Professional Development: The Big Four

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Professional Development: The Big Four

by Stephanie Laird

Chances are you’ve sat through your fair share of professional development (PD) sessions. Some PD sessions were district and building mandates, while others occurred at education conferences. Think back to the last professional development session you attended. Did you have time to practice what the presenter was teaching, or was it solely a “sit and get” session?

After the session was over, did you hear from the “expert” again? Was there any follow up? You may have even taken copious notes, and left with the best intentions of implementing the instructional strategies, but let’s be honest, after a few weeks or even a month, how much has stuck?

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002) wrote about the potential impact staff development can have on student achievement when the big four occur during ongoing professional development.

Professional Development’s Big Four

  1. theory
  2. demonstration
  3. practice
  4. peer coaching

Joyce and Showers found that there was a ninety-five percent transfer rate, when these four key professional development components are employed and are not isolated.

The current state of professional development for educators is flawed. Maintaining the status quo and providing limited support for teachers during and after learning opportunities has left teachers on their own, and the high transfer rate Joyce and Showers referred to is not being achieved.

As educators, we need to step up and push for more effective and relevant professional development that meets our needs and the students we serve.
Teachers are resourceful, learning from one another daily in the hallways and classrooms of their building, at unconferences and EdCamps, and online through MOCCs and social media. Teachers have formed their own informal peer coaching groups, and together are working towards impacting student learning, but districts are lagging behind.

Educators need their districts to have ongoing support in the form of formalized collaboration opportunities with colleagues, instructional coaches, and professional development facilitators. Rather than going an inch deep and a mile wide, expecting teachers to effectively add and use all these instructional strategies within their teaching practice, districts need to apply the big four into their district professional development plan.

Some states have already taken Joyce and Showers’ research to heart, incorporating it into their education department’s professional development plan, but as the research shows, simply studying and being aware of the theory, does not guarantee transfer.

As educators, we need to step up and push for more effective and relevant professional development that meets our needs and the students we serve. Let’s not sit idly, listening to another speaker we will never hear from again. Instead, let’s expect speakers to build in practice time, follow up through continuing conversations, and with our districts establish formalized peer coaching groups we can lean on and learn from.

Stephanie Laird is an Instructional Coach who works alongside teachers to impact student learning through the areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. She holds a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instructional Technology from Iowa State University, and is the International Reading Association’s 2014 Technology and Reading Award Winner. Find Stephanie on Twitter: @SLaird2 and at

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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