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The K-12 Guide to Personalizing Professional Learning

  • 18 Min Read

A guide for K-12 leaders, built by K-12 leaders.

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About This Guide

This guide was developed to support K-12 stakeholders with specific practices for modernizing teacher professional learning to be more timely, flexible and relevant. The primary intended audience is local school system leaders and administrators. This guide and the practices herein can also support other stakeholders: teachers, regional and state agencies, colleges of education, and others who develop, deliver or consume professional development for teachers and other educators.

Overview

There is a growing need and opportunity to modernize K-12 teacher professional development (PD) and to support educators and leaders with a vision forward.

In a survey of 1,000 educators (see below), 91% cited interest in professional learning targeted to a teacher’s unique needs and interests, but only 20% reported their increased access to such personalized learning, while 25% report no or decreased access.

So, how can we increase K-12 teacher access to professional learning that is more flexible and relevant to improve their satisfaction, success and the success of their students while reducing challenges of teacher fatigue and retention?

To identify a set of practices that help reimagine teacher professional learning, D2L gathered a working group of educators who are developing and delivering new models. What follows is a synthesis of their eight recommended practices for improving not only the timeliness and personalization of professional learning, but also the enabling hybrid models and effective communications.

Introduction

Teacher PD is as important as ever, yet there may be growing reluctance to prioritize professional learning due to teacher workload and fatigue. But what if the problem is not the quantity of professional learning, but the relevance and value? Maybe teachers are resistant not to PD, but to PD that fails to meet their evolving needs and schedules, and their expectations and requirements.

In fact, a D2L-commissioned survey of nearly 1,000 educators identified that for teachers who are not satisfied with their PD, 46% report decreased or no availability of professional learning that is targeted to their unique needs and interests (i.e., personalized), while only 9% report increased availability. For those strongly satisfied with their PD, 32% report increased availability, while 16% report decreased or no availability. (See How the Pandemic Has [Re]Shaped K-12 Teacher Professional Learning | D2L)

In addition, 93% of teachers identified professional learning that is ongoing as important to their effectiveness, but only about one-third report that professional learning is available on a regular, ongoing basis as needed. For those reporting that they have such regular, ongoing access, satisfaction is 82% (compared with 43% satisfaction for those reporting access only twice a semester or less).

Our K-12 school systems increasingly recognize the importance of learner-centered education for our students, but we may too often fall short of applying those research-based practices to our teachers as learners (see, for example, Effective Teacher Professional Development | Learning Policy Institute). These practices include learner voice and agency, curriculum relevance and application, and learning feedback and mastery-based pacing.

Teachers will make time for topics they need but don’t have time for topics they don’t need. When the [digital] learning is effective and relevant, time is less of a barrier for them.

Joseph South, Chief Learning Officer, ISTE

The D2L-commissioned survey of educators identified four essential areas where improvement is needed:

  1. Personalization to increase relevancy and flexibility
  2. Timeliness to improve access and application
  3. Hybrid methods to support learner community and self-pacing
  4. Internal communications enhancement to inform understanding and awareness

This guide identifies eight recommended practices for operationalizing those themes, filling these gaps and modernizing K-12 professional learning to be more teacher-centered, responsive to their dynamic needs and applicable to their daily practice.

  1. Value Professional Learning: Create a school culture that values teachers as professionals and professional learners
  2. Incentives and Measures: Incentivize, measure and reward teachers for their personalized learning time and progress
  3. Actionable Communications: Provide clear, relevant and actionable communications to teachers about professional learning expectations and resources
  4. Modern Infrastructure: Provide a modernized, teacher-centered professional learning infrastructure
  5. Resource Catalog: Curate a robust catalog of professional learning resources and formats to address the scope of teacher needs
  6. Authentic Learning: Design authentic professional learning that incorporates practice, reflection and feedback
  7. Personalized Pathways: Build flexible content pathways, including through competency-based progressions and modular approaches
  8. Hybrid Methods: Employ multiple formats, methods and modalities for effective instructional design and learning personalization
Alignment to strategy outcomes and needs

1. Create a school culture that values teachers as professionals and professional learners

Schools are learning organizations, and this growth mindset should apply to support teachers as learners where PD is now too often pushed at teachers or not prioritized. Instead, create a culture where staff learning is personalized, empowering, ongoing and a universally valued and prioritized core activity.

