Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why They Aren't Using It: The PD Dilemma and Transfer

twin cities bus transfer by robotson, on Flickr

I love working with my fellow teachers. I believe that teachers are some of the most insightful, caring, strategic people I know. (Full disclosure: I AM a teacher!) My colleagues come up with amazing solutions in spite of seemingly insurmountable challenges, often with a smile.

However, after conducting a series of collaborative, interactive professional development sessions with some teachers, I'm often asking myself the following question:

Whether it's Understanding by Design, iPads, or teaching with multimedia, I find that teachers don't use what they've learned very often. This is a problem.

After doing a little bit of informal research, here are the top reasons why teachers don't try out what they've learned in PD:
  • They're busy!
  • They're still a little skeptical that the new strategy will actually work.
  • There is a systemic factor stopping them. (i.e., the schedule, the test, software, etc.)
While I believe that all of the reasons stated above are real, I also think there is another factor at play: TRANSFER. Transfer is the ability to use what you've learned in different contexts on your own. It's hard. Really hard. (You can read more about that here.)

Often, the design of professional development doesn't support the level of transfer required for classroom innovation to happen. The way that we design learning experiences for adults must intentionally support the transfer of learning. Here are 3 important elements that can make transfer more likely:
  • Provide many examples and ask teachers to generalize from those examples. One of the hardest things to do is to visualize what a new strategy or technique will look like in YOUR classroom. In professional development sessions, show teachers lots of examples (video is best) from many different grade levels and subject areas. Then, have your colleagues make generalizations about what this strategy would look like in their own setting. The Teaching Channel is a great place to find examples!

  • Give time for teachers to practice and receive feedback. In Doug Lemov's book, Practice Perfect, he describes how teachers actually try out specific strategies using role play. This is really important so that they can receive some immediate feedback about their performance. This helps you to understand what a correct implementation actually feels like.

  • Ensure that the system supports the new strategies. Be intentional about what happens when teachers return to their classrooms. Does anyone notice that they've taken a risk and tried a new strategy? Does anyone compliment them on their hard work with the new strategies? Do they have the time and resources that they need to try out what you've taught them? Putting the right environmental factors in place can make transfer happen.
What have you done to support transfer for adult learners? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Photo Credit:
  by  robotson Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License


  1. You have highlighted one of the big challenges with any professional learning. One thing I have discovered is that their is no single solution. A couple of strategies that I have used successfully are:
    1. Scheduling follow-up sessions / recalls for participants to recap initial session and discuss successes/failures of implementation.
    2. Allowing for time in professional learning events for participants to develop a plan of action. Teachers cite time as a barrier. Having time for them to plan in a workshop alleviates this challenge.
    Whilst neither strategy guarantees 100% success, I have noticed improved uptake and implementation of ideas when doing 1 or both.

  2. Shane, I LOVE these suggestions. You really highlight planning and processing here. I think those two components are well aligned to what we know about adult learning. Thanks for pushing my thinking!

  3. I agree with you about all of these challenges. I am a teacher myself and I often find it very difficult to sit through professional development and decide, ok, how will I make this work in my classroom? Often times what we sit through, and learn about, is easier said than done. I am a younger teacher, so I feel that I do take more risks than some of my colleagues.

    I agree with Shane as well, following up with teachers is huge. We always say we need to follow up with our students to ensure that they are applying what we have taught them, so why not follow up with teachers as well.

    Any time that I have helped another teacher out with suggestions or activities for their class I like to check in with them again, see how it went, and see what I can do to better myself and my activities in the future. I have found that the more educators collaborate the better.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Deana. Your words remind me of the importance of models and mental models. ;-)



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