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High-Quality PD: Dive into Criteria & Effective Learning Strategies

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” — Robert Frost

Introduction

When I open a workshop with educators, I often begin like this.

"Hi, my name is Gina and I am here today because of bad professional development.”

This usually gets a knowing laugh. I ask educators in the room to raise their hand if they have been in a less-than-stellar PD experience. All the hands go up.

My statement was true.

I began my teaching journey as an eager and unsure 23-year-old. At the time, beginning teachers had to clear their credential through a state-funded program. It was incredibly time-intensive and required a lot of seat hours in professional development.

And to be honest, most of it wasn’t good.

The PDs weren’t speaking to the very real needs of me and my students and the time away from classroom planning and instruction only compounded the issues. In the second summer of my teaching career, I entered the Los Angeles chapter of the National Writing Project. That was REAL learning. This experience changed who I was as an educator. It changed what I believed was possible for teacher learning and set me on what has become my life’s work—bringing high-quality, transformative learning experiences to educators in service of improving outcomes for all students.

Meet the Quality Criteria for Professional Development, a tool designed to optimize PD experiences here at ACP. It is informed by my classroom teaching experience, my doctoral studies, adult learning theory, and decades-long professional experience.

We hope you find it useful for your own design and advocacy for better, more meaningful learning. Because it matters not just for teachers, but the countless students we all serve.

 

Grounded in Constructivist Practices

“One learns from books and example only that certain things can be done. Actual learning requires that you do those things.” — Frank Herbert

Learning that you build is deeper and more meaningful than that which is passively acquired. As such, the Quality Criteria for Professional Learning is firmly rooted in constructivist tools, materials, and models. These might include:

  • Project Based Learning

  • Piaget’s Stages of Development

  • Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

  • Concept mapping

  • Collaborative group work

  • Socratic seminars

  • Learner-centered workshops

  • Anchored instruction

  • And more…

If you are new to this idea or need a refresher, here is a quick definition we use at ACP.

Constructivism: An approach to learning based on the belief that people actively construct or make their own knowledge through various experiences by the learner.

The choice and use of these constructivist tools should always consider the needs of the participants and the time and format of the session.

​Guiding Questions:

  • ​How do these chosen tools align with the specific needs and backgrounds of the participants?

  • How much time is available to learn and experience the practice?

  • How do these constructivist strategies enhance the overall learning experience for participants?

Clear and Significant Goals and Objectives

If you get into your car and open your favorite maps app to get somewhere, you need two things—where you are and where you want to go. The app will give you multiple routes based on needs and preferences, but they all are going to the predetermined location.

When developing a professional learning experience, determine the end location through the development of precise and measurable goals and objectives. These objectives should be mindful of the participants’ needs (their starting location) and be achievable within the allotted time and format of the PD session.

​Guiding Questions:

  • ​What are the learning goals?

  • What is the participants' starting place for learning?

  • Why would these learning goals matter for participants and their students?

  • Do the activities and deliverables align with the learning goals?

  • Are the learning goals appropriate for the format and timing of the session?

Coherent

Professional development should be a coherent experience in these two ways.

  1. Topics should be introduced in a developmentally appropriate sequence.

  2. Topics should connect the PD to existing initiatives, student learning goals, and other relevant areas.

A helpful metaphor is to imagine a teacher’s holistic teaching practice as a home. You, the teacher educator, create coherence by building onto the existing home. There is so much good practice and knowledge teachers already have. Connect to their existing work and create a journey that allows them to learn at a pace that makes implementation possible.

Guiding Questions:

  • ​How does this PD session align with and build upon current initiatives and established practices?

  • In what ways is the sequence and structure of the PD designed to optimize the learning journey for participants?

Job Embedded with Opportunities for Practice

In order for learning to be integrated, it has to be put into action. This means, first and foremost, that PD content should be directly relevant to participants’ roles. Second, effective professional learning gives participants the opportunity to practice what they learned. This happens both within the PD sessions and in their professional settings. Only then can they know where their strengths and gaps in understanding are.

​Guiding Questions:

  • ​How are participants' context and roles reflected in the overall PD design and content?

  • In what ways can participants practice what they’ve learned during and after the PD session?

  • What are the expectations or guidance provided for practice after the PD session?

