Why Professional Development Sessions Must Include Real Experiences

This year, nearly every teacher in America will experience hours and hours of prepared, often mandatory professional development sessions.  The range will be huge—from useful to not very, from inspiring to practical, to grating or sleep inducing.  Many teacher leaders are moving into roles that require them to lead professional development workshops for teachers.  There is so much potential to spread expertise around our profession, but how do you create a great PD session?

I’ve been on both sides of PD, as a learner/receiver and a facilitator/presenter.  This past year, with the publication of my book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class, I’ve had many more opportunities to design and lead PD workshops than ever before. I’ve been able to try out a variety of formats for “delivering” similar content, and I’ve come to a striking conclusion about what works.  [My conclusion is simple and won’t surprise most practicing K-12 teachers; yet it’s not as common as one would expect.]

Experience Is the Best Teacher.

Yes, we’ve technically known this since the days of Dewey, and humanity has been conscious of this truth since ancient times.  Somehow, though, despite my own voracity for experiential learning, I was surprised to discover (through experience, hehe) how valuable “learning by doing” is for adults. As a leader of workshops, I’ve learned this the hard way!

Last year I visited a school, where a humanities department had read sections of Whole Novels for the Whole Class, and where many teachers were already trying out the method. They were a motivated crowd, they had prior knowledge, and the department, not an administrator, had invited me to come.  These should have been ideal conditions for me to provide a compelling “professional development” session.  The department had requested that I give a brief presentation and then take questions.  I only had about an hour, so this seemed a reasonable plan.

The visit wasn’t bad. I proceeded according to plans with some nice-looking slides to accompany the presentation. The questions teachers asked were great, and I did my best to answer them. But I walked away feeling like I hadn’t made much of an impact. I didn’t feel that I’d excited teachers more than they already were, and I doubted that I had won over any critics.  I had presented some ideas that most of the participants were already familiar with and then had a series of short conversations with individuals, while the rest listened. Even if the team was happy with the outcome, I was not.  In my own estimation, I hadn’t quite been worth their Thursday afternoon.

Since then, I’ve made sure every time I present to teachers in a PD context, whether it’s a full day or a 30 minute session, I include real experiences that teachers can enter into intellectually, discuss with one another, reflect upon, and think critically about how to apply in the context of their own teaching.  The feedback and results have been an invigorating 180 degrees from that afternoon.  I leave knowing that everyone walks away with something new to think about in their teaching or to try in their classrooms.

A Few Tips For Making the Experience Work For Adults.

(1) Model practices through the workshop that work with students, but don’t make adults pretend to be kids. Treat adults as adults and give them content they can really wrestle with intellectually and/or creatively in order for the experience to be impactful.

For example, if I select a work of children’s literature to use in a PD, I make sure it has enough complexity and literary merit and so there is plenty for adults to discuss. I’ve also selected pieces that are written for adults and done activities with these materials just as I’d do them with students. The text is adjusted so that adults will have an experience and a challenge that is comparable to that of students. I want participants to really think and engage intellectually, because that is what I want students to have the opportunity to do, rather than practice jumping easily to obvious answers.

(2) Balance the experiential elements with time for adult reflection, both in discussion as a group and independently. Following an academic experience, I ask participants what it was like for them, what they noticed about how I led it, what questions they have. I don’t tell them what they should have gotten out of the experience, but I do share some of the ways my students have responded to similar activities or ways I’ve adapted and extended the work.  I like to bring the focus in and out of the “activity,” which serves as an analogy for classroom teaching, and time to talk as professional teachers about what we notice, think, and how we might apply the method in various teaching contexts.

(3) As a facilitator, be up front about who you are and what you do, where your expertise lies, and where it doesn’t.  It’s best, for the sake of credibility, trust and relevance, if you have substantial experience leading students (or teachers, if that’s the case) in the practices you’re presenting.  I’ll note to participants when I’ve adapted a practice slightly for this audience, saying something like, “With students I would let this discussion go on longer, pushing for more rereading of text, but for the sake of time today, we’ll stop here.”  I’ll also note where my experience is limited and draw from participants to fill in gaps: “This text is great with adolescents—what texts might you use in this activity with younger readers?”

The bottom line for me is that no matter how knowledgeable I may be on my content, and no matter how mature and eager my audience is, knowledge and understanding are gained through experience, no matter the age.  Leading any age group in high quality experiential learning is complex, but the results are worth the effort. Teachers, of all people, deserve that quality when we attend workshops, don’t we?