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Ingredients for Meaningful and Lasting Professional Development Experiences

Professional development without follow-up is malpractice! Only a tiny fraction, a mere 5–10%, of the knowledge and skills gained in professional development training makes its way into the classroom if there is no follow-up. (1) What a waste of time, effort, and money. Change is difficult, and most teachers need some type of ongoing support to put something new into practice.

The best professional development is a tightly woven tapestry of relevant and engaging content, pedagogy not isolated from content, and supportive follow-up.

Meaningful and lasting professional development for history teachers creates and sustains professional learning communities. It supports groups of teachers in acquiring and using content knowledge, effective teaching strategies, and materials. It establishes opportunities for instruction, collaboration, implementation, observation, and discussion. It challenges assumptions and sometimes long-held beliefs and assists teachers in making the transition from them. It builds partnerships with historians and educators at colleges and universities, museums, historical sites, parks, and institutes, and with vendors of quality educational materials. The best professional development is a tightly woven tapestry of relevant and engaging content, pedagogy not isolated from content, and supportive follow-up.

In 2010 our Teaching American History project provided a full day’s training with the DBQ Project, a document-based question program. Synthesizing content and pedagogy, we used a doctor’s diary, a chart of deaths and illness, an engraving, and an essay by Thomas Paine, to analyze, organize, and develop a thesis around the question "Valley Forge: Would you have quit?" We stood up and debated it, citing evidence and sources. Then we wrote a paper arguing our thesis. It was thought-provoking, engaging, fun, and we all learned something new in both content and pedagogy.

The teachers walked out of the workshop with binders of complete unit lesson plans appropriate for the topics they taught and with the assignment to implement at least two units in their own classrooms. We planned a follow-up workshop at the end of the semester where teachers would bring student writing samples and discuss grading.

Everybody taught at least one DBQ unit and brought student samples, right?


Apparently a follow-up workshop is not the same as following up in the classroom. The grading workshop was important and definitely beneficial for those who had or eventually would use the program. But it wasn’t supporting those less-inclined toward implementation. So the next semester, I built in a different kind of follow-up: scheduled observations of implementation. Two per teacher! Because our program works with three school districts, I traveled to some classrooms to observe them teaching the DBQ unit in person, but for others I used remote observation. The purpose of the observation was to support implementation, not offer technical feedback or criticism. I wasn’t there to grade them.

Don’t forget the follow-up, or they’ll just become “great things we did in that workshop.”

By the end of that semester we had a 100% transfer rate. Every teacher used the DBQ Project in their classroom.

Peer coaching and study teams are other effective means for transferring the use of new materials and strategies from the workshop to the classroom. We formed study teams with social studies teachers at each school and had them identify a specific academic problem/issue in their classrooms they wanted to address. They chose, implemented, and documented use of strategies or materials introduced to them earlier. We arranged opportunities for them to observe each other teaching, becoming peer coaches, demonstrating the strategies/materials with their students. At monthly follow-up meetings they discussed successes and difficulties and decided whether to continue what they were doing or move on to a new issue or strategy/material. They supported each other’s efforts to make changes in their classrooms.

There are many outstanding materials that do a terrific job of weaving together content and pedagogy. But don’t forget the follow-up, or they’ll just become “great things we did in that workshop.”


1 B. R. Joyce and B. Showers, Student Achievement through Staff Development (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2002).