Modeling

The best way to teach is often to show. PD experiences should model the content or skill being learned, ensuring participants understand the practical application. This is also impactful for another reason—empathizing with students. When participants experience the pedagogy, process, or strategy, they can begin to understand how their students may experience it. In a concrete way, participants can anticipate students’ needs and fine-tune facilitation, differentiation, and scaffolding in response.

​Guiding Questions:

  • Is modeling appropriate for the content or skill?

  • How do the modeled practices enhance understanding?

  • Do participants have the opportunity to connect their experience to student experience?

Collaborative

Learning is often a collective endeavor. PD should offer opportunities for collaborative learning to deepen understanding and foster professional relationships. This has the added benefit of being an important approach to learning in the classroom, too. The more educators can experience this, the better they will know and understand how to facilitate collaboration with and among students and peers.

​Guiding Questions:

  • ​Do participants have the opportunity to learn interdependently?

  • How is effective collaboration taught, modeled, and experienced in service of building professional relationships?

Reflective

John Dewey once wisely said, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection is a critical part of the learning process. In the reflection process, participants should consider the following:

  • What do I know?

  • What do I need to know or not yet understand?

  • What support, people or resources do I need to acquire that learning?

  • What actions do I want or need to take in response to my reflection?

  • How do I feel about my learning and my experience? What information are my feelings giving me?

  • How does what I am learning connect to the classroom, my practice, and/or my students? What are the implications?

Another name for what we are talking about is metacognition—the process of thinking about our thinking. The more participants engage in this process, the more deeply they learn rich, transferable skills that they can use in their everyday practice and with students.

​Guiding Questions:

  • ​What is the participants’ current reflective practice? If they have an existing practice, is it leveraged?

  • Are successes identified and celebrated?

  • Are there opportunities to reflect on past, current, and future implementation?

  • Do participants have the opportunity to reflect from both the practitioner and student perspectives?

Assessment and Feedback Opportunities

I’d like to frame assessment and feedback as a learning opportunity—to learn about one’s self and to be able to communicate that understanding to others. Assessments, whether they be self-assessments, peer feedback, or feedback from the facilitator, they should help participants know and understand their current learning so that they can identify where they want and need to go next. Following an assessment, participants should have the opportunity to create an action plan or set goals based on their learning.

Guiding Questions:

  • ​Do the assessments help participants understand where they are in their learning so that they can identify areas for growth?

  • Are the assessment and feedback opportunities aligned with the session’s learning goals?

  • How is feedback modeled and practiced?

  • What models or quality tools are available and used to align and deepen assessment and feedback

Equitable and Culturally Responsive

Quality professional learning must recognize and value the diverse experiences and perspectives of all participants if it is to lead to transformative change for educators and their students. An equitable, culturally responsive approach fosters a more inclusive learning environment that includes deeper understanding, respect, and collaboration. When educators feel like they are seen and belong, they learn more deeply and feel more supported. This ultimately leads to better outcomes for students.

Guiding Questions

  • ​Have the learning experiences and materials been adjusted to account for contextual variations, as well as the strengths, needs, and identities of the participants and their students?

  • Are high expectations and an asset-based approach used and modeled?

  • Are participants’ voice, agency, and identities honored, incorporated, and represented in the learning experiences and materials?

  • Are the materials and resources accessible to all participants regardless of ability, language, and/or identity?

Translating Workshop Strategies to the Classroom We know that moving from a PD to classroom implementation is not as easy as 1+1=2. And we are all about helping educators make changes as quickly and easily as possible.

In this final section, we’d like to give you a peek into our toy box—the set of our most frequently used PD strategies—that also transfers directly to the classroom. We have reimagined and repackaged for immediate classroom application. In short, use them where you like! Each one is located on our Resources & Shop page.


Image of lightbulb, paper, target, bar graph

Learning Strategies:


These classroom-centric strategies ensure that the momentum and insights gained during PD sessions don't just stay in the workshop but find their way into the heart of where they matter most: your classroom.

 

Conclusion Thanks for taking the time to learn about the Quality Criteria for Professional Development. We offer these criteria in the hopes that they will make life a little easier, a little more possible, and your efforts more impactful for learners. Let us know how it goes!

Your partners in learning,

Gina and the ACP team


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