This year I’ve had the opportunity to experience or learn about a range of different professional development (i.e. for in-service teachers) initiatives in various ELT contexts worldwide. If I attempt to categorize the different approaches to professional development I have encountered this is what I get:
- Input-based training programmes distributed over time – e.g. 10 hours of sessions a week for 12 weeks.
- Two-phase programmes – i.e. an initial input-based phase (as 1 above) followed by a school-based phase (where teachers apply learning from the first phase).
- As 2 above, except that input and school-based phases alternate over a period of time rather than having all the input before the school-based work.
- Cascade models – i.e. an initial phase where ‘master trainers’ are trained (by a trainer trainer), and these master trainers subsequently go back to their contexts and train further groups of teachers (from among whom new master trainers may be identified).
- A mentoring model, where a more experienced practitioner (a colleague or an outsider) works with one or more teachers in their schools and where support is not provided through training courses but is school-based, responsive to each teacher’s needs, and hence personalized.
- A blended model, where teachers are required to work through a series of materials online and also attend periodic input sessions or workshops.
- Short seminars – e.g. three-day events where teachers are introduced to different strategies for professional development and assisted in defining action plans for their own professional development.
- One-off short workshops (e.g. half a day or less), where teachers are introduced to a particular strategy for professional development (e.g. peer observation).
- Teacher research programmes – i.e. where teachers receive support (e.g. workshops and on-line) over time from an experienced facilitator and conduct research in their own working contexts.
- INSET sessions, which occur periodically (e.g. once a month) in a school and which are led by a member of the teaching staff.
- Technology-driven programmes, where input is supplied on mobile devices, teachers try ideas in the classroom and meet periodically to discuss the materials in a non-hierarchical manner – i.e. there are ‘group leaders’ but no trainers.
Other models of professional development exist but the above list reflects those I have encountered in the last year.
This list highlights the range of models through which professional development is being promoted worldwide in ELT. It also suggests a number of parameters along which professional development initiatives can be described (e.g. is it short-term or long-term? is it school-based and/or course-based? does it adopt a training, mentoring, reflective or collaborative approach, or some combination – i.e. in whom does expertise reside)? You may want to spend a few minutes extracting these because that is not my focus here.
What I do want to focus on is the question of effectiveness: which models for promoting language teacher professional development lead to lasting beneficial (and especially practical) change for teachers, students and organizations? Of course, we know that effectiveness will be influenced by particular contextual variables such as teacher experience, knowledge and beliefs, the prevailing educational culture, curricula and assessment systems, and the skill of the facilitator or trainer. But even allowing for such variables, are there are any general observations that can be made about the relative impacts of the models listed above? I think there are:
- Models which lack a school-based component (both longer intensive programmes as well as shorter sessions) are less likely to lead to lasting behavioural change because teachers lack opportunities to relate theory to practice.
- Two phase models where all the input is provided before a school-based phase are less likely to lead to lasting change in practices unless the second phase is structured and supported – asking teachers to go back to the classrooms and to apply the input is not sufficient.
- To elaborate on 2, the lack of structured, purposeful and supportive follow-up in schools is the single most obvious reason that the initial motivation created by intensive professional development workshops and courses initiatives fizzles out.
- Extended programmes which provide teachers with periodic and ongoing opportunities to experiment in the classroom and to meet and discuss their experiences can lead to sustained changes in practice.
- Initiatives which are extended, supported and engage teachers in actual projects in their classrooms are an effective model for professional development.
- Mentoring models can provide more personalized and responsive support to teachers than generic one-size-fits-all training programmes.
- Collegial school-based models (where teachers lead their professional development together rather than being trained by an external expert) provide the basis for the kind of on-going, supportive, situated and relevant professional development that training models cannot achieve. This does not rule out external support – in fact this can be a critical factor in the success of school-based teacher development initiatives.
- Where the priority is to enhance teachers’ language proficiency, an intensive general language course may be more productive than extended models in which language and methodology are covered in an integrated manner.
- If technology is to be part of professional development there must be clear evidence that it plays a beneficial role. For example, blended courses often require teachers to participate in on-line discussion forums, but the quantity and quality of the contributions teachers make may raise questions about whether the technology is actually contributing to the teachers’ professional development.
- Cascade models maximize reach, but this should not be confused with impact. Unless high quality candidates for master trainers are available, subsequent phases of delivery will become increasingly diluted, with adverse effects on the quality of the training teachers receive and on the impact this will have in the classroom.
- Changes in awareness and knowledge can be achieved through short, intensive sessions and workshops; lasting changes in beliefs are harder to achieve in the short-term, while changes in classroom practice do not necessarily follow once new knowledge is in place.
These 11 points are based on my experiences of the 11 models for professional development listed earlier. In many cases, my experience has been first-hand – i.e. I have been involved in designing, implementing or evaluating professional development; in other cases, my views have been informed by the research of those I work with or supervise. And I could provide some references from the literature to back up some of my claims here but the truth is that the study of the impact of professional development has not yet received the attention it deserves – we simply do not have strong empirical evidence which allows us to compare the relative value of different models of professional development. There are, of course, evaluation reports of particular projects which are insightful, but generally speaking what we need is a clear academic agenda for the study of professional development which will allow us to test claims such as those I have made here. Without such evidence the danger remains that substantial time, effort and resources are not being invested in an optimal manner.
If you have experienced – either as a participant or a trainer/mentor/facilitator – one or more of the 11 models listed above it would be great to hear about your experiences, especially about the impact that the professional development had on you (particularly your teaching), your students and your organization. For example, have you taken part in professional development which made a significant lasting difference to your work? Or, in contrast, have you engaged in professional development which had little or no impact on what you do?