Teacher-focused collaborative professional development

May 2, 2018 Staff Writer

Job-embedded, collaborative approaches to professional development include tech-infused approaches and team work that supports teacher leadership.

By Barbara R. Blackburn and Ron Williamson

Effective professional development is an essential part of school improvement. Traditionally, professional development has included large group activities like workshops, seminars, courses or conferences. These types of activities have varied in terms of effectiveness, and we’ve come to recognize that more teacher-focused, collaborative professional development is often more effective.

Contemporary professional development can include peer coaching, collaborative work teams, study groups, action research teams, mentoring, and other activities that support a teacher-leadership approach.

Collaborative PD activities

There are many different ways to organize collaborative groups. Like most things, each has advantages and disadvantages. It is important to select a strategy that allows you to maintain momentum on achieving your vision of your school, and one that matches the resources you have available.

There are four types of collaborative professional development activities that are especially effective: looking at student tasks, assignments or assessments to develop consistent expectations; learning walks; charrettes; and technology-based options.

Looking at student tasks, assignments or assessments to develop consistent expectations

A powerful way to improve your school’s instructional program is to look at tasks, assignments or assessments. In many schools, teams of teachers, either at the departmental, course or grade level, examine student work as a way to clarify their own standards for that work, to strengthen common expectations for students or to align curriculum across faculty.

While it’s helpful to gauge teachers’ expectations of quality work, it is also important to compare expectations with published standard expectation levels. Oftentimes, teachers think their expectations are rigorous, but they are not when compared with standards of rigor. Because looking at student work significantly alters the norms of a school, it necessitates a climate where faculty are comfortable sharing their work and revealing artifacts about their classroom practice. First, it’s important to have a process for discussing expectations.

Process for discussing expectations for tasks, assignments and assessments

• Step 1: Gather copies of a standard assignment, task or assessment, such as a short essay, a test or a project description. Be sure to have copies from several teachers.

• Step 2: Share copies of the assignment with the group and ask everyone to assess it, based on their own experience.

• Step 3: Discuss the opinions. Use prompts to discover perspectives, such as “How do you determine quality?” “What do you consider in a quality assignment?” or “What do you expect students to know in order to complete this assignment?”

• Step 4: Next, ask participants to look at criteria of quality, rigorous work. Discuss the criteria, as well as any questions about the descriptors.

• Step 5: Ask each participant to revisit the sample assignment, task or assessment, and rate it using the outside criteria. Share opinions based on the new criteria and discuss how this differed from original perspectives, as well as any needed changes.

Next, you will need to find a standard set of expectations, typically one that is recognized for describing the quality of work, including a level of rigor. One set of criteria that is helpful is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. Dr. Webb provides a set of descriptors of varying levels of work. Levels One and Two of his framework are considered less than rigorous, while Level Three is rigorous. Compare these descriptors for math and consider how you might use them with your teachers as you assess assignments and tasks.

Sample Level 1 descriptors

• Do students represent a math relationship in words, pictures or symbols?

• Are students asked to use a well-known formula?

• Does the assessment require simply following a formula or basic instructions or computing simple algorithms?

Sample Level 2 descriptors

• Do students specify and explain the relationship between properties or variables?

• Are students using more than one step to solve a problem?

• Do students select a math procedure according to criteria and perform it? 

Sample Level 3 descriptors

• Are students proposing and evaluating solutions or recognizing and explaining misconceptions?

• Are students formulating an original problem given a situation or formulating a mathematical model for complex situations?

• Are students using concepts to solve non-routine problems?

Learning walks

A learning walk is a form of instructional walkthrough, but it is typically organized and led by teachers. Learning walks are not evaluative. They are not designed for individual feedback; rather, they help participants learn about instruction and identify areas of strength as well as need.

Learning walks provide a “snapshot” of the instructional program at your school. Since participants are in classrooms for only a short time they should not draw conclusions about individual teachers or classes.  It’s helpful to have a process for learning walks. 

Process for learning walks

1. Teachers work together to identify the purpose of the learning walk. For example, teachers may want to identify research-based practices from Visible Learning by John Hattie, and look for examples of those practices.

2. Teachers determine the process, including length of classroom visits as well as what will occur during the visits. It is helpful to develop and use a consistent tool for teachers to use to record their observations and collect data.

3. Decide when the learning walks will occur.

4. Conduct a pre-walk orientation to discuss the upcoming process.

5. Conduct the learning walk and spend no more than five minutes in each classroom. Depending on the lesson, talk with the teacher and students, look at student work, and examine the organization of the classroom.

6. Immediately after the walk, teachers meet and talk about the patterns they saw and how to share those with the faculty. They may develop questions that they would ask to learn more about what is occurring.

7. Finally, teachers develop a plan for sharing the information and for using it to guide continued school improvement work.

Again, it’s critical to stress that this process is not evaluative, and the purpose is to look for patterns across the school, rather than focusing on individual teachers. By identifying and discussing patterns of instructional processes, teachers can plan for appropriate adjustments. 


A “charrette” is a set of agreed upon guidelines for talking with colleagues about an issue. The conversation tends to be more trusting and more substantive because everyone knows the guidelines in advance. Charrettes are often used to improve the work while the work is in progress and are not to be used as an evaluative tool. Additional information about the charrette is available at http://schoolreforminitiative.org/doc/charrette.pdf.