Teachers need to be lifelong learners, but it can be challenging to keep up with all that is new when you are mired in the day-to-day work with students. Really effective, job-embedded, action-oriented professional learning helps teachers continually evolve their practice without burning out.

Tracy Dalton, Assistant Principal at Bowness High School

Recommended Practices

  • Create and communicate a shared understanding that each teacher’s unique learning interests and needs are valued and primary to district success, and establish the expectation that teacher professional learning time and growth is prioritized to support student success (e.g., strategic plan, parent communications, etc.)
  • Ensure teacher voice and agency by inviting teachers to define their professional learning needs and program—individually and as a collective stakeholder—and to be responsible for their learning plans and pathways
  • Make clear that the school system’s continuous improvement includes teacher growth and explicit permission for them to fail forward by innovating, learning and improving
  • Model modernized professional learning by district and school leaders sharing their own journey to identify and address their personal development goals and needs
  • Layer and align individualized professional learning goals and supports across district system initiatives to enhance the relevance for, and growth of, teachers

2. Incentivize, measure, enable and reward teachers for their personalized learning time, planning and progress

While administrators may be concerned with infringing on teacher time during and beyond school hours, teachers may be more responsive to professional learning if it is flexible to their schedule and relevant to their interests. Yet the marginal shift of PD from largely in-service to more flexible, ongoing and personalized learning does not diminish the required time and effort. Best practices recognize and support this shift and empower teachers to engage in more ongoing, individualized learning in return for its increased flexibility and relevance.

Just because teachers may want to complete this professional learning ‘anytime, anywhere’ does not mean we should expect them to do so unless they are also provided the enabling supports, incentives, agency and tools.

Allie Sberna, pHCLE, Professional Development eLearning Coordinator, Ohio Department of Education

Recommended Practices

  • Recognize and address the cognitive, social, financial and other factors that motivate each teacher’s professional learning, such as credentials, peer recognition and self- (and student-) improvement
  • Highlight teacher exemplars who successfully identified their learning needs, developed a personalized learning plan, and pursued and achieved their professional growth goals
  • Increase the time available to teachers during the regular school day, through release time, on PD days, etc., to engage professional learning that meets the topics, formats and schedule of their choice, including marginal repurposing of time used for live lectures or systemic initiatives
  • Provide flexibility in when and where teachers can access professional learning, including virtually and through informal forums (e.g., conferences, online professional learning communities); reward teachers for their learning outside of regular school hours; and balance that flexibility with accountability
  • Where re-licensure or advancement requirements are based on seat time or traditional course models, create frameworks with flexibility and accountability that also support asynchronous, self-paced and stackable models
  • Incentivize teachers and provide them a safe space to identify their learning needs, create a professional learning plan, and pursue those goals flexibly and without concern for judgment or penalty
  • Operationalize a pull model whereby teachers can easily provision professional learning with minimal administrative barriers, including teacher accounts to enroll in a course, access a subscription, travel to a conference, purchase a book, etc.
  • Embrace the role of teachers in leading or supporting the professional learning of their peers through teacher teams and peer coaching models that also further support their growth and recognize their mastery and professionalism

3. Provide clear, relevant and actionable communications to teachers about professional learning opportunities, expectations and resources

The D2L-commissioned survey found that teachers and administrators reported significant differences in not only their teacher professional learning priorities but also their experiences, which suggests a lack of common understanding, awareness or both. A shared vision is best enacted and enabled with clarity of definitions and effective communications about needs and options.

Recommended Practices

  • Solicit (and act on) teacher interests and embed ongoing feedback loops to identify dynamic teacher needs and satisfaction, evaluate systems and programs, and inform continuous improvement
  • Enhance solicitation of teacher needs and interests by explaining why you are asking, embedding requests into other workstreams, going deeper than simple checklists, using alternatives to surveys, and using sampling and incentives to reduce survey fatigue
  • Streamline and target communications across varied (preferred) channels so that teachers receive the most relevant information about professional learning options and important information is not lost in the larger volume of communications, including through aggregation across all sources, a periodic digest and filtered announcements by role/topic, etc.
  • Describe professional learning resources across multiple dimensions and criteria, including format and alignment to outcomes and district strategies, to help teachers better identify the method and relevance
  • Drive all communications back to a single source such as a portal or LMS, so that teachers know where to find information and resources if they miss/misplace announcements and can easily find other opportunities
  • Spark teacher curiosity (such as through a blog or tweet) and encourage their self-directedness through facilitating tools and supports that curate that interest/need identification and fulfillment

4. Provide a modernized, teacher-centered professional learning infrastructure

Quite often, traditional professional learning has been centered around district initiatives and single-point workshops, focused on continuing education credits or relegated to scattered informal learning. Modernized professional learning is ongoing, personalized and hybrid; merges content and community; is embedded in and applied to practice; and leverages resources from across the district and beyond—all requiring a thoughtfully designed network infrastructure that affords choice, customization, community and credentials.

