Four Common Elements of High Quality Professional Development

Guest blog post by Jaime LaForgia, Director of Professional Development Content, Discovery Education

Recently, I had the opportunity to re-read a blogpost published here last year by my friend and colleague Marty Creel, Discovery Education’s Chief Academic Office. In Marty’s insightful piece, he quite rightly asserts that High Quality Digital Content (HQDC) can greatly improve equity in schools across the country. By helping students develop their vocabulary, by engaging learners at all levels in complex critical thinking, and through its ability to help students overcome many of the barriers that exist in our educational system, HQDC has been a disruptive game-changer for teaching and learning.

Marty and I agree wholeheartedly in the power of HQDC to improve equity, and ultimately, the academic success of all students. Equally important is the fact that we also agree that sustained, job-embedded professional development is the primary catalyst needed to truly realize the potential HQDC has in transforming classroom instruction.

In my 10 years of experience providing educators sustained, job-embedded professional development both in Pennsylvania’s public school system and with Discovery Education, I have often seen school administrators fall into the trap of putting new resources into the hands of teachers and students and waiting for the magic to happen.

However, in my current role as a Director of Professional Development Content at Discovery Education, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with many district leaders across the country who are taking steps to ensure their district’s educators are integrating HQDC into classroom instruction in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of students. These district leaders believe timely and relevant professional learning is a non-negotiable element of implementing HQDC in their schools. Their laser-like focus on providing teachers with best-in-class learning opportunities helps develop active learners who engage with digital content in purposeful ways and supports the development of the skills today’s students need for success beyond the classroom.  Here are four common elements in these school leaders’ approach to professional development:       

  • Balance – One common trait among school leaders providing the necessary professional development support to teachers using HQDC is that the professional learning they seek for their teachers includes an intricate balance of theory, individual processing time, and hands-on application. Theory enables teachers to understand the compelling “why” behind new approaches and strategies utilized in the professional development. Just as our students need to understand what they are learning and why it is important, so too do adult learners. Sometimes educational theory can be daunting, so it’s essential that the professional development presents it in a way that is easily digestible and accessible for teachers. Thus, teachers need time to process new information.  Best-in-class professional development provides strategic moments in time when teachers can pause, reflect, and record key learnings and ideas.  The last part of this cycle includes time for hands-on practice. Progressive school leaders understand that if teachers are asked to use HQDC routinely in their classrooms, they need to do it first in a safe place in which they are free to make mistakes. Adult learners need time to dabble, practice, and refine new skills; high quality professional development provides the time and space to do so under the careful guidance of a skilled facilitator.
  • Modeled Use of HQDC – Savvy school leaders understand that effective professional development does not rely on theory alone.  Instead, they know that while theory helps set the purpose for learning, high-quality professional development should include multiple “immersive experiences” during which teachers can think like their students but reflect as the adult learners they are. In other words, teachers need to experience what effective instruction that combines technology, HQDC, and proven pedagogy looks like, feels like, and sounds like in a classroom. These immersive experiences should be accessible and feasible for teachers and should immediately translate theory into practice. Today’s school administrators seeking to make the digital transition want their teachers who are participating in professional development to walk away from those experiences with several strategies they can implement with their students without delay.
  • Immersive Professional Development with Time to Process– According to one school superintendent I recently worked with, “If we want teachers to get excited about the intersection of their current practice and the purposeful integration of HQDC and technology, the supporting professional development has to completely engage them.”  In the design process at Discovery Education, we aim to create immersive professional development experiences that gives teachers time to process their learning. This means we infuse equal measures of direct instruction, peer-to-peer discourse, self-directed learning, and more into our professional development. In addition, we ensure adult learners have multiple opportunities to physically move about the session, engaging in the content, relevant research, and their best resource – each other. Holistically, the creation of such an environment allows participants to stay engaged the entire time without being overwhelmed.
  • Job-Embedded Support – Finally, the school leaders I have worked with understand that traditional workshop-style professional development, regardless of how well designed it is, is not a silver bullet. School administrators know that in order for teachers to use new skills and strategies, they need a coach to provide ongoing support as they combine HQDC, technology and 21st century pedagogies. Through job-embedded support, a coach can take on many roles for the teachers they serve – thought-partner, confidant, cheerleader, and guide. Regardless of the capacity in which the coach works with teachers, this type of support is a critical aspect of empowering educators to continue refining their use of dynamic digital resources. Simply put, effective implementation of HQDC must be accompanied by job-embedded support in a teacher’s own classroom with his own students, under their own circumstances.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education released Future Ready Learning, a plan for reimagining technology in our schools. Within that document was a call to action that challenged our notion of the “digital divide” and asked us to instead consider what the plan coins the “digital use divide.” While education publishers are working hard to provide teachers everywhere with the digital resources educators need to engage today’s students, we must not lose sight of the power of professional development that enables those resources to come alive in the classroom. 

“I urge my colleagues across the publishing industry to be mindful of the professional development they create for the educators they serve. Including the four elements of effective PD identified above is pivotal if we truly want to close the “digital use divide.”

Jaime LaForgia is Discovery Education’s Director of Professional Development Content.  An innovator in professional learning for teachers nationally, Jaime has over 15 years of educational experience as a high school English teacher, instructional coach, professional development specialist, and curriculum leader.  With her extensive knowledge of the Common Core Standards, curriculum, and instruction, Jaime supported her school district in their transition toward more complex instruction and redefined professional development through creative and timely approaches to professional learning.  In her current role, she excels in collaboration with Discovery Education’s many partners and brings their vision to life by building customized professional learning experiences for their teachers and administrators.

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