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Building Effective Professional Learning Networks to Improve Engagement

Author: Ling Zhang; Richard A. Carter

Extensive research suggests that effective professional development (PD) programs usually build on teachers’ previous knowledge, meet personal development needs, provide active learning opportunities, promote community and collaboration, and so forth. Can these characteristics generalize across different contexts? This question has long drawn researchers’ attention. We, a group of researchers from the University of Kansas, University of Wyoming, University of Iowa, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Beijing Normal University, were also curious to learn teacher perceptions of characteristics of effective PD. Driven by curiosity, we conducted a study to analyze how in-service teachers across 45 education systems rated the characteristics of their PD programs. We used a large-scale dataset called Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018. This survey asked teachers to rate 12 items about PD characteristics, and these characteristics were designed based on previous research on effective PD.

What did we find?

Not surprisingly, teachers had different learning experiences within various PD programs and held different perspectives of what PD characteristics positively impacted their instructional practices. We then identified four distinct groups of teachers whose perceptions shared similarities to a certain degree.

  • Group 1: Teachers reported a high level of perceived PD effectiveness, but they did not think PD that took place at their school, involved most colleagues at school, or extended over a long time was effective. In other words, they rated low on PD bound by physical space and time.
  • Group 2: Teachers reported an overall high level of perceived effectiveness across all PD characteristics. Generally, these teachers were more likely to think that PD positively impacted their practices.
  • Group 3: Teachers reported mixed perceptions of different PD characteristics. These teachers rated high on some PD features, such as building on prior knowledge, providing opportunities to apply new ideas, and taking place at their school. But they rated low on PD that was extended, content-focused, and providing follow-up activities.
  • Group 4: Teachers reported an overall low level of perceived effectiveness of PD. Generally, these teachers were less likely to think that PD positively impacted their practices.

What can we learn?

We did not intend to simplify teacher perceptions of professional learning experiences by classifying them into different groups. However, we hoped that what we found from the study might shed some light on designing better professional learning experiences for both pre- and in-service teachers around the globe. Below are two main takeaways from the study.

Providing personalized professional learning experiences

In this study, we identified four broad groups of teachers based on their perceptions of effective PD. Previous research showed that the 12 PD characteristics investigated in our study were beneficial to supporting professional learning. But some of them might not generalize across all teachers. We believe that each educator has different learning experiences and professional growth needs. This makes it critical to provide personalized learning opportunities for all educators.

Providing innovative ways to support learning communities

We found it intriguing that nearly or more than half of teachers across international contexts thought PD that took place at their school, involved most colleagues within school, and extended over a period of time were not effective for them. The overall low ratings on such PD characteristics as being bound by physical space and time told us that we need to provide innovative ways to support professional learning communities. In particular, the Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for innovating learning for both students and educators in all educational settings. Building online communities by leveraging the power of technology is one way to break physical boundaries and promote flexible learning opportunities for educators.

CIDDL provides such a platform that breaks physical boundaries of professional learning. CIDDL is and will be hosting a series of professional learning events and activities to improve participation and engagement of teacher educators, teachers, and other stakeholders. The mission of CIDDL is not only to promote the use of technology in learning environments, but also to provide resources, tools, and recommendations for integrating innovative pedagogies into technology use. Currently, CIDDL Cizzles provides a channel for participating in a gamified PD event. Stay tuned for other CIDDL professional learning events and activities.

Suggested Readings

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915–945.

Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W. Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. L. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement. issues & answers. rel 2007-no. 033. Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest (NJ1).

Zhang, L., Carter, R. A., Zhang, J., Hunt, T. L., Emerling, C. R., Yang, S., & Xu, F. (2021). Teacher perceptions of effective professional development: insights for design. Professional Development in Education, 1–14.