Teachers as Critical Consumers of PD

Most educators are currently enjoying their summer break; a bit of relaxation, life is a touch slower, and drinking coffee becomes more of a treat to be savored in the morning than a necessity for survival.  Many educators also take this time for professional growth. This can be in the form of reading books, blogs, edchats, conferences, and more. While a lot of this information can be beneficial, I fear we have entered into a situation in education where everything is believed, where any and all information that is presented is immediately taken as fact.  From the standpoint of a teacher, I do sympathize a bit with a lack of time and resources to verify the validity and reliability of all professional development…especially if the PD is mandated by administration. It just makes sense to believe that a person or company presenting a new gadget, system, or strategy would have studies and evidence to show their PD is effective, but that isn’t always so.  

Here is a statement I saw yesterday on twitter:

“We don’t have time for journals and studies.  We need right-now solutions for real practitioners.”

This is a very alarming statement from an author and publisher who frequently presents at conferences.  Effectively, what they are telling me with the above statement is they don’t care if we know whether a new gadget, system, or strategy actually works…give it to the teachers anyway…scary.  As a classroom teacher, this lack of consideration is quite appalling and makes me question their motives. Nevermind that his/her statement was directed at two college professors…I guess they aren’t considered ‘real practitioners’ by some.

I was witness to another example of recklessness on the part of a PD presenter last year.  This presenter is currently a professor at a university with books written, articles published, and numerous presentations under their belt.  While attending a session intended for elementary educators, I heard this person state that students shouldn’t be sitting while they are learning.  They would learn better if they stood, because when they sit, blood pools in their posterior and that blood cannot be used by the brain. I had to leave the session early, so I could not ask the presenter for any verification of this statement’s reliability and/or validity.  I later emailed the presenter, but never received a response. I have also mentioned the presenter’s statement to several cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists; none were aware of any evidence or studies that support the presenter’s assertions.

Now, I don’t believe teachers should be cynical in their view of professional development, but rather be critical consumers of PD.  What do I mean by this?  When I consider any type of professional development, I ask three questions of the material or presentation:

1. What does the evidence say?

Whether the professional development be from a text or in person, I look for the resources and references used.  This may mean I need to ask the presenter or perhaps email an author/researcher. If there is no evidence, the next questions don’t really matter.

2. Does this apply to my classroom?

If the evidence says the gadget, system, or strategy can improve outcomes in the classroom, I next need the tool to be applicable to my classroom.  I often sit with art and band instructors in PD sessions that focus on reading or math strategies that rarely affect their classroom. For those teachers, the session, whether evidence-based or not, is of little use.  Even if the PD shows evidence of effectiveness, if the material isn’t applicable to my classroom, it is quite useless to myself and my students.

3. How can I adapt this for my students to improve the classroom?

Knowing the particular strengths and weaknesses of my students and classroom, I consider exactly how/when/where I can employ the gadget, system, or strategy during lessons.  How can I maximize the benefits of the professional development? For me, this is one of the most exciting (I’m a nerd) aspects of teaching…constructing the lessons and planning for maximizing time and effectiveness.


So, why does all of this matter?  Why do we need to know that things work in the classroom?

Without evidence of effectiveness, teachers could be implementing practices that have no positive effect in the classroom…wasting their time and the student’s time.  On another level, this is how myths of education begin to take hold; myths like learning styles, the learning pyramid, left/right brain stuff, we only use 10% of our brain, brain gyms, etc.  It is important to stop these myths/fads before they do damage to the classroom.  Just this past week, I met with other educators, professors, researchers, at the U. S. Department of Education to discuss this very topic.  

So, what’s next?  What constitutes ‘good’ evidence?  That is a messy can of worms.  Perhaps there’s a blog post in the future on this topic.  🙂  In the meantime, look at Dr. Gary Jones’ blog.  He does a wonderful job of explaining the complexities of research and their possible applications in the classroom.

Has your view of professional development changed a bit?

How will you be a critical consumer of PD in the future?


16 thoughts on “Teachers as Critical Consumers of PD

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    1. Well…ok…I obviously disagree. If you want tools that we know create positive effects in the classroom, try retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, concrete examples, and dual coding. There you go.

      Don’t use a tool that we has no evidence of effectiveness…what if the teacher is using a tool that has a negative effect on learning?

  1. If students stand, won’t the blood pool in their feet? By this logic, they should stand on their heads. 🙃

  2. Why not be cynical? Educators, as a group, don’t seem to be critical thinkers and jump on one fad after another. Those offering PD are no better, maybe worse; they want a product to offer and are motivated to cater to the uncritical masses. The lower the standards, the greater variety of product they have to sell.

    Here’s a blunt observation: if you care about truth, you need to be willing to piss people off by challenging the reliability of the information they provide. Educators, in the US at least, seem unwilling to be that rude.

    1. Agreed. ‘Healthy” skepticism is definitely required. However, it just like, “healthy eating”. There are no clear indications of what that is. That’s because like learning, losing weight is accomplished by a lot of different and often conflicting practices. I grew up in Dallas where in 1971 the superintendent decreed that every graduate would be able to swim 25 yards. In my area there was an indoor pool manager and instructor who was notorious for pushing kids in. When I taught adult swim lessons a decade later I had many of his victims in my classes. Believe it or not many kids “learned to swim” (or at least struggled to reach the other side under his tutelage). They were scared of the water and did not enjoy swimming at all. The “water adjustment” courses we taught at the YMCA at least had them comfortable and engaged in safe practices in the pool. Before you ask yes, my students could swim the 25 yards and often did so willingly.
      The bottom depending on your measure many methods can get you there. The bigger issue is we often don’t agree on what “learning” is. One of the push back on the. Current spaced, retrieval, interleaving, metacognitive feedback box is it really only address memory. That’s it. ALL of the research that validates it focuses on memory, short term and long term. Much of the research actually indicates that for short term other methods are actually better. This is all to say that “learning” depends on how you measure it.

  3. Sadly, as an Elementary Educator, we often have no say in our PD from the top down leaving us to pick our battles when considering cutting a best practice from curriculum and instruction. Sometimes, I wish the District would stop sending Coordinators and Principals to everything and start investing in their teachers that go above and beyond but, that’s another topic.

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