Distinguishing Models of Professional Development: The Case of an Adaptive Model's Impact on Teachers' Knowledge, Instruction, and Student Achievement

By Koellner, Karen; Jacobs, Jennifer | Journal of Teacher Education, January-February 2015 | Go to article overview

Distinguishing Models of Professional Development: The Case of an Adaptive Model's Impact on Teachers' Knowledge, Instruction, and Student Achievement


Koellner, Karen, Jacobs, Jennifer, Journal of Teacher Education


Across the United States, professional development (PD) opportunities for teachers abound and are offered in a variety of formats. The teacher education field is moving diligently in the direction of highlighting the characteristics of effective PD and evaluating the impact of various types of PD to inform research, policy makers, and school districts alike. There is an emerging consensus as to what high-quality, effective PD looks like (National Academy of Education, 2009). In one recent review of the literature, Borko, Jacobs, and Koellner (2010) presented a synthesis of the characteristics of high-quality PD, organized around content, process, and structure. With respect to content, research highlights the importance of focusing the PD on students' thinking and learning. With respect to process and structure, participating actively and collaboratively in professional learning communities appears to be essential.

Given the general agreement in terms of these broad outlines for PD, one might expect that recently developed models would look relatively similar to one another. However, this is not the case. We argue that there is an important distinction between the formats of PD that are currently available to teachers, with implications for various stakeholders. We posit that PD models fall on a continuum of adaptability (Borko, Koellner, Jacobs, & Seago, 2011; Koellner & Seago, 2010), shown in Figure 1. Using this continuum enables PD models to be located on a scale from highly adaptive to highly specified. PD models on the highly adaptive end are designed to be readily responsive or adapted to the goals, resources, and circumstances of the local PD context. These models are based on general and evolving guidelines rather than specific content, activities, and materials. On the other end of the continuum are highly specified approaches to PD where goals, content resources, and facilitation materials are provided to ensure a particular, predetermined PD experience. The PD experience is expected to be finite in nature, often based on published materials with stated learning goals, explicit design characteristics, and extensive supports for facilitators. Naturally, there are PD programs that lie on points all along this continuum with varying levels of specificity and adaptability.

Although we conjecture that this continuum can be used to classify PD models across domains in the education field, in this article our focus is on mathematics PD and therefore our examples are drawn from studies within that content area. Furthermore, in our discussion of various examples to unpack the distinction between adaptive and specified models, we do not attempt to place all of these examples on the continuum. Our goal here is to broadly describe the two constructs--adaptive and specified--distinguishing among them, showcasing a range of possibilities, highlighting how the research methodology frequently applied within these categories differs, and considering some of the implications that have otherwise gone unnoticed, in part, due to clustering all PDs under one umbrella.

It is important to point out that our classification approach treats PD models as "systems," rather than as sets of features or effective characteristics. Just as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Video Study viewed classroom teaching as a "system" embedded within a cultural context (Hiebert et al., 2005), we view PD as a system with a structure that includes an integrated set of features carried out in a given context (Borko, Virmani, Khachatryan, & Mangram, 2014). Defining PD from a systems perspective is critical to our proposed adaptability continuum. Knowing the features of a given model is not adequate information to place that model on the continuum. Rather, we must consider the synergistic whole of the PD model, recognizing the unique juxtaposition of the goals, expectations, and contextual elements that together form the core of the model. …

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