Innovative Teaching Requires Innovative PD: 5 Solutions

If school and district leaders want teachers to take risks and innovate in their classrooms, then those leaders must take similar risks when designing professional development.  Modeling is not overrated.

Let me repeat that: Modeling is NOT overrated.

What follows is the If...Then of professional learning. If school leaders want teachers to be innovative, then they have to offer experiences that inspire innovation. Here are ideas that have worked, with concrete examples.

IF we want teachers to try new tech tools and instructional practices, THEN give teachers a chance to try them out in context. Not as a special training.

Teachers have grown tired of trainings that are focused on the latest app or shiny new tech tool.  When one-to-one and bring your own device programs were first rolled out several years ago, many professional learning opportunities were modeled this way. Without putting teaching practices or learning goals first in professional development, apps and tech tools are like that pile of brand new toys a week after Christmas: They get left behind and teachers return to old habits.

Instead, the teaching and learning that these technology tools help promote should be modeled within professional development. For example, my colleagues Julie Cremin, Elizabeth Solomon and I facilitated professional learning on digital citizenship last summer. To kick off our time together, we asked teachers to watch some short video clips, read excerpts from websites and articles, and then they used Socrative, a digital formative assessment tool, to share their thoughts and vote on their colleagues' responses.

What followed was not surprising. Over the course of this school year, teachers from all grade levels and departments have approached us to learn more about Socrative and have been using it regularly in their classes. Even teachers who could not attend that summer training have heard about how Socrative can help them track student learning and even give quick quizzes without increasing their correcting load. Formative assessment has become such a regular practice in some classrooms that it was featured in the school's biannual magazine recently.

The professional learning teachers experienced was not about a tool. Instead the tool and teaching practice were embedded into professional learning so teachers could experience them from the student perspective. This is how new tools and practices can gain real traction.

IF we want teachers to collaborate and co-plan more, THEN give them time and space to talk about the topics they care about with an EdCamp.

School day scheduling often limits teachers' abilities to co-plan and collaborate. Weekly department or team meetings do not provide enough time to develop an idea, create a plan, and carry it out together. If school leaders utilize professional learning time to help facilitate these conversations and collaborations, teachers are more likely to actually follow through.

I recently participated in two Edcamps–one in Boston and the other at Stanford University–and had the opportunity to learn with and from Hadley Ferguson, Executive Director of the EdCamp Foundation, at both. At Edcamp Boston the enthusiastic participants jumped right in. Most of them were classroom teachers and were hungry for the opportunity to share ideas and have conversations with their colleagues from around the state. At Edcamp Redbird the participants were mostly district leaders and the majority had never experienced the Edcamp model before. This crowd was more hesitant and had a lot of questions. Hadley gracefully encouraged them to jump in and give it a shot with open minds. Even though the Edcamp was the second half of a packed day, the energy was electric.

My colleagues in Massachusetts, Henry Turner and Lisa Morrison, have successfully implemented an Edcamp style professional learning experience with their teachers at Bedford High School. The vast majority of their teachers had never been to an Edcamp before, but it still worked in their school. They presented about it at MassCUE, our state conference, and have lots of resources to share.

In all cases, the educators–both administrators and classroom teachers–experienced the professional discourse they craved and left with ideas to run with. It can be done, even with an inexperienced faculty. Just take the leap.

IF we want teachers to contribute to a positive school culture, THEN publicly praise both individuals and groups when they do teaching and learning well.

There are easy ways to promote positivity by highlighting the great work among teachers. At Reading Memorial High School, where I worked as a history teacher, we gave "kudos" to our colleagues at the last faculty meeting of the year. This meant we lifted up and brought attention to the little-known but impressive work of our fellow teachers and symbolically gave them a Kudos granola bar as well. It was super cheesy, but was also usually one of my favorite moments with my colleagues. I often wished we did it every faculty meeting, not just once a year.

In a post I wrote for Corwin-Connect I talked about two easy-to-implement strategies for school and district leaders:

  • Instant posts of photos snapped in classrooms on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to highlight what is happening in classrooms.
  • More detailed posts that are planned/storyboarded/edited on podcasts, blogposts, or newsletters.

Whether it done within a school or publicly on social media, teachers do not expect to get praise for the day-to-day. When they do it is special, and it motivates them to make every day special. They will feel uplifted and will be more likely to lift others–their students and colleagues–up.

IF we want teachers to give students more hands-on learning experiences, THEN we need to give them more hands-on learning experiences.

My friend Kyle Pace calls it "sandbox time" and I think that is a brilliant name. Kyle explains:

What is “sandbox time”? Simply put, it’s giving the group time to play. Time to explore, talk, and get comfortable. Time to discover and create new ideas.

In our co-authored post for EdSurge, Five Ways to Create More Teacher Rockstars in Your School, we talk about the value of hands-on time. Teachers crave time to talk, tinker, and plan. When planning professional development, use the 80-20 rule: 80% of time dedicated to hands-on time, 20% of time dedicated to the welcome, intro, and wrap-up. The bulk of learning happens when we are processing, communicating, and applying knowledge. Very little happens during "sit and get" experiences.

Make sandbox time a priority.

IF we want teachers to stay up to date with how their students think and communicate, THEN open the door to student-led PD.

The latest evidence that student-led professional development is necessary is the burgeoning presence of Snapchat on the education scene. None of us are sure what role Snapchat will play, but it has incredible potential and the majority of our adolescent and teen students are active users. Patrick Larkin, Jenn Scheffer, and their students at Burlington High School are leading the way with the BPS Snapchat account. U.S. News and World Report has discussed example cases of successful uses in schools. Spreading news through Snapchat isn't limited to the K-12 scene. Colleges are dipping their toes in as well. In all cases, the reasons there is traction is because of the input from students.

There is a reason the student innovation course, pioneered by notable educators like Andrew Marcinek and Don Wettrick, are gaining traction all over the country. Through these models, students are able to articulate to their teachers, parents, and peers about how they like to learn. Many schools have gone a step further and have offered student-led professional learning. Check out examples here, here, and here.

Educators are undoubtedly content and instructional experts, but our students are the experts on what videos, apps, and ideas are capturing their attention. If we can leverage that information to hook them into their academics, why wouldn't we?


Each of these solutions requires school leaders and district facilitators to take risks with precious professional learning time. Remember that teachers are asked to take risks with precious class time throughout their careers. The best approach is to be up front. Tell teachers that this is an experiment based on research and examples from other schools. Tell them that open minds can lead everyone in the right direction and that everyone involved will be reflecting on the process at the end. Teachers are accustomed to asking their students to take similar leaps to faith. It will be familiar territory.

If we are asking teachers to be innovative in their classrooms, we need to help them experience these models themselves. These five solutions are a start.


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