While professional learning has always been important for educators, the speed at which technology and information is accelerating makes it imperative for education to stay viable and relevant. It is impossible for one teacher to be an expert at everything. Using an LMS allows teachers to blend their expertise in a given field with technology that is keeping up with today’s global environment. An LMS also allows for teachers to collaborate (peer guidance), which provides for a learning community.

Chris Huckans, Principal of Bishop Hall Charter School

Recommended Practices

  • Create a single hub for teachers to identify and access all professional learning information and resources, including announcements, content and course catalog, tools and communities such as through a web portal or LMS
  • Embrace asynchronous, on-demand formats to provide teacher agency and convenience of scheduling and self-pacing, including better enabling learning anytime, anywhere, including outside the school day and in an ongoing manner
  • Enable teachers to connect to a variety of formal and informal professional learning communities (PLCs) both inside and outside the district, including online and through social media
  • Institute policies, practices and tools to enable teachers to more easily connect informally through the day and week, including through formative classroom observations, circle discussions and other ongoing mechanisms for sharing and feedback
  • Build hybrid, scaffolded and stackable frameworks and pathways with priority around ease of use/navigation and personalization so teachers can easily identify appropriate resources
  • Leverage subject matter experts across district departments and roles to create, deliver and support professional learning, rather than limiting it to a fixed team
  • Enable the use of student and other data to help teachers identify their areas of needed improvement but in a non-punitive manner (i.e., a personal flashlight, not a district hammer)
  • Embed relevant teacher supports and professional learning within the student course/curriculum to increase relevance, ease navigation and expedite supports to where and when most needed such as within the student-facing LMS
  • Incorporate dashboards for teachers, as well as their instructors and systems, to easily track professional learning engagement, progress and outcomes with a priority around teacher navigation and agency such as through an LMS

5. Curate a robust catalog of professional learning resources and formats to address the scope of teacher needs

Teacher professional learning interests and needs vary widely based on, among other factors, their subject/grade taught, specific curriculum, instructional approach, experience and expertise. What is the teacher looking to get out of the professional learning—ideas, information, skills, feedback? How does that impact the type and format? Personalization and relevance are critical. Given this diversity of needs, achieving these goals requires new and varied sources/methods that enable teachers to design their own pathways.

Recommended Practices

  • Search widely to identify a diversity of resource types (e.g., social media, blogs, archived conferences, content libraries, course catalogs, videos, podcasts, etc.) across different third-party sources (e.g., experts, professional associations, educational agencies, colleges, etc.)
  • Tag curated resources using common district definitions, taxonomy and naming convention, including for learning outcomes, topics, formats, district initiatives, suggested scaffolds and progressions, etc., to enable teachers to sort, filter and stack resources with multiple entry points and pathways
  • Build consortium partnerships with other school districts and regional agencies to share needs and costs and increase the economy of scale given the time/effort/resources it takes to build out a multitude of resources and pathways
  • Partner with regional or state agencies, colleges, nonprofit organizations, and other course content and service providers who are accredited and have the mission/funding to support at scale across districts
  • Use your LMS to empower district staff across roles and teams to author courses and modules, including integration of third-party resources
  • Identify and design inclusive and universally designed resources that enable teacher voice and agency, recognize their diversity, and provide multiple means of engagement, representation and expression
  • Continuously evaluate and enhance professional learning resources through teacher feedback and other means while updating the catalog by modifying less effective/relevant resources

6. Design authentic professional learning that incorporates teacher practice, reflection and feedback

One-time workshops, systemwide initiative training and lecture courses too often ignore the importance of learning timeliness and learner application and reflection. Learner-centered best practice requires not just personalization of content, pace and place, but equally as important, the ongoing opportunity for practice and feedback to deepen content knowledge and instructional skill.

The professional learning must be meaningful and applicable to the classroom for teachers to find value.

