The best professional development for teachers

It’s always good practice to offer professional development for K-12 teachers as part of any new program or initiative. “Making” in the classroom is no different. Hundreds of research studies offer guidelines and tips, yet it seems that many programs, even if they follow guidelines, do not adequately prepare teachers to change their actual practice in the classroom.

Some of these recommendations are daunting for providers of professional development. Good professional development should be:

  • Long term (But often has no follow up planned.)
  • Focused equally on content, pedagogy, and new skills (Usually within too short a time period.)
  • Continued collaboratively and in the classroom (Even if the school decides to only send one teacher to a workshop and offers no collaboration time once back at school.)
  • Transformative, giving teachers new ideas and ways to change their classroom practice (Even when their leaders are telling them not to change anything, or even directly contradicting the new ideas once the teachers return.)

The most frustrating part of outreach to K-12 teachers is not that the teachers are unwilling or unable to learn new things; it’s just the opposite. The ultimate frustration is when K-12 teachers are inspired and willing to go back to their classrooms and work for change, only to have those bright lights quickly extinguished by the crushing reality of the status quo.

In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and in thousands of hands-on workshops with K-12 educators, Gary Stager and I work with one primary stance directed at classroom change. This is to ask educators to shift agency of classroom tasks to the learner whenever possible. Gary Stager suggests making your teaching mantra, “Less Us, More Them”.

When you make your teaching mantra, “Less Us, More Them,” you are channeling Piaget who says that it is not the role of the teacher to correct a student from the outside, but to create conditions in which the student corrects him or herself from the inside.
Anytime you feel it necessary to intervene in an educational transaction, take a deep breath and ask, “Is there some way I can do less and grant more authority, responsibility, or agency to the learner?”

For providers of professional development, this not only applies to young students, but also to K-12 teachers who are learning new content or pedagogical practices. When teachers are faced with new challenges, it is tempting to show them how to do everything, to hand them fully formed curriculum with pre-made handouts and step-by-step checklists of what they should do in their classrooms. Resist this urge. Doing so only undermines teacher confidence that they can make the right choices when faced with the real-time improvisation needed to teach in today’s classrooms.

Even when teachers express frustration that you are not giving them adequate information, try to support them as THEY find answers to THEIR questions, even if they experience frustration along the way. This is not to say that you should deliberately frustrate teachers or hide information. Answering questions with “just enough” information, and helping them find out how to find their own answers helps them develop the independence they will need if there is any chance that they can lead students in a similar quest. Teachers need to develop confidence and an attitude that “I may not know but we can find out together” and model that for students. This may be difficult for teachers who feel that they need to be the fount of all knowledge. But in today’s modern age when simple answers are just a Google away, teachers must help students learn how to find their own answers to questions both simple and complex.

In our Invent To Learn workshops, we always start with hands-on activities, because that creates the touchstone and the vocabulary for follow-up work on how this can be implemented in the classroom.

  • How is it that teachers who say, “I don’t understand electronics” can build a working circuit or a wearable light up bracelet with no instruction, and then be able to explain it to others?
  • What changes when during a workshop debrief, a table of six teachers find they used 12 different methods to solve their problems and answer their questions? How can they justify not allowing students to have the same widespread access to knowledge and expertise?
  • How can teachers justify expecting that their students all do exactly the same project when they started out making a doorbell that sends a text message, but ended up making a robot that plays a song? And learned a lot along the way?

These experiences serve to open teachers minds to assumptions they have been making about the projects their own students do and the scaffolding needed to support students.

These conclusions cannot be presented to teachers, they need to live and experience them first hand, and translate them to their own classrooms and curriculum. Because when they go back to their classrooms, they will need to carry this torch for themselves, and will need to feel agency over their own actions.

Professional development is not what we “do” to teachers, it’s what they formulate for themselves as they see themselves as practitioners who are able to do new things, learn new things, and be in charge of their own learning. This is the only way to empower people, both teachers and students.

For the past ten years, Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute has been leading the way in professional development that creates maximum impact and agency for teachers. This July 7–12 in Manchester, New Hampshire, is a chance for you to experience this kind of revolutionary professional development! Don’t miss out.

Projects from CMK 2015


STEAM — People always add esthetic elements to projects when they have time, ownership, and interesting materials to work with.

working on a project

Can you tell who the expert is?

light up dress

Making fashion that lights up

Originally published at Sylvia Libow Martinez.

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