Develop This

Rick Hess, author of the book Cage Busting Leadership, argues over at Education Week that “it’s no surprise that professional development (PD) is nearly everyone’s favorite go-to. After all, if one is disinclined to rethink staffing or spending, replace employees, reward excellence, or root out mediocrity, hoping you can train staff to be better at their jobs is really all you’ve got left. The problem: most PD doesn’t pay off.”

Research into the effectiveness of professional development finds almost  “no ‘valid’ or ‘scientifically defensible evidence’ of effectiveness.” One of the problems, Hess notes, is that too often “professional development is provided in sessions with names like, ‘Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0.’ She [Roxanna Elden] explains, ‘Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to [tell] teachers that rigor is important, suggest[ing] we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls.'”

Let me first say that anyone who attends a session that promises to “Unlock the Sunshine!” gets what they deserve.

Let me also add that, while Hess is speaking specifically about professional development in K-12 education, we might be able to extend his argument to the college campus, as well. Such a claim might seem surprising considering that I am the Director of our faculty development center, a purveyor of such professional development opportunities for college faculty.

But, as you might imagine, I’m not talking about the workshops we provide. In my area, I tell presenters that if the faculty don’t leave with at least one thing they can apply tomorrow in their class, we have wasted their time. We are not interested in theory, idealism, or stating the obvious. No one ever comes to a session believing we need more passive learners, less rigor in the classroom, or worse retention. Our attendees might be interested in what neuroscience has to say about learning, but that’s not why they showed up to learn how twitter can be used to engage students.

Yet, I still attend workshops and training sessions (at other schools, of course) where I am reminded that learning is difficult and interested students learn more. I sit in on glorified pep talks telling me how important a college education is, how unprepared our students are, and how difficult it is to work in our current educational environment. Speakers spend inordinate amounts of time telling me we need to teach critical thinking skills, communication skills, and, more and more, soft skills.

No shit, I want to say.

I have no doubt there is little hard evidence professional development results in tangible changes in the classroom, but the fault isn’t with professional development, at least theoretically. The problem is the kind of development we consider professional and, more importantly, our institutional ideology regarding development.

The development we offer is often so “disconnected from the realities of classrooms” that the best thing I can say about my last PD conference is that the food was good.

Too many PD sessions discuss the ideal classroom situation. I don’t blame the professional professional developers. They travel around the country delivering the same message to every group of teachers, regardless of the type of student or the classroom working conditions. When I sit in a session regarding engaging student writers, I have no doubt many of the ideas I hear would work–if my class had 10 students with an average ACT of 32. Unfortunately, my faculty have 1 kid with a 32, 4 with an 11, and 26 somewhere in between. All with varying degrees of desire and training.

That doesn’t mean we need to stop professional development, though. Instead, we need to wrest control of development from the administrative units who see it as an easy panacea to falling test scores, understaffed faculty, and tired teachers. Most importantly, though, faculty development has to move beyond an hour long session of idealism and platitudes.

Faculty development only works if faculty have time to develop. K-12 teachers and university faculty can attend all the sessions in the world, but when they return to the office or classroom with a 100 students, tests to grade, and return to their 10-12 hour days, they don’t have time to implement change. Instead, we need targeted development opportunities delivered in 30 minutes or less that focus on one simple thing a faculty member can change in the classroom in which she teaches.

But, probably, what we really need is less faculty development and more leadership development. I wonder if those sessions would be any more effective?



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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