Why Professional Development Fails: Introduction

Syfr Learning is a small company that delivers professional development in multiple ways. We  publish blogs, create custom content for conferences and do public speaking, and we have created a school improvement professional development program based on deeper learning about learning.

When you have a small company, you get to “wear all the hats”. We do the academic research, design the product and services, deliver it and sell it. One might think that we learn the most from the research but that is true in an unusual sort of way. It is not the original research that proves the most educational but the research we do in response to either the prospects we are trying to sell or the teachers we are trying to train. One of the interesting aspects to this is that we tend to do research in response to teachers who do the unexpected with what they learned and are successful. We want to know why their particular wrinkle worked and how to model it to inspire other teachers. The research we do in response to selling is the opposite. It is in response to failure and the bigger the failure, the more research and work it is likely to generate.

This is the first in a six week series of blogs on why professional development might not be successful and what we can do about it. It is in response to a failed sale. It is not dependent on the educational research, of which we are suspect, but the research in the cognitive and neurosciences. Each week there will be a blog about a book or podcast and then a seperate blog tying the book or podcast to professional development. In most cases there will also be a blog under Syfr Learning about how we have adapted our own work to the research.

Several years ago Christine and I had dinner with a former superintendent and close friend. He is one of perhaps a half dozen people who have had a truly profound influence on my career and how I think about public education. During dinner he said, “Dick, I do not understand why you have a professional development company when you know that professional development does not work. How can you in good conscience sell something that you know will not work?”

I did not disagree with his conclusions about professional development. The research on its ineffectiveness is fairly overwhelming. Instead I tried to defend Syfr’s professional development with results – actual “proof” that students were learning more as a result of their teachers coming to our Institutes. He was not buying it and it was an uncomfortable dinner. Looking back at the conversation, we realized that we did not know why our professional development worked and we were uncertain if the changes we observed during the training and the months that followed were sustained.

Before we get started, let’s be clear about the research on professional development in education. By and large it does not create lasting improvement in the classroom. This is true whether we are looking at coaching, embedded professional development, one stop training or sustained training. The best website documenting the research and the failures that we know is HERE.

In our research we found three quite distinct sets or problems with the design of PD. First, it often fails to even initiate improvement. Second, and more pervasive, is the inability to sustain the improvement once it is made. Finally, there is the absence of continued improvement. Even if the improvement is sustained, improving as a process is discontinued. We rest on our laurels. We think that you will draw a conclusion similar to ours. The brain is not wired to help us continuously improve and in a sense we have to trick it to be on our side.

We hope that you enjoy and learn from the blogs! You can reach out to us at richard@syfrlearning.com and christine@syfrlearning.com to let us know what you think!

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