Skip to main content

I’m sitting at my desk reworking my pedagogy course. With each revision, I move closer and closer toward truly empowering my students to own the learning. I started with student choice and slowly shifted toward student freedom. But now, I’m taking it a step further. I am finding ways for students to take more ownership of the classroom pedagogy.

See, last year when I taught this pedagogy course, I walked students through the design thinking process. It worked well. However, the class remained far too teacher-directed. I spoke too much. I directed most of the learning. Even in class discussions, students directed answers at me rather than sharing questions and answers with each other.

This year, things are different. Working in pairs, students will choose a constructivist approach to social studies. These include game-based learning, project-based learning, design thinking, simulations (think mock trials or model UN), and multimedia composition (especially the idea of the student as a historian). Each week, they will have three hours to delivery a mini-unit using one of these frameworks.

This feels risky to say, “I’m stepping back and letting you own the process.” However, when I taught a similar class early in the summer, the students were amazing. We grew into a tight community.

Besides, I will still be active in the process. I will offer feedback, meet one-on-one with students, and still lead some of the discussions. I’m still the professor and I am still the instructional leader in the room. However, I am convinced that the best way for students to learn about student-centered pedagogy is through teaching it and through seeing it firsthand from their peers. If I want teachers to incorporate student choice in their learning, I need to embed student choice into their teacher preparation courses as well.

Empowering Teachers in Professional Development

If we want to see schools embrace student choice, we need to design professional development that embraces teacher choice. If we want to empower students to own their learning, we need to empower teachers to own their learning. If we want to trust students to be self-directed, we need to trust teachers to be self-directed as well. This is rarely the case in professional development. Too often, we fail to provide the choice and agency teachers deserve.

We’ve all been there before. You go to a professional development on making classes interactive only to listen to someone reading slides from a PowerPoint. There’s a disconnect between what the speaker is doing and what the speaker is modeling. You get frustrated, bored, and disengaged. As a result, people end up saying things like, “teachers are the worst students” or “teachers are so off-task in meetings.”

But what if we changed our approach to empower teachers? What if we embraced teacher choice in professional development? If we say we believe in student choice, shouldn’t we be providing the same opportunities for teachers?

14 Ideas for Differentiating Professional Development

Here are a few ways that we could differentiate professional development so that teachers can experience choice and agency in their own learning.

  1. Mini Ed Camp: This could run like an ed camp, where teachers could engage in democratic, discussion-based groups based upon a topic of interest. I highly recommend The Edcamp Model for those of you who want to get started on this journey.
  2. In-Person Course: Here someone who is an expert on campus can lead teachers through a longer, semester-long, independent class on a subject that teachers choose. It might be something broad, like classroom management, or something specific, like tech-integration to help ELL students with oral language development.
  3. Hybrid Semester Course: Imagine the same thing above, but with a technology component. Here, teachers could work in a modified in-person and online class. They could blog about what they’re learning, curate resources and engage in discussions on social media.
  4. Teacher Genius Hour: The idea here is to encourage teachers to pursue their own learning in order to become more empathetic toward students and refine the Genius Hour Process.
  5. Maker Projects: Similar to the Genius Hour, teachers can work through the design thinking process to make a product that will benefit their school or community. The goal here is for teachers to think about an actual product with a real audience and then share both the journey and the finished product with an audience. An added bonus is that they grow more comfortable with design thinking and they can empathize with students doing creative work.
  6. Observation and Coaching: Part of what makes teachers reluctant to engage in coaching is that it requires classroom observation and then coaching (that often meets during prep time). Why not change the meeting time of the coaching session to be during the PD? One of the best books to make sense out of how PD actually affects learning is Guskey’s Evaluating Professional DevelopmentI’m also a huge fan of the Cognitive Coaching model, which guides teachers in self-reflection.
  7. Personalized Professional Development Plans: I know this sounds far-fetched, but allow teachers do their own sort of individual professional development where they look at where they are, set goals for where they want to be and reflect on the process. Teachers could develop a growth plan and find a custom set of experiences to fit their needs. So, after articulating their goals, they would develop a customized plan of what they will learn and how they will learn it in order to reach their goals.
  8. Book Clubs: I’ve seen schools run with the concept of a book club. This enables people to make sense out of idea in-depth, over time, in both an individual and group setting. You could also do a podcast club where you listen to a podcast ahead of time. Book clubs can work well in a hybrid format, where people not only meet in person but also meet in a private Facebook group or on Voxer. It’s been fun to listen in on a few Voxer book clubs around the book Launch. 
  9. Research Roundup: Here’s where teachers actually dive into the research in a way that goes beyond simply citing it and moving on. They would ask hard questions and then discuss the research by looking at individual articles and making sure they understand the context, the methodology, and the results in a meaningful way.
  10. National Board Certification: It’s a crazy-long experience, but I wonder what it would look like if teachers could go through the NBCT process and use some of the PD time allotted each week. I had the chance to work with some teachers going through this process and it was powerful.
  11. Lab School: A few years ago, I got the chance to help coordinate a lab school for ELL students in my district. We had robotics, service learning activities, and multimedia composition. Students experienced a type of pedagogy that they hadn’t seen in school before. However, teachers also had the chance to realize that this choice-driven, student-centered approach actually worked.
  12. Action Research: Similar to the lab school idea, I think it would be cool to engage in action research together as a group. We could meet together and analyze what works, what doesn’t work and what trends we see.
  13. Content Classes: The idea here is for teachers to learn specific content rather than learning instructional strategies. This can help teachers who feel like they still need to improve in certain content areas before they teach the content to their students. For example, we know that kids can benefit from learning to code. Unfortunately, many K-5 teachers don’t have experience with coding. I think it would be cool to let teachers learn how to code. This would provide a practical skill for the teachers while also helping them empathize with students who face the fear and frustration with learning something new.
  14. Curriculum Creation: I’m not referring to making common assessments or analyzing data. Instead, I’m thinking about making actual curriculum – not just maps, but resources; the kind of stuff teachers actually want to use in their classrooms.

