3 Things We Should Stop Doing in Professional Development

Spending the last week in Oslo, Norway, with the visionary Ann Michaelsen and other school leaders here, I have really thought about the way that we deliver professional development, and to be honest, some of the practices that either don’t make sense anymore, or we have to rethink.  Although this is focused mainly on what we do as adults in our time together, many of these lessons have applications to the classroom.

1.  Creating a detailed agenda – As much as I understand that people want to have an idea of where a day is going, too often we focus too much on when we are having lunch, as opposed to getting to know participants and understanding where they are at in their learning.  If we are truly to honour the learners in front of us, how can I know where they are going to be at 1pm if I haven’t even met them yet?  Listing objectives for the day is one thing, but saying when they will be achieved throughout the day is another.  If we are going to differentiate our workshops, let’s quit focusing on a time, and focus more on a person.

2.  Scheduling back-to-back-to-back-to-back learning – How many times have you been really interested in two sessions at a conference and found yourself running across a large convention hall to make it from one session to another?  With so many people connecting through social media now, the hallway is becoming as valuable a learning space as any large room; some would say more so.  The opportunity to connect and talk face-to-face is invaluable, and I believe that this has to be embedded into our days.  I was shocked a few years ago when I delivered a workshop to a group of Australians and they wanted a full 30 minutes for a break, as we were used to usually having a quick coffee and jumping right back into the learning.  They had it right, and if anything, that time could be a little longer.  A conversation with a colleague about the information presented helps to bring any knowledge shared into context within an organization.  Let’s make sure we build time in for that.

3. Thinking that “collaboration” with others is the only way we learn – It is great when we are in a room with so many colleagues that bring a lot of learning to the table.  Often the drill seems to go, someone shares information, talk with others, rinse, and repeat.  Why do we not create a time for people to sit and reflect.  Not necessarily create something, but actually write a reflection.  I have been doing this in workshops for awhile, and to be honest, a lot of educators seem to feel uncomfortable with that process, yet feel fine writing notes of everything a presenter says.  How much do we learn when we “copy and paste” our learning like that.  My belief is that until we get a chance to process and make connections, we don’t really learn that much. In one ear and out the other.  If we start building reflection time into our professional development, don’t you think that we would start doing this in our classrooms.  We have to move away from the “mass dump” process in our learning.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
― John Dewey

We constantly talk about changing practices in the classroom, but until we rethink and redo the way that we learn, nothing will change in the classrooms.

What would you do different?

P.S. If you want to talk to someone who is, in my estimation, an expert on the topic of professional learning, connect with Cale Birk.  He knows this area inside-out.



  1. Hi George, I couldn’t agree more with you on your point about creating spaces for unstructured conversations during conferences. As a participant, a) I find it really annoying to miss one session for another equally interesting one from the crammed parallel sessions and b) just as you begin an interesting conversation with another participant over a coffee break, you are huddled back into the sessions. Makes you rethink the meaning of ‘confer’!
    Ditto about reflection – we tend to forget that participants need the time and space to internalise and make sense of the input they have received. I am currently working on a school leadership programme in India and all groups, during their feedback, mention the value of the reflection time they are provided in between sessions and as circle time at the end of the day.

  2. I would be a bit careful on this topic. The notion of “professional development” is so broad that it’s difficult to get too specific with guidelines and principles. There are things labelled as PD that I would argue is more about training. In this instances, direct instruction and practice might be fine with little reflection required. There are other instances due to time, space and size that don’t warrant certain things.

    I don’t disagree with the ideas here, I just think as you talk about PD, people have very different circumstances and often those circumstances dictate our approach.

    • They certainly do. The main limiting factor in my opinion is money. The more release time I have the more opportunities for collaboration amongst our teachers. I am not sure you would call this PD or embedded collaboration, but i know it is very effective.

  3. George, thanks for the Twitter follow on Ann Michaelsen. One of the reasons that I love the IntegratEd conferences in Portland and San Francisco, is they allow time between sessions and don’t schedule back to back, as you mention in point #2. I have made some great connections at those two conferences for that fact alone. You can take the time and reflect on what was just presented, and discuss ideas with other great educators.

  4. Thanks George – important article. We have been trying to redo PD for three years now in a triad of three schools. I would really like someone to come and examine our model to see if it is effective as I think it is. The teachers are in control of the PD and the level of inquiry and collaboration is very high. I am trying to put together a series of blog posts on their latest set of inquiries. Terrific topic that needs to be addressed at the district-wide level.

  5. I’m always surprised by how many teachers say, “I’m not good at writing, ” or “I have always hated writing, so I don’t like teaching it either.” Even when teachers know that no one else is going to read their writing, they are reluctant to start. That is one obstacle to overcome before we can even expect them to write reflections. I never thought of myself as a good writer, but I loved teaching writing to my second-graders. I also noticed that the more I wrote with them, the better I felt about my own writing. It’s like anything else in life, if you want to get better at it, you have to practice.

    I agree with you on the importance of reflecting upon your learning. I am one of those front-row sitters who love learning at conferences/workshops/break-out sessions, but all too often I I take great notes and then never look at them again. If I don’t process the information I learned in someway, then I’m probably not going to implement anything I learned in that session (at least, not much).

    Great post with lots to remember as I proclaim the importance of differentiated pd.

  6. As I’m constantly revisiting my own PD, this article is spot on…I am going to be mindful of these changes I will make and thus my participants will grow in their learning!
    Thank you for this thoughtful article…you have made a difference in my delivery!

  7. I will certainly remember this in the workshops I’m doing from now on. I enjoyed reading the reflections from my colleagues that was very useful. And it makes sense to figure out which level they are at before making a rigid schedule. It gives you time to treat those attending according to the level they are at. Turns out they need a lot of time to discuss, reflect and practice. Probably why I enjoy our block scheduling as much as I do! Thank you for the mention here!

  8. Thanks for the post George! I do have one question you might be able to help me out with. During unstructured time when teachers are to connect, perhaps during the time between events, how do you keep them from simply going back to their classrooms to work on grading or the whatnot. This is a problem at my school. “Free” time is considered a waste of time, especially when a deadline or two is fast approaching. I’d be interested in reading your thoughts. Thanks!

  9. There is a group if teachers in the states who I think are in to a good thing with the PD idea they have developed. They call it Nerd Camp (it is started by a group who started the Nerdy Book club…..one of the best book blogs out there, in my opinion)

  10. I’d oppose Dewey and say, that reflecting on experience needs experience and reflexion is experience. And making connections are the strongest learning-experiences one can have.

  11. Well, the first two cover the ways that EdCamps are done..which are al the rage..sigh

  12. Interesting post as always. We hosted a “Market Day” today as a form of PD for staff that also encouraged conversation. Our school caters for 14 year levels, so it was also a great opportunity for cross discipline, cross sub-school chats. (We are just about to start our school year – students begin on Tuesday). In addition to face to face connections, we encouraged staff to use Twitter and the hashtag #SPSWeek0 to engage. Reflections about WWW and EBI tomorrow. Formal sit down and listen was less than 30 mins.

  13. Thanks George an excellent post, I really like the idea of reflecting rather than always discussing in groups. That is an idea I am going to try myself. I see that as a great way for them to instantly start applying some of their learning to their present situation, to often I find I finish a day, everybody feels great then its all forgotten very quickly so by the time I see the group again its almost like starting over. Thanks

  14. Great post George. In response to #3, I wonder if offering or suggesting more options than just ‘writing’ may encourage greater uptake less negativity towards the process. Perhaps things like mind/concept mapping, sharing thoughts on social media – storify?

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