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Why is Traditional PD Ineffective (and what can be done about it)?

First, let's address the elephant in the room: traditional Professional Development for K-12 teachers just isn't working and there isn't one factor responsible for its failure.


The biggest factor to consider is that we are training teachers the way we are teaching students with a mindset toward maximizing efficiency over efficacy. I wrote about this in a past blog post exploring how traditional teaching often confuses mastery with compliance resulting in a decline in student willingness to learn anything more than is minimally required to receive a desired reward (e.g. grade on a report card or participation in sports).


A similar decline is seen in teachers' willingness to participate in learning related to their personal and professional development, doing only what is minimally required to receive a desired reward (e.g. score on a teacher evaluation or an increase in teacher salary). Occasionally, a workshop or training is relevant and useful to a few teachers at a few schools but that leaves a large percentage of teachers who find themselves uninterested and unwilling to incorporate a particular change initiative into their classroom teaching practice.


While there are effective models for evaluating and improving the traditional professional development of teachers, it is critical to consider how improving this inherently limited traditional approach to teaching and learning isn't enough. Let's first reflect on the primary factors of the traditional approach that this article addresses in support of personalizing PD for teachers.



One-Size-Fits-All Model. Traditional PD often employs a one-size-fits-all model, where all teachers receive the same training regardless of their individual needs or context. This approach fails to recognize the diverse backgrounds, skill levels, and specific challenges that different teachers face. Research has shown that PD is more effective when it is tailored to the unique needs of teachers (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017). When PD is not personalized, teachers may find it irrelevant and unengaging, leading to low implementation rates.


Lack of Continuity and Follow-Up. Many traditional PD programs are designed as single, isolated events such as workshops or seminars. These one-off sessions rarely provide the sustained support and follow-up necessary for teachers to integrate new practices into their daily routines. Joyce and Showers (2002) argue that for PD to be effective, it must include ongoing coaching and opportunities for teachers to reflect and receive feedback on their practice. Without this continuity, teachers are less likely to adopt and maintain new strategies.


Theoretical and Abstract Content. Traditional PD often focuses on theoretical and abstract content that may not be directly applicable to the classroom. Teachers need practical, hands-on experiences that they can immediately implement in their teaching. Guskey (2002) emphasizes that PD should be closely linked to teachers' work with students and should provide concrete examples and strategies that teachers can use. When PD is too theoretical, teachers may struggle to see its relevance and applicability.


Insufficient Collaboration and Peer Learning. Effective PD involves collaboration and opportunities for teachers to learn from one another. Traditional PD formats often lack these collaborative elements, isolating teachers in their learning experiences. Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) found that professional learning communities (PLCs), where teachers regularly collaborate and share best practices, are more effective in promoting sustained changes in teaching practice. Traditional PD methods that do not foster collaboration miss out on the benefits of peer learning and support.


Ignores Teacher Agency and Voice. Traditional PD programs frequently overlook the importance of teacher agency and voice. When teachers are not involved in the planning and decision-making processes of their PD, they are less likely to be invested in the outcomes. Kennedy (2016) highlights that PD is more successful when teachers have a say in the content and structure of their learning experiences. Ignoring teacher input can lead to disengagement and resistance to change.



Enter Active Research: A Hands-On, Reflective Practice


Active research, also known as action research, represents a dynamic and interactive approach to professional development that stands in stark contrast to traditional methods. This model empowers teachers to take an investigative stance toward their own teaching practices, enabling continuous improvement through cycles of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting.



Teacher-Led Inquiry. At the core of active research is the concept of teacher-led inquiry. Teachers identify specific challenges or questions related to their practice and systematically investigate these issues within their own classrooms. This hands-on approach ensures that professional development is directly relevant to the teachers' unique contexts and needs. According to Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009), this process fosters a deeper understanding of teaching and learning, as teachers become researchers in their own right.