Charrette Protocol

1. A group (such as a grade level or department) or a teacher requests a charrette when they want others to help them resolve an issue. Often they are at a “sticking point” and the conversation will help them move forward.

2. Another small group is invited to look at the work and a facilitator is used to moderate the discussion.

3. The requesting group or teacher presents its work and states what they need or want from the discussion. The conversation is focused on this.

4. The invited group discusses the issue and the requesting group listens and takes notes. The emphasis is on improving the work, which now belongs to the entire group. “We’re in this together” characterizes the discussion.

5. Once the requesting group or teacher gets what they need, they stop the process, summarize what was learned, thank participants, and return to their work.

– Adapted from “Charrette Protocol”

Technology-based options

In today’s age of technology, it’s effective and helpful in an era of limited budget resources to take advantage of technology tools to facilitate professional development.

First, many schools use GoogleDocs to share important information. As one principal told us, “this ensures everyone has access to the information, and it frees up meeting time for activities related to instruction.” 

Next, using videos can enhance professional development. Sites such as the Teaching Channel provide informational videos, but also provide classroom demonstrations. These allow your teachers to watch and critique teaching without visiting an actual classroom. Regularly using videos with principals can help them practice their observational skills related to best practices in instruction.

Sample sites for teaching videos

• Teaching Channel: www.teachingchannel.org.

• Engage NY: www.engageny.org/video-library.

• America Achieves: http://commoncore.americaachieves.org

• Teachers Network: www.teachersnetwork.org/videos.

• Inside Mathematics: www.insidemathematics.org/classroom-videos.

• WatchKnowLearn www.watchknowlearn.org.

• The 100 Best Video Sites for Teachers: www.edudemic.com/best-video-sites-for-teachers.

With the popularity of social media sites, many districts take advantage of that interest. One strategy is to use Twitter Chats. Chatham County, North Carolina sets a regular time for their chats, and they invite experts in the designated focus area to participate. This allows teachers to interact and ask more questions than in the traditional model of training.

Monique Flickinger, director of instructional technology of Poudre Schools in Colorado, shares how her district uses Facebook: “We created a Facebook account, TeachTechPSD, where we post weekly updates on new technology, pictures of classes using tech and other fun things we are learning about. When teachers come to training with us, we ask them to “like” us so that, when they check their own accounts, they will quickly see what we are up to.”

Finally, the use of webinars has increased in popularity in recent years. Although some of these online presentations are scheduled at certain times, many are available on demand, particularly if you register for them in advance. Webinars are available from state and national organizations, as well as commercial groups. Although some have a fee, many do not. 

PRESS Forward model for action planning

Finally, in our book, “Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders,” we shared a tool we developed: the PRESS Forward Model for Planning Professional Development (Williamson and Blackburn, 2017), which allows you to focus your professional development efforts. Through this process, you design a plan that has a clear purpose, is related and connected to other aspects of your school community, has a set of clear outcomes and action steps, and describes the support that is needed to be successful.

Our plan, which can be used with any of the above collaborative professional development examples, is cyclical, with benchmarks built into each stage of the process so that you can reflect on your successes and refine your plan before you move forward.

PRESS Forward Model for Planning Professional Development

PRESS Forward


Why are we doing professional development on our topic?

Relationships and Connections

How does a focus on this topic relate to our mission, our goals, and the needs of our students? How does it connect with other initiatives in our school?

Expected Outcomes

If the professional development is effective, what changes will we see related to teachers’ practice and student learning?

Steps to Take

What are the specific action steps we need to take to accomplish our goals? What is the timeline for each step?

Support Needed

What types of support do we need to accomplish each step? What material resources are necessary?


After a stage of implementation, take time to reflect, refine your plan, and move forward with next steps.

A final note

In order to meet the needs of today’s students, traditional models of professional development may not be as effective. Job-embedded, collaborative approaches teachers can use to improve instruction, such as looking at student tasks, assignments, or assessments to develop consistent expectations, learning walks, charrettes, a and technology-based options tend to have a stronger impact on student learning.


• Hattie, John. Visible Learning library on Amazon, https://goo.gl/enR3of.

• Juarez, Kathy, “Charrette Protocol,” School Reform Initiative: http://schoolreforminitiative.org/doc/charrette.pdf.

• WebbAlign, “Dr. Norman Webb’s Professional Learning Programs for K-12 Educators,” www.webbalign.org/dok-training.html

• Williamson, R. and Blackburn, B. (2017). “Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders.” Routledge.


Barbara R. Blackburn, Ph.D. is an international speaker. She was named one of the top 30 Global Gurus in Education in 2016 and 2017 and is the author of 18 books, including four for administrators. She regularly collaborates with schools and districts to provide support in the areas of leadership, instructional rigor and evidence-based instructional strategies. Visit www.barbarablackburnonline.com.

Ron Williamson, Ed.D. is professor of leadership at Eastern Michigan University. A former principal, central office administrator, and former executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE), he is the author of numerous books on educational leadership. He currently works with the Oregon GEAR UP program to provide research services and leadership support to more than 50 rural middle and high schools throughout Oregon.

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