Each principle is based not only on our own experience, but also on feedback from the hundreds of teachers our team has supported, and on a solid body of educational research.
Below we describe the reasoning behind the principles that guide our work in creating and facilitating effective learning experiences for teachers. Each principle is based not only on our own experience, but also on feedback from the hundreds of teachers our team has supported, and on a solid body of educational research. This is not meant to be an exhaustive literature review of every best practice in teacher professional development (PD), but should serve as a starting place for exploring this field.
Note that we work specifically with science teachers, and that is reflected in some of these principles. However, most of these ideas are true for all adult learners, regardless of their field. We hope you find these ideas useful in shaping your own perspective on high quality professional development and facilitation.
We are facilitators, not instructors
The distinction may seem subtle, but the way you position yourself in relation to your PD participants impacts their experience significantly. An “instructor” dispenses knowledge and instructs the participants on what they should know and do. This is a one-way relationship, with knowledge flowing from the instructor to the learners. A “facilitator” creates experiences that help participants to build their own knowledge and learn from each other. This builds two-way relationships and the flow of knowledge between the facilitator and the learner, as well as among the learners themselves.
Sometimes called “sage on the stage” vs “guide on the side,” the “instruct vs facilitate” approaches to teaching are often discussed in relation to teaching young learners, but are sometimes forgotten when teaching adults. Approaching your PD in the mindset of a guide or facilitator enables you to create meaningful experiences for your adult learners, resulting in more lasting learning than can be accomplished by lecturing.
We set clear goals for what teachers are expected to accomplish
Motivation strongly impacts the time and effort people will commit to learning—and motivation is higher when they know the usefulness of what they are learning (Bransford et al, 2000). While this is true for learners of all ages, it is especially vital for adult learners, who juggle so many demands on their time. Particularly with mandatory PD, participants are likely to walk in the door wondering why they should give up their precious time for this session when there are a hundred other things they could be doing. Sharing clear goals for your PD up front will help answer that question and motivate participation, especially if the goals are useful and serve your participants’ real needs.
Beyond providing motivation, making learning goals visible and reflecting on them throughout the PD also supports metacognition. When learners are aware of their own learning and able to monitor how their ideas change over time, understanding is improved and new ideas are more easily transferred to other contexts (Bransford et al, 2000). A clear set of goals serves as a tool to support this kind of thinking.
We spend time building a learning community
For learners of any age, the kind and quality of learning that is possible is strongly affected by the context in which the learning takes place (Bransford et al, 2000).
Transformative learning is far more likely to happen when participants feel safe, comfortable, and supported within a positive learning community. If participants are anxious about being judged by a group of strangers, they will be less willing to share their ideas and open up to new ways of thinking.
Building community is an essential prerequisite to learning. The application of this principle may differ for PD that lasts a few hours compared to PD that involves months of collaboration. However, no matter the length of the PD, learners always need a chance to connect on a human level before you ask them to open up their thinking or start discussing high-stakes questions.
We connect to prior knowledge and experience
Teachers are professionals and experts at their craft. Even relatively new teachers come into the room with some training under their belts, and more experienced teachers have years of knowledge and practice to draw on—in some cases, more years than the PD facilitator might have. This does not mean that they have nothing to learn; professionals at any stage will benefit from new knowledge, mindsets, ideas, and inspiration. However, you must recognize that they are not entering your PD as blank slates or empty vessels.
First, respect the experience and professionalism that your participants carry with them—treating them like novices is a surefire way to make them feel disrespected, which can lead them to check out or shut down. Second, recognize that their prior experience is a powerful resource that you can draw on. Engaging and building on prior knowledge while building new understandings leads to more effective and lasting learning (Bransford et al, 2000). You can also take advantage of the collective knowledge of the group by giving participants opportunities to learn from each other (and be open to learning something new yourself).