Collaborative Learning Communities. Active research often involves collaborative learning communities where teachers work together to share insights, discuss findings, and support each other's professional growth. These communities provide a platform for collective problem-solving and peer learning. Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) found that such collaborative environments enhance the effectiveness of PD by leveraging the collective expertise and experiences of teachers.


Addressing Specific Classroom Challenges. Active research allows teachers to focus on specific challenges they face in their classrooms, making PD highly relevant and practical. Teachers can experiment with different strategies, gather evidence on their effectiveness, and refine their approaches based on real-world outcomes. This targeted approach is supported by Darling-Hammond et al. (2017), who argue that PD is most effective when it addresses specific, contextual challenges faced by teachers.


Empowering Teacher Agency. One of the most significant benefits of active research is the empowerment of teacher agency. By taking control of their professional development, teachers feel more invested and motivated to implement changes. Kennedy (2016) emphasizes that when teachers have a voice in their PD, they are more likely to engage deeply and sustain their efforts over time.


Active research represents a transformative approach to professional development that addresses many of the shortcomings of traditional methods. By promoting teacher-led inquiry, continuous reflection, collaborative learning, data-driven decision making, and practical application, active research empowers teachers to take charge of their professional growth and continuously improve their teaching practices. This hands-on, reflective practice not only enhances teacher effectiveness but also leads to better student outcomes, making it a vital component of modern educational development.



The Transtheoretical Model: Personalizing the Path to Change


The Transtheoretical Model (TTM), developed by Prochaska and DiClemente in the late 1970s, offers a nuanced framework for understanding how individuals progress through different stages of change. Originally designed to address behavioral modifications in health contexts, TTM has proven valuable in educational settings, particularly for professional development among K-12 teachers. By recognizing that change is a process rather than a single event, TTM provides a structure for personalizing and supporting teachers’ journey towards improved instructional practices.


The Stages of Change. The TTM outlines five primary stages through which individuals progress when undergoing change:



  • Precontemplation: At this stage, teachers may not yet recognize the need for change or may be resistant to it. They might be unaware of how their current practices impact student outcomes.

  • Contemplation: Teachers begin to acknowledge that change is necessary and start considering the benefits of new teaching methods. They weigh the pros and cons but are not yet ready to take action.

  • Preparation: In this stage, teachers are planning to make changes and may start taking small steps toward implementing new strategies. They might seek out resources, attend workshops, or discuss ideas with colleagues.

  • Action: Teachers actively implement new practices and strategies in their classrooms. This stage involves significant effort and adjustment as they integrate new approaches.

  • Maintenance: After successfully implementing changes, teachers work to sustain and refine their new practices over the long term. This stage focuses on preventing relapse into old habits.


Applying the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) to professional development (PD) enables school administrators and PD providers to tailor their support to match teachers' stages of change, thereby increasing the likelihood of successful and sustained practice changes. Strategies and techniques specific to each stage address specific underlying beliefs and behaviors related to the change process. From raising awareness about the need for change to addressing concerns with detailed information and peer discussions to co-developing action plans and coaching needs, personalizing PD can provide continued learning and reflection opportunities that meet teachers at their readiness level regardless of the specific change initiative.


Self-Efficacy & Decisional Balance. Central to the TTM is the concept of self-efficacy—the belief in one's ability to succeed. Research by Bandura (1997) emphasizes that higher self-efficacy can lead to greater persistence and resilience in the face of challenges. By supporting teachers' self-efficacy, PD programs can empower them to embrace and sustain changes in their instructional practices. Another critical element of the TTM is decisional balance, which involves weighing the pros and cons of change. According to Prochaska et al. (1994), helping teachers recognize the benefits of new practices while addressing their concerns can facilitate movement through the stages of change. PD initiatives can incorporate activities that help teachers articulate their perceptions and adjust their decisional balance in favor of positive change.


