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The Great Heist in Teacher Professional Development

Years ago I had an opportunity to work with a colleague from New Zealand who accused me of doing something dangerous in the professional development that I was providing for teachers. This accusation came as he reviewed a series of PowerPoint slides that I had drafted to help teachers understand how two different ideas related to each other and how they would impact teacher practice. We worked for hours, rearranging slides and debating the best way to help teachers understand the material. And then my colleague suggested to me that maybe I need not have the answers all figured out. In fact, “by doing so,” he told me, “you’re stealing the learning. That is a terrible thing to do to your participants.” He suggested that maybe having “the answers” figured out and the American PD model of presenting neatly packaged PD to teachers was doing them a disservice. He intimated, ever so gently, that maybe I was ‘dumbing down’ the professional development with my a priori outcomes, carefully timed agenda, and sequential slides (of course with relevant clip art). Maybe, like other well-intentioned professional development providers, I was complicit in a great heist that robs teachers of meaningful engagement in their own professional learning.

That simple phrase –‘stealing the learning’ – lays bare some of the assumptions that have long influenced the design and delivery of professional development for teachers. A growing body of research about adult learners has led to some marginal improvements for how PD is delivered, but we can certainly get better. Teachers are not necessarily intellectually challenged simply because a PD experience is ‘hands on’ or allows for ‘processing time.’ Certainly those are important when considering what is well known about adult learners, but they don’t lead to the kind of learning that transforms understanding and practice (Mezirow, 1991; Cranton, 2006; Knowles et al, 2012).

What would PD look like if it were really driven by the assumption that teachers are capable intellectuals who need time to grapple with difficult ideas, to toil over challenging dilemmas? What if professional development for teachers gave teachers the opportunity to do all the things we want students in a classroom to do:

  • Explore meaningful ideas or content and construct new meaning;

  • Push the boundaries of their comfort zone;

  • Learn to engage in crucial conversations and informed dissent;

  • Experience the hard, messy, non-linear work of learning?

The time seems right to explore these ideas, given the new ESSA guidelines which clearly indicate that high-quality professional development is “…sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.” The guidelines plainly state that PD will advance teacher understanding and acknowledge that “professional development should be an ongoing process that is seamlessly woven into a teacher’s experience throughout the year.”

Creating the Conditions

Let us all make a commitment to not steal the learning; a commitment to seamless Professional Development that offers teachers opportunities to interact as highly capable and skilled thinkers. Such innovative models of Professional Development require rethinking the purpose of PD, the products of PD and the planning or structure of PD.

The Purpose of PD

There are different kinds of knowledge, and teachers require a variety of experiences for growing different types of knowledge. There are technical and practical aspects of teaching that require a certain type of technical assistance and PD experiences. And there are the social and political aspects of teaching which require a more critical or emancipatory approach to teacher professional development (Habermas, cited in Terry, 1997). Professional Development opportunities should be varied and aligned with the type of knowledge that is being ‘developed.’ While there may be multiple routes, the ultimate purpose of the journey is to improve outcomes for students.

The Products of PD

Adult learners like to see the result or the impact of their effort, but it’s sometimes difficult to ‘see’ the immediate outcome of a new understanding or a challenged assumption. Professional development that doesn’t yield a ‘product’ or outcome may be incredibly frustrating for some teachers. PD providers have been somewhat conditioned to think that high-quality PD (and I’m certainly guilty of this) requires flip charts, markers, gallery walks and powerpoint slide handouts. The challenge lies in creating structures to support deep transformative learning that leads to improved practice over time. The long term and ultimate result—improved outcomes for students—is not easily measured and certainly not measured in a short amount of time (Guskey, 2002).

The Planning of PD

“…the most critical element in professional development lies in the design.” (Fogarty and Pete, 2007, ix)

Even in the most organic of learning opportunities there needs to be some purposeful planning. Maybe it need not be highly structured, but it does need to be thoughtful and deliberate, coupling what we know about adult learners with the availability of resources, collaborators, and the precious commodity of time. Promising models of PD, such as Professional Learning Communities, Instructional Rounds, Edcamp, and Coaching Relationships, have emerged that provide teachers with opportunities to engage in cycles of learning, job-embedded practice, and reflection that support sustained, improved practice.

Each of these models build relationships among educators and places them at the center of the learning, factors that have been shown to improve outcomes for students. One of the strongest and most consistent findings on professional development is that in schools where teachers formed active professional learning communities, student absenteeism and drop-out rates were reduced and achievement increased significantly. (see T Kelsh blog Jan 2017).

Almost 20 years ago, Linda Darling Hammond (1999) and others called for a new model of Professional Development, one where teachers would become serious learners in and around their practice. Referencing the work of Ball and Cohen (1999), Darling Hammond wrote,

“Acquiring this sophisticated knowledge and developing a practice that is different from what teachers themselves experienced as students requires learning opportunities for teachers that are more powerful than simply reading and talking about new pedagogical ideas” (Ball and Cohen, 1999).

It’s taken two decades, but we’re starting to see some of those opportunities take shape. And while there is still plenty of room to improve professional development for teachers, we see that teachers will rise to the occasion as capable handlers of their own professional learning, if we first stop stealing their opportunities to do so.


For more information about ESSA guidelines visit:


Citations and References

Ball, D.L and Cohen, D (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a

practice based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes and L. Darling Hammond (Eds). Teaching as a learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice. (p 3-32). SanFrancisco: Jossey Bass.

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Darling Hammond, L. (1999, May). Teacher Learning That Supports Student Learning: What Teachers Need to Know. Retrieved from

Fogarty, R. and Pete, B. (2007). From staff room to classroom. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Guskey, T. (2002). Does it make a difference? Evaluating professional development. Educational Leadership, 59 (6) pp 45-51.

Knowles, M. Holton, E, and Swanson, R. (2012). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-


Sparks, D. (1997). A new vision for staff development. Alexandria, VA: Association for

Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Stahl, L. D. (2012). Transformative professional development through the eyes of Jack Mezirow and Thomas Guskey. Doctoral dissertation retrieved from

Tate, M. (2004). Sit and git won’t grow dendrites. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Terry, P. (1997). Habermas and education: knowledge, communication, discourse. Curriculum Studies, 5:3, 269-279.


Diana Straut, Ph.D. is a Senior Staff Developer for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated.

Please learn more about our program evaluation and professional development services at this website.

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