has ceased (until the next workshop).

  4. Workshops promote in vitro versus in vivo learning. They typically occur away from schools and within the pristine and functional environs of a capital city air-conditioned hotel where everything works and where the number of learners is manageable. We would never do a big workshop in a school because of the lack of Internet connection, space, infrastructure, and supplies. My point exactly. Nevertheless, the workshop (again, unwittingly) communicates the erroneous directive that Petri-dish hotel-based learning can be directly transferred to under-resourced schools.
  5. In my experience, workshops privilege certain types of learners over others. They are great for social learners. They are great for the very small percentage of teachers who are innovators and early adopters who can take an innovation (like an early grade reading approach) and run with it. However, they do little to nothing to help the majority of learners who need repeated exposure and practice to new concepts. In many contexts, workshops may privilege more high-status teachers (older teachers, males, experienced teachers) who, because of the “public” nature of the workshop assume the right to speak on behalf of the group or school while other colleagues never share their views of experiences.

Mind the (implementation) gap

However, the biggest weakness of workshops strikes at the core of the workshop itself.  Workshops are vehicles for knowledge sharing. Thus, their underlying assumption is that knowledge is enough—that information equals implementation; that knowledge equals skills; and that if teachers learn about something they will automatically be able to do that something.

Because it is so often temporally and spatially separated from the teacher’s workplace, the workshop does nothing to help teachers at the most critical juncture in their learning—the point at which they return to school to implement what they learned. This failure drives the high degree of leakage, latency, failure of learning transfer, and poor fidelity of implementation that are associated with workshops. Education researchers refer to this as the “implementation gap”—and in the next post we’ll examine alternative forms of professional development to address that gap.



Education Development Center
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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