Integrating the Transtheoretical Model into K-12 teacher professional development offers a personalized and effective pathway to achieving meaningful and sustained change. By recognizing the stages of change and tailoring support accordingly, educators can be better equipped to overcome resistance, build self-efficacy, and ultimately enhance their teaching practices for improved student outcomes.


Overlapping Practices: A Synergistic Approach


There are many benefits to using a personalized Stages of Change approach to implement an Action Research model for improving K-12 professional development. The following are just a few considerations:


  • Personalized and Contextualized Learning: Active Research involves teachers in identifying specific areas for improvement based on classroom data. This personalized approach aligns with TTM's emphasis on stage-specific interventions, ensuring that PD is relevant and timely (Burns, 2010; Prochaska, Prochaska, & Levesque, 2001).

  • Continuous and Reflective Practice: Both Active Research and TTM highlight the importance of ongoing reflection and adjustment. Teachers engage in cycles of inquiry, continuously refining their practices based on evidence and feedback, which is integral to progressing through TTM stages (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Tyler & Tyler, 2006).

  • Collaboration and Support Systems: Collaborative inquiry groups in Active Research provide a supportive environment where teachers can share insights and strategies. Similarly, TTM underscores the role of social support and leadership in facilitating change, emphasizing the need for principal support and peer encouragement (Zeichner, 2003; Prochaska, Prochaska, & Levesque, 2001).

  • Evidence-Based Decision Making: Data-driven decision-making is at the heart of both approaches. Active Research relies on classroom data to guide PD efforts, while TTM uses evidence-based strategies to tailor interventions to teachers' readiness levels (Hendricks, 2017; Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992).

  • Focus on Long-Term Change: Both methods aim for sustainable improvements rather than quick fixes. Active Research engages teachers in continuous cycles of improvement, while TTM focuses on maintaining change over the long term (Dana & Yendol-Hoppey, 2014; Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992).



Conclusion: A Path Forward


Integrating Active Research with the TTM Stages of Change offers a robust framework for enhancing K-12 teacher PD. By personalizing learning experiences, fostering continuous reflection, and providing collaborative support, schools can create an environment where effective change is not only possible but sustainable. This innovative approach ensures that PD initiatives are tailored, impactful, and aligned with the individual needs and readiness levels of teachers, ultimately leading to better educational outcomes for students.


Schedule an appointment with me to discuss how this innovative approach can help your school or district address your specific needs and change initiatives.



Greg Mullen

July 2, 2024



Article References:

  • Burns, M. (2010). "Active Research: Teachers as Change Agents." Educational Leadership, 67(8), 68-73.

  • Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. Teachers College Press.

  • Dana, N. F., & Yendol-Hoppey, D. (2014). The Reflective Educator's Guide to Classroom Research: Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn Through Practitioner Inquiry. Corwin Press.

  • Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Learning Policy Institute.

  • Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 8(3), 381-391.

  • Hendricks, C. (2017). Improving Schools Through Action Research: A Reflective Practice Approach. Pearson.

  • Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student Achievement Through Staff Development. ASCD.

  • Kennedy, M. M. (2016). How does professional development improve teaching? Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 945-980.

  • Mertler, C. A. (2017). Action Research: Improving Schools and Empowering Educators. SAGE Publications.

  • Prochaska, J. O., DiClemente, C. C., & Norcross, J. C. (1992). "In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors." American Psychologist, 47(9), 1102-1114.

  • Prochaska, J. O., Prochaska, J. M., & Levesque, D. A. (2001). "A transtheoretical approach to changing organizations." Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 28(4), 247-261.

  • Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books.

  • Tyler, C. L., & Tyler, J. M. (2006). "Applying the Transtheoretical Model of Change to the Sequencing of Ethics Instruction in Business Education." Journal of Management Education, 30(1), 45-64.

  • Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(1), 80-91.

  • Zeichner, K. (2003). "Teacher Research as Professional Development for P-12 Educators in the USA." Educational Action Research, 11(2), 301-326.

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