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Professional Development – What Is It And Why Does It Matter?




Asking a teacher about professional development is a bit like asking fish about the water they swim in. PD seems to be everywhere. It is often assumed and taken for granted, and the reasons for doing it can at times be transparent and at others pretty unclear. Sometimes, professional development can seem like an obligation, like something that is expected as part of being a teacher. Other times, it can feel like a natural extension of teaching. Professional development can originate in decisions that happen beyond you as a teacher – like when a new assessment is brought in, you have to change the grade level or content you teach, or a pandemic relocates teaching online. It can likewise come from what you do in your teaching. Maybe it’s prompted by a puzzle, like why some students speak up more than others for example, or how to make reviewing material more engaging. Or it can come from what you want to do. Perhaps it is changing how you mark students’ writing or finding a different way to handle class discipline or weaving the other virtual world into the face-to-face classroom. The point is that what we call ‘PD’ is not one kind of activity; the term is used about a lot of different things.

Why do we engage in professional development?

From the outside-in, ‘professional development’ can be a catch-all for social and professional expectations of teachers. As employers, many institutions have expectations for teachers to ‘complete’ certain amounts or types of development, and often state licensing authorities do as well. These socio-professional expectations contribute to what I’ve called ‘cultures of professional development’1 that happen within a school or district and/or a national education system. (Actually, ELT has several cultures of professional development – reading this blog is part of one) The outside-in elements determine things like what the PD is about, when and where it happens, who is supposed to participate, and so on. But these elements are one part of the story. There are also aspects that we could say are ‘inside out’, that originate with participants and what they want to, and feel, they can do. Sometimes these two sides of the PD come together, but often they don’t.

Here’s a thought experiment: You’re in a teachers’ meeting, or get an all-staff email, or see a poster in the teachers’ room… announcing some sort of PD, maybe it’s a workshop or conference, or an online course. The announcement gives details about the organization of the PD event, but as you hear or read about, you’re thinking “Could I go? Or is this event for more experienced teachers who are already familiar with this topic?” Or perhaps “Maybe this event is for newer teachers who have less experience than me. You might be thinking “Can I juggle the other things I have to do in my life to do this PD?” These inside-out aspects are as important as the outside-in ones; it’s just that they are generally not factored in to how we define PD and why people do it.

To account for this dynamic, some writers distinguish between professional development and professional learning by saying that ‘development’ is what organizations offer and ‘learning’ is what teacher-participants do. The distinction is helpful, but it separates the outside-in from the inside-out making them out as processes that are independent of one another, which they aren’t. Even though they are essentially two sides of the same coin, we often end up defining PD from the outside-in, by its organizational elements.

Professional Development Should Start With YOU!

There is another way to look at this however: that what we call ‘PD’ starts with these inside-out factors and decisions. In our position paper on Professional Development, Sarah Mercer, Chris Farrell, and I called this view of PD ‘self-directed’, which simply means it starts with you as the teacher. (Actually, I’d argue that any PD starts with the person doing it, and that we depend on using outside-in definitions for institutional and societal reasons… but that’s another conversation). Sarah, Chris, and I defined self-directed professional development as being “… when a teacher intentionally chooses and selects events and activities to engage with in order to examine, extend, or perhaps improve their professional practice.” There are a lot of verbs in our definition – six of them in all – which points to two things. First, from the outside-in, there are many gradations or degrees of what we call ‘self-directed’. Second, that they all start from the person doing the activity. Our definition brings together the inside-out and the outside-in, and it recognizes that the former drives the later. As we put it, “the teacher controls and takes ownership of their own professional development journey.”

This is easy to say or write, but more complicated to make happen. Individual, personal factors – who you are as a teacher and what your own life is like – interact with the socio-professional expectations we talked about. This mix creates learning opportunities, which helps us to understand why a PD activity might ‘work’ for one person but not for another. We wrote about these interacting aspects in Section 1 of the paper.

So, what is PD and why does it matter? What PD is covers a lot of territory, but it is centrally defined by the outside-in/inside-out dynamic – this tension between socio-professional expectations on the one hand and individual decisions and circumstances on the other. The point is that PD does not come from one or the other alone; it always involves the two. The why of PD also comes from both sides of this tension. You do (some) PD because it is expected; you do others because you want to; and usually the reasons are a combination of both.

If you want to learn more about professional development and how you can take control of your own learning journey, try reading our position paper on Self-Directed Professional Development.


1 Chapter Five, “Availability and access of professional development: How teacher participation is shaped” in Freeman (in press). Rethinking teacher professional development: Designing and researching how teachers learn. Routledge.

Donald Freeman is Professor of Education at the School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He works on designing and studying equitable access to professional learning opportunities for teachers in a variety of circumstances. He led the Learning4Teaching Project, a decade-long, multi-country study of ELT public-sector teachers’ professional development experiences, and served as senior consultant on ELTeach, an online professional development program for national teachers. He has written widely on language teacher learning and teacher.

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