A PD Makeover for the Digital Age

Professional PD, Content Area PD & Digital Age Best Practices

We’ve been dealing quite a bit with professional development this quarter in Digital Education Leadership and several of our prompts have focused on how we deal with adult learners. In last week’s post, I railed against the lack of respect that is often shown to teachers in PD. Respect, of course, is one of the chief characteristics of adult education according to Malcolm Knowles – and is typically found in most good teaching. This week we’re looking at implementing “technology-rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in learning and assessment” (ISTE). I wondered what role, if any, content played in this and how it might relate to digital age best practices as well as the professional nature of the learning programs.

To start with the last part of my question, professionalism, I thought back to one of our optional readings for the module relating to restructuring professional development. Mike Schmoker writing in EdWeek criticized much PD out there for its lack of professionalism, “The explanation [for ineffective PD] might be found in a study of professional development conducted by researches Thomas B. Corcoran, Susan H. Fuhrman, and Catherine Belcher years ago, which found that the very people who led and conducted professional development ‘were not members of an evidence-based culture,’ but one in which ‘whims, fads, opportunism, and ideology’ prevailed. ‘Empirical research,’ they reported, ‘had little do do with the professional-development offerings’ provided for teachers. This has to change.” (Schmoker). Schmoker’s lament centers around schools’ lack of serious academic research to drive PD. The report he cites claims that much of the PD schools brought in chased after trends or ideologically-driven agendas rather than what actually worked. This can be devastating for PD as it not only wastes time and resources with unsound practice, but it also demoralizes teachers who are, more likely than not, aware that they’re wasting their time and energy chasing a trend or grinding someone’s ideological ax. Professional development MUST be professional.

Putting the “Professional” in “Professional Development”

Transforming Professional Learning


To help increase the professionalization of their PD, Washington State, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, launched the Transforming Professional Learning project (WA-TPL) with a goal of “enhancing capacity for standards-based professional learning.” Another key goal of the program was to “deepen their [school leaders] knowledge and skills around effective professional learning.” So a great deal of this project was centered around “professional learning.” To help with this, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State (OSPI), partnered with Learning Forward Washington to establish standards of professional learning (see clip below). The project as a whole was to develop “sustainable approaches to professional learning.”

In the ensuing project evaluation by Bishop, Lumpe, Henrickson, and Crane (2016), content came forward as a necessary component of effective professional learning:

The CPDS survey [Characteristics of Professional Development Survey] includes a factor called Content that relates to teacher discipline-based content knowledge and how students learn content. It contains items asking teachers if, as a result of professional learning, they:

  1. Gained a deeper understanding of content
  2. Increased their confidence to teach content
  3. Learned how to address student misconceptions
  4. Developed pedagogical strategies to teach content.

The baseline and end of project means for Content were 3.3 and 3.58 respectively on a scale of 1-5 indicating a small but significant increase in average perceptions of participants’ professional learning experiences that increase Content Knowledge.” (Bishop, Lumpe, Henrickson, & Crane)

So content matters in professional development. But what role does it play with regard to what teachers do in the classroom?  Again, Bishop and company provide perspective:

“A teacher’s knowledge of discipline specific content and their theoretical as well as practical knowledge of effective instructional practice provide the practical foundation for the effective application of this knowledge in the skillful planning and implementation of instructional practices.” (Bishop, et al. )

Thus it is content, along with pedagogical instruction that forms the “foundation” for effective teacher instruction.  This can also be seen in the report’s recommendations. Two of the report’s recommendations for future PD relate to content:

“16. Professional learning activities should directly be linked to teachers’ content knowledge and be supported as they teach that content to students.”

“18. Professional learning focused on content knowledge and classroom application should be emphasized in order to maximize impact on student learning, classroom climate, and cognitive levels.”

The Washington State OSPI’s project on professionalization in PD and the follow-up report, conclude that content must play a key role in PD – a role which we really haven’t talked about very much in our program. Of course, our program is about digital education, so the next question lies in how we incorporate those digital best practices along with content in our PD.

Putting the “Digital” in “Digital Best Practices for Professional Development”

Now that we’ve looked at professionalism AND content, let’s see how the two relate to the digital environment.  My main resource for this post is Tanya Roscorla’s 2014 post for the Center For  Digital Education.  In “5 Steps to a Digital Professional Development Makeover” Roscorla makes a point to include content. “While it’s easy to focus an entire formal training session on a cool technology tool,” she writes, “it’s more important to put an academic content area at the center of professional development efforts. Then staff members can demonstrate how technology tools can help educators reach academic content goals.” So when dealing with technology in PD, Roscorla says we should emphasize the content and use the technology as way to facilitate the learning within the content area. It’s not a case of “here’s a cool tech tool for you to use,” it’s more of “here’s some cool content, now let’s see how technology can help us get that across to our students.” This approach fits nicely with Roscorla’s other suggestions for making-over PD:

  1. Create a sustainable professional development plan
  2. Provide informal learning opportunities with the help of technology
  3. Design professional development around an academic content area
  4. Combine traditional, blended and virtual learning experiences
  5. Train the academic content trainers how to model technology use (Roscorla)

Most of these suggestions contain elements of digital age best practices. Having a programmatic approach to the PD, working with PLC’s facilitated by technology, blended learning environments, and coaching are all part of it. What I found most compelling, however, was the content piece. It’s a piece we tend to overlook – at our own peril – in our excitement to use technology.

Teachers usually get into teaching for one of two reasons: the kids or the content (well, maybe it’s the 3 months off in the summer, but I’m not talking about that group here). For many secondary teachers like myself, it was the latter. I’ve certainly become more attune to the student-centered part of teaching in recent years, and I’m confident it has made me a better teacher, but it’s hard to forget one’s first love. As teachers we are professionals – not only in how we interact with our students, parents, and administrators, but also in what we understand about our chosen field of study.  Dealing with content in PD is important. It’s part of good professional development and can go hand-in-hand with digital education if done properly…and there lies the challenge for all of us.


Bishop, D., Lumpe, A., Henrikson, R., & Crane, C. (2016). “Transforming Professional Learning in Washington State –
Project Evaluation Report.”  Seattle Pacific University: Seattle, WA Retrieved from: http://www.k12.wa.us/CurriculumInstruct/WA-TPL/pubdocs/2016-WA-TPL-Evaluation-Report.pdf

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Knowles, Malcolm. “Characteristics of Adult Learners.” Retrieved from: http://www.txprofdev.org/apps/onlineteaching/time/Adult_Learners.pdf

Roscorla, Tanya (August 12, 2014). “5 Steps to a Digital Professional Development Makeover.” Converge: Center for Digital Education. Retrieved from http://www.centerdigitaled.com/news/5-Steps-to-a-Digital-Professional-Development-Makeover.html

Schmoker, Mike (October 20, 2015). “It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development.” Education Week. Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/10/21/its-time-to-restructure-teacher-professional-development.html?qs=its+time+to+restructure+professional+development