Jennifer Harriton-Wilson, ED.D., Putnam|Northern Westchester BOCES

Recommended Practices

  • Design professional learning based on an individual or group-identified problem of practice, embed reflection of prior knowledge and experience, and include post-event processing within and across groups
  • Structure teacher learning across an extended period to provide time for classroom practice, and build a progression of learning events so teachers can continuously (re)identify and further target their gaps
  • Employ coaching, PLCs, peer observation and teacher diaries—including the use of video and other technologies—to support post-event processing and feedback needed for authentic and deeper learning
  • Where professional learning extends beyond the school/district or is not specific to the local curriculum and instruction, provide local PLCs or other opportunities for that localization with peers and practice to enable relevance (to the curriculum and school practice)
  • Facilitate participation in PLCs where teachers can connect asynchronously and flexibly schedule synchronous sessions, including with teachers and experts outside their school/district as well as with peers within the district
  • Consider repurposing large-group synchronous learning for more personalized components such as for observation/feedback and peer-to-peer learning
  • Design with dual purposes where possible, such as ice breakers built around relevant topic or experience and professional learning that embeds and mimics sound pedagogy that teachers can apply to their teaching

7. Build flexible content pathways, including through competency-based progressions and modular approaches

Formal education is traditionally based on fixed-path, semester-long courses, which is especially challenging for professionals trying to fill learning gaps within their busy days. We recognize that our students have unique needs and pathways, and the same is true for teachers as learners. More flexible, mastery-based and modular designs can help teachers target what they need and when they need (or have time for) it.

Recommended Practices

  • Support learner agency and choice over learning pace, path, time and place, including not only mastery-based progressions and on-demand formats but also choice boards or playlists within a given learning goal or task to reflect principles of universal design, diversity and inclusion
  • Build mastery-based and self-paced progressions by documenting teacher competencies at a granular level, mapping content and learning to those outcome goals, embedding formative assessment and choice, and sequencing stackable content progressions
  • Design with a balance of structure (e.g., preconfigured pathways) and flexibility (e.g., the ability to “choose your own adventure” based on teacher interests, needs or demonstrated mastery)
  • Create or (de)construct courses/content as shorter, stackable modules with clear articulation of learning outcomes, expected prior knowledge and pathways so teachers can learn in small, on-demand doses
  • Provide easy, informal on-ramps to professional learning such as through a social media post, a blog or even a question that triggers teacher interest and aligns to a course, module or other content pathway where they can then go deeper where they have interest/need
  • Scaffold content and activities over an extended period for an adaptive experience of learning preparation, absorption, practice and review through which knowledge and skills are applied and deepened over time
  • Integrate assessments across the professional learning infrastructure and within all courses/content to enable a personalized or mastery model, including pre-assessment to identify prior knowledge and suggested pathways as well as post-learning growth measures
  • Incorporate a variety of methods for self-, peer, formative and summative evaluation of teacher knowledge and skills during their learning journey such as through activities, quizzes, rubrics and practice portfolios for flexible and authentic demonstration of learning
  • Where appropriate, use student data to identify gaps in student learning and thus in teacher expertise/needs for individual teachers and cohorts
  • Embrace micro-credentials and badging as a flexible, empowering framework for evaluating and recognizing teacher mastery, including alignment of multiple pathways to a given badge

8. Employ multiple formats, methods and modalities for effective instructional design and learning personalization

While COVID-19 was a catalyst for digital professional learning, the use of hybrid models and multi-event experiences often remains the outlier to traditional in-person, one-time workshops. The intentional use of technology can provide a more engaging and meaningful professional learning experience that better meets individual needs as well as matches the most appropriate format to the learning task. A blending of in-person and online, synchronous and asynchronous, and group and independent learning can most effectively ensure sound instruction and learner agency.

If you can email the training content, do so (or make it available on demand), and save the real time spent together for deeper learning.

