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10 Dead Ideas in Professional Development

by Laura Baecher |

Because October ushers in the Day of the Dead celebration, it seems fitting to take a moment to honor some of the cherished ancestors of modern-day professional development (PD).  We would not be where we are without them, but it is perhaps time to put some of those historic approaches to rest.

I came across the term “dead ideas” in a roundabout way—first through an eponymous podcast about higher education, Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning, and then by following the sources back to Miller’s book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity via Pike’s article “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning.” Pike (2011, p. 2) explains why these assumptions about education are “tyrannical”:

Ideas are dead because they are no longer correct, if they ever were. They are tyranny because we cling to them despite the evidence. Thus, we fail to act as we should. Seemingly logical actions, in fact, are counterproductive. Political leaders, media pundits, and business executives all become trapped (think C. Wright Mills [1959]) by these “tacit assumptions and ingrained instincts broadly shared” (Miller 2009:2). Critical social forces provide the context within which these ideas linger. They must be understood if we are to identify the destined ideas of the future that will lead us in the right direction.

PD approaches are not exempt from dead ideas, and should, in fact, be particularly scrutinized for holding on to them. Examining PD for dead (tyrannically held) ideas is especially important in that the modeling of teaching and learning they provide can reinforce practices that teachers then take up and use (perhaps unknowingly), with their own students. In other words, if we experience a PD session that is liberating, energizing, and inclusive (whatever the topic of that PD was), we are able to implement many of the moves when we return to our classrooms. The reverse may also (dangerously) be true.

Before we can envision PD that we believe is more powerful, engaging, and relevant to teachers, we must take a moment to challenge a few “dead ideas” that have had a long run of popularity, widespread use, and unquestioned application. The following 10 are some of the dead ideas in PD that come to my mind. How many of you are still seeing these being implemented? (My hand is raised too!)

1. Herding everyone into a room to listen to an outside speaker.

(Who is this person?)

2. Providing intensive training with no follow up.

(How am I to apply these ideas?)

3, Sending educators to a conference with no space to share back their learning.

(I wanted to share but no one gave me time!)

4. Ignoring expertise, even when it’s offered, of internal employees.

(I could have presented this workshop!)

5. Being offered no choice in the topic of the PD event.

(Ugh, I already know about this!)

6. Thinking that food is the only reason educators participate in PD.

(Please don’t waste our time!)

7. Believing that the best PD has to be delivered in English (by native speakers).

(I want to see local teachers present and I want to deeply discuss using our home language!)

8. Focusing on clocking a certain number of hours of PD.

(I have racked up the hours and have learned nothing.)

9. Packing the PD agenda so that educators have no down time.

(When are we able to talk through these ideas?)

10. Giving the PD only to teachers, without supervisors participating.

(If I try to implement this, my supervisor will disapprove!)

We are poised at a radical moment in education to bid farewell to these and other dead ideas in professional development, as the global upheaval of education due to COVID-19 provides the spark to fuel new directions. Even before this current sea change to education, PD has too often been seen as an experience to dread rather than look forward to. As Walport-Gawron (2018) states:

Any great school leader understands that providing PD is vital to teaching practice, but it’s important to note that not all professional development is equally effective, and a good number of teachers complain that some mandated PD crosses over into wasted time.

Next month, I will provide some planning guidelines if you are in the role of suggesting, designing, or conceptualizing PD at your institution that can get us headed toward a new, dynamic era of PD!

In the comments, share any ideas in professional development you think should be “dead”!

About the author

Laura Baecher

Dr. Laura Baecher is professor of TESOL at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her research interests and publications relate to teacher education, including educational technology in teacher learning, observation and coaching for English language teaching, and professional development in TESOL. Her recent books are Using Video to Support Teacher Reflection and Development in ELT and Reflecting on Problems of Practice in TESOL. She has served as chair of TESOL International Association’s Teacher Education Interest Section, an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State, and president of the New York State TESOL affiliate.

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