Can Professional Development Actually Help Teachers Develop?

As practioners, we recognize the unhelpful PD session as an unfortunate part of the job.  And if novice teachers start their careers being hopeful that PD will improve their practice, with every poorly planned and decontextualized PD experience, that hope diminishes.  It does not take long for teachers participating in an ineffective PD to take out their phone and start checking their Instagram feed, not unlike a disengaged high school student. 


Author: Boris Krichevsky

Why Educational Services Rarely Serve

Education is a cultural system of multiple levels/layers—the school culture, the district or regional culture, the national culture—within which are sets of cultural activities (e.g., teaching) that define what people do and how well they do. I mean culture in the most general sense here: the shared beliefs, practices, values, etc. that represent the “norm” of a given setting. It’s impossible for a person to act in a self-actualized manner; his or her whole conception of the work of whatever they do is determined by what that work means—and what about it is valued—in a given environment, and by a given set of people.

Cultures are really hard to change: the process takes time; is hard; involves people, who take time and make things hard; and cannot be done in a uniform fashion, thus resisting economies of scale. No one likes the painful truth of meaningful educational reform: it takes years, has to attend to the needs of people, and involves multiple programmatic solutions in tandem with developing people. Obviously, no large education service company wants to touch that—it’s just not profitable. That’s why for so many years they’ve chosen to play to existing cultures rather than the ideal ones—that is, they attempted to make money by simplifying or making more efficient existing behaviors in the system rather than trying to change the system. A textbook, for instance, saves teachers from having to find and prepare content; a software platform records and manages attendance records, allowing administrators to keep a record of truant students and reduce paperwork and manpower. Both of these reduce the task demands of professionals and save time and, maybe, money; neither transforms schools or their students. No service, regardless of its quality can, because it cannot attend to the local and/or national context that influences how the service is utilized. Apple can sell you the computer, and provide your teachers the professional development to use it, but it cannot shift cultural usage of computers across socioeconomic levels, pedagogies and tasks, and so on. School are manifestations of culture; you cannot change them without changing the culture.

In short, the only killer “app” that exists for education is to change the culture writ large—which, until we spend as much on books as bombs, is impossible. That means the field continues to be in the business of simplifying the existing cultural mores: creating curriculum, digitalizing school processes (e.g., records, professional development, etc.), making personnel utilization more efficient. It is literally not the business of the education industry, then, to radically improve education.