Tara Linney, Founder, TL Specialists (read more here)

Recommended Practices

  • Blend synchronous and asynchronous activities, including the use of a flipped classroom model that enables on-demand, self-paced consumption and leaves live sessions (online or in-person) for deeper feedback and discussion
  • Supplement live (online or in-person) PD with ongoing virtual engagement, including asynchronous discussion groups, on-demand resources, and video/audio recording of live sessions (with automated, time-stamped closed captioning for enhanced access and navigation)
  • Leverage external social media, online discussion groups and online PLCs to crowd-source (from peers and experts) and scale personalization to a degree not otherwise practical within a district
  • Use notifications and social media groups to push or enable subscription to bursts of professional learning content that introduce concepts as a catalyst for further exploration
  • Apply multi-media across purposes, such as audio podcasts that teachers can access during their commute, video recordings to demonstrate a classroom practice, and video journals or portfolios for teachers to record or annotate their instructional methods for feedback
  • Where synchronous or interactive experiences are integrated in an asynchronous learning experience or course, leverage discussion threads and similar tools that are more flexible to teacher schedules than in-person-only options
  • Use technology to create engaging and inclusive learning experiences and communities, including universal design principles, video, closed captioning and interactives
  • Where synchronous professional learning requires or applies technology, enable any pre-requisite technology tool training to happen independently and on demand so that live and group learning time can be optimized and not disrupted by basic how-to technology questions
  • Use QR codes, bit.ly links, etc., to simplify the connections/navigation between in-person learning and online resources (synchronously or later on-demand)

Conclusion

As K-12 educators continue to reimagine the way schools, teaching and learning can be more student centered and personalized, you have the opportunity to lead the way with more personalized teacher professional learning. Curating learner agency, enabling the use of blended and hybrid models, and increasing learning relevance and flexibility for teachers not only support their own effectiveness, but also model best practices for their own classrooms and instruction.

Giving teachers agency around the topic, time, place and pace of their learning is also important to teacher satisfaction in their professional learning and therefore their overall satisfaction. Increased effectiveness, comfort with learning personalization (for themselves and their students) and satisfaction are all important to address increased teacher burnout.

The best practices curated above may seem overwhelming. As educators and administrators, you should not expect to implement and succeed with all of these practices at once. Instead, reflect on your own experiences and needs, identify first steps, and take an iterative approach of continuous improvement as you would with any new initiative or method. Open communications and collaboration so that teachers are more empowered and in control of their learning as professionals. Most importantly, recognize that professional learning is as important as ever to grow teacher capacity.

About the Guide/Working Group Acknowledgements

D2L-commissioned research identified an extensive gap between the interests and the actual experiences of teachers in their professional learning methods and formats. In response, D2L gathered our partner education leaders on the frontier of modernizing teacher PD to help fill this gap that many school systems face in identifying and operationalizing alternative models.

We invited our partners to join an interim professional learning community to share, reflect and formulate recommended practices. We met in small, shifting study groups from July to October of 2022. We asked questions, tested our hypothesis, engaged in synchronous and asynchronous activities, and curated a consensus on the most impactful considerations and practices. The result is this practitioner-driven guide.

D2L thanks the following individuals and organizations for contributing their time and expertise toward creating this guide:

  • Daniel Badea, Education Program Specialist, Office of Approaches to Teaching and Professional Learning, Ohio Department of Education
  • Cathy Cavanaugh, Chief Experience Officer, The University of Florida Lastinger Center
  • Danielle Croft, Facilitator, Innovative Education, Durham District School Board
  • Rhianon Gutierrez, Director of Digital Learning, Boston Public Schools
  • Jennifer Harriton-Wilson, Education Technology Coordinator, Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES
  • Liz Miller Lee, Director of Online Learning, ISTE
  • Heidi Oliver, Executive Director of Professional Growth and Development, Ann Arundel County Public Schools
  • Anne Perez, Senior Professional Learning Specialist, Michigan Virtual
  • Alex Prinstein, Strategy Manager, Coaching, The University of Florida Lastinger Center
  • Allie Sberna, Professional Development eLearning Coordinator, Ohio Department of Education
  • Stacey Schuh, Senior Director of Professional Learning Services, Michigan Virtual

This project was led by D2L’s Mark Schneiderman. Special thanks also go to D2L colleagues Kassia Gandhi, David Gomes and Brittany Singleton.

Written by:

Mark Schneiderman
Mark Schneiderman

Mark Schneiderman is Senior Director for the Future of Teaching and Learning at D2L. Mark curates research and strategic partnerships to support the K-12 education sector in identifying and implementing best practices. He previously held senior roles in the technology and nonprofit sectors where he built public-private partnerships to help imagine and advocate for public and school policies that enhance student success through the use of technology and digital learning.

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Table Of Contents
  1. Overview
  2. Introduction
  3. Summary of Recommended Practices
  4. Recommended Practices in Detail
  5. Conclusion
  6. About the Guide/Working Group Acknowledgements
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