Teachers learn by doing science
“Students cannot comprehend scientific practices, nor fully appreciate the nature of scientific knowledge itself, without directly experiencing those practices for themselves (NRC, 2012).” Science is about far more than just memorizing facts—it is an active process. Skills like asking testable questions, critically analyzing data, or designing experiments can’t be learned by simply reading about them or listening to a lecture—they must be practiced. This is vital for science learners of all ages—including teachers. Telling teachers about the scientific practices they should teach their students has limited impact. Allowing them to experience science for themselves is vastly more powerful.
This approach also gives PD facilitators opportunities to model effective teaching strategies. Just like science skills, these teaching skills are much easier to learn through direct experience than by staring at a powerpoint slide. Teachers who learn through inquiry and problem solving will be better equipped to implement these approaches in their own classrooms, and to view themselves as a guide to help their students develop their own meaning from their experiences (Loucks-Horsley et al, 2010).
Ironically, many PDs (and pre-service teacher preparation) present constructivist approaches to learning through non-constructivist lectures. This conflict between the message and the mode of delivery actually undermines the impact of the PD, and can have lasting negative impacts on teachers’ understanding of effective science teaching (Bransford et al, 2000; Loucks-Horsley et al, 2010). On the other hand, teachers who have experienced meaningful, hands-on science as a learner will be empowered to lead meaningful, hands-on science experiences for their own students.
Teachers learn by reflecting on their experience
Just doing science is not enough, however. Teachers also need time to process what they experience as a learner and “translate” it into their own practice.
One key feature of transformative learning experiences for teachers is enabling them to think about how they will take their new understanding into the classroom (Loucks-Horsley, 2010). Carve out time during the PD and encourage your participants to think not just about replicating the specific experience they had, but to think more broadly about the pedagogical practices they saw and how they can incorporate those moves into their own teaching practice.
We allot ample time
Learning takes time. We all know this, but it can be easy to forget that this applies just as strongly to adults as to young learners. One of the most common mistakes made in PD is rushing participants through information. Retention will be low, and teachers will leave feeling frustrated and exhausted. These negative feelings reduce the likelihood that they will make the effort to apply what they learned—and that’s assuming they were able to learn anything useful at all. Effective PD provides ample time for real learning to occur, and gives participants time to process information in many ways (Bransford et al, 2000; Loucks-Horsley, 2010).
Time is one of the biggest struggles for educators at any level. There is so much that we want (or are required) to share with our learners, and so little time in which to do it. As you plan PD, you will definitely encounter this struggle. When you do, remember that you will have greater impact if your participants learn a few things well than if they have shallow, ineffective exposure to a lot of things.
We solicit and respond to participant feedback
Many PD providers are nervous about asking for feedback. What if they hated it? The purpose of getting feedback is not to pass judgment on your facilitation skills—rather, it’s to help you grow those skills and to strengthen the connection between you and your learners. Adult learners particularly value feeling heard, and will be more invested if they feel that they have had some input into their experience. Being asked to share their feedback will give your participants those positive feelings.
Gathering feedback regularly will also provide you with valuable data about what worked well and what you might try differently next time. This is the most direct way to guarantee that each PD you facilitate will be better than the last. Just as even an expert teacher still has something to learn from your PD, you still have something to learn no matter how experienced you are as a facilitator.
We meet physical needs
Many educators are familiar with the concept of Maslow’s pyramid of needs—learners can’t learn when they are distracted by unmet basic needs, such as hunger, thirst, or access to the bathroom. What many of us forget is that this holds just as true for adults as it does for children.
If your participants aren’t sure when they will get a bathroom break, are starting to get hungry, or have been sitting still so long they are getting sore, they’ll be distracted and unable to learn. By taking a few simple steps to make sure your participants’ physical needs are met, you will make learning much easier, and will also demonstrate to your participants that you respect them and their needs.
Bransford, J., Brown, A., Cocking R. R., & National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and school: Expanded Edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Loucks-Horsley, S., Stiles, K. E., Mundry, S., Love, N., & Hewson, P.W. (2010) Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Math and Science. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin.
National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.