What does it take to upgrade a STEM teacher’s abilities? Education researchers have examined workshops, programs, online communities, and other forms of training and they’ve measured their effects on how teachers teach and how well students learn. According to their studies, good professional development should:
• Model effective teaching. Lecturing teachers about inquiry-based teaching doesn’t help them learn how to do it in the classroom. Showing them can. In a survey of 1,027 math and science teachers from 358 districts who had experienced different types of professional development, active learning was most effective. Teachers reported changing their classroom practices most when they’d been through training that focused on the topics they taught and created opportunities for active learning, according to the 2001 study by Michael Garet and colleagues at the American Institute for Research, in Washington, D.C., published in the American Educational Research Journal.
• Be in-depth and sustained. To improve their students’ learning, teachers need 50 hours or more of training spread out over a year or two. This gives teachers a chance to try new types of lessons and reflect on the results, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and her colleagues, who wrote a comprehensive 2009 report on professional development for Learning Forward, a trade group of educators who train teachers.
• Let teachers help teachers. Teachers can team up to take turns observing students in a colleague’s classroom to see how well they grasp the material. They can also create face-to-face or online “professional learning communities” to discuss curricula, lessons, or classroom challenges. This approach also offers opportunities to discuss case reports from education journals about how teachers deal with thorny situations.
• Develop teacher leaders. With tight budgets, it’s tough to fund sustained training programs that reach all the teachers who need them. One solution is to “develop teachers as leaders who can…work with grade-level teams and other teachers in their district,” says Susan Mundry associate director of the STEM program at WestEd and coauthor of the widely used Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics.
• Get system support. If a teacher learns at a summer workshop how to teach inquiry-based lessons, while a district mandates a curriculum that doesn’t support it, there’s little chance classroom practices will change. Instead, teacher training works best if it’s part of a broader effort to reform instruction, Mundry says: “Professional learning must be linked to the system.”
• Don’t forget established teachers. WestEd grounds its professional development (PD) programs in a “philosophy of continuous improvement,” say Kathy DiRanna, who runs PD programs for K–12 STEM teachers for the agency. “It’s not that I just participate in PD once and I’m gone.”