The Problem with Professional Development Planning and How Design Thinking Solves It

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Here’s the problem with professional development planning: it fails, and when it does, we’re often unpleasantly surprised.

When professional development planning fails, everyone looks for someone to blame.

As if the plan was supposed to work out perfectly.

As if designers were supposed to predict the turn of the tide.

As if we or anyone could ensure the viability and potential of any initiative before it is executed.

Professional development plans aren’t promises. They’re typically creative enterprises and fairly uncertain endeavors. Too often, we craft plans in district offices with small teams of leaders, lift them from our drafting boards, and drop them onto systems expecting them to perform as anticipated.

What’s worse: we celebrate those who dutifully follow them, and we struggle when people speak to what isn’t working, what must change, and how we could and should have done it differently or better.

Why do we treat this feedback as criticism?

Why do we expect designers and facilitators to take this personally?

What about assessment? Reflection? Revision?

Plans are meant to be tested, assessed, and improved. Initial professional development plans are prototypes, and failure is often a part of any first launch. We’re supposed to respond to it in order to change and grow. The worst thing we can do is abandon ship every time we hit rough water to set sail on some next great adventure that seems to have more promise. That ship is going to sail across choppy seas as well.

Eager to embrace failure and elevate your professional development planning? Try a design thinking approach.

A Five Step Process for Powerful Professional Development Planning

1. Empathize with those who will be most influenced by your work. Interview or survey them. Assess their needs. Work to understand their vision. Design in ways that align and satisfy them.

2. Define what success will look like, based upon these findings. Consider what your plan will need to look like in order to achieve it.

3. Tinker with multiple ideas in order to understand them better and surface the unexpected. Be creative. Explore a variety of potential approaches.

4. Consider using the 4C framework to deepen your understanding of the system, develop greater empathy, and prototype in ways that are sensitive to what you learn.

5. Rather than dropping your plan into the system, plan to test it. Recognize and embrace the fact that your plan, or at least parts of it, will likely fail. Establish powerful feedback loops, create solid habits of documentation, and carve out time and space for data analysis, reflection, and redirection.

I spend a good amount of time supporting teachers as they design and test units of study and new lesson plans. So much of this work looks just like design thinking, and the spirit and intention of that work is all about experimentation and growth over time.

Why aren’t we approaching professional development planning with the same sensibility? How can we do a better job of this? I hope you’ll chat with me about this in comment section below.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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