Is this even possible?

This might seem like too many options — and that might be true for a school with twenty-five or thirty teachers. However, chances are you can find five or six options that would work for you. Here, teachers can choose their own topics while also figuring out what type of learning system works best for you.

More importantly, the teachers can run the entire system. If you have a principal or a curriculum specialist running the professional development, that person could shift into a logistical role of coordinating it while empowering the faculty to lead the book clubs, the curriculum creation, the courses, or the edcamps. This sends the powerful message that you trust the staff to own their own professional learning and, as a result, they grow more excited about empowering their students to do the same.

Listen to the Podcast

Just click on the audio below to listen to this Creative Classroom podcast. You can also listen to it on the go by subscribing on iTunes (ideal for iPhone users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users)

Looking for more? Check this out.

Join my email list and get the weekly tips, tools, and insights all geared toward making innovation a reality in your classroom.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Aki Saariaho says:

    Excellent thoughts and ideas! Made me want to try them out.❤️????

  • John – I love when you write: “If we want to see schools embrace student choice, we need to design professional development that embraces teacher choice. If we want to empower students to own their learning, we need to empower teachers to own their learning. If we want to trust students to be self-directed, we need to trust teachers to be self-directed as well. This is rarely the case in professional development. Too often, we fail to provide the choice and agency teachers deserve.”

    It reflects so accurately my own beliefs about professional learning.

    I believe that we are all reflections of each other and we need to keep that in mind when designing professional learning opportunities. We have been experimenting with a lot of participant-driven pd over the past year in Adult Education in Quebec – in particular with modified edcamp style pd and with using stations as a way of facilitating professional learning. We created a resource guide to facilitating edcamps at school called, Bringing EdCamp Home. Feel free to share it with anyone who may be interested!
    It includes videos of how we have done it, teacher feedback, planning guides…

    We also created a resource for using stations in the classroom (and are in progress for a resource on designing PD using a stations model). It is so exciting to be working with teachers on their own pd!

    Let me know if it is helpful 🙂

  • Eva Robinson says:

    Thanks for pointing out the factors which should be taken into consideration to differentiate the professional development course and enroll in a useful PD course. Research is the key to find such a professional development course. In my point of view, an educator should enroll in an online professional development course which is a more flexible and convenient way for teaching professional. A person could distribute his time among his professional life, personal life and study.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.