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Friday / March 23

What Are We Learning About How We Learn?

A note for those who design PD for CCSS and STEM

New, and very good, curricula and technologies (such as CCSS and STEM) are ready for implementation, but designing professional development that will enable them to fulfill their promises is a challenge. Textbooks are appearing, but implementing these requires much more complex teaching than just taking the students through them.

What do we know about how teachers learn that can help us design PD that can enable teachers to achieve rich implementations?

For the last 35 years we, with many colleagues, have struggled to put a few teaspoons of information into the nearly empty bucket of studies on PD and school renewal. We have tried to find out how people can learn to use new curriculums and ways of teaching—not just polishing the old comfortable stuff. We have done some studies that would meet high standards of design, have learned from peering at correlations, and we have stumbled on important things while teaching kids and teachers and talking to the folks next door.

A Line of Research

Our group of teacher-researchers has been compelled to learn how to describe teaching styles and measure teaching skills, how to track transfer from the workshop to the classroom, how to administer individual individualized reading tests, and have at times nearly obsessed over the difference between short-term and the long-term effects. The members have to be conversant with curricula old and new and, when necessary, help the colleagues they are studying decipher the symbols on the whiteboard menu. We’ve had successes and failures. This is the story of how a failure led to innovation – the invention of peer coaching – teachers coaching teachers.

Let’s begin by fast-forwarding to a point where we felt confident about the learning capability of teachers (which is very good!) and the design of PD that would enable just about every educator to develop skill in models of teaching and curriculum that were new to them—including learning the kind of complex practices contained in the common-core and STEM curriculums and technologies.

The following components, implemented well and not rushed, enable folks to build the knowledge and skill needed for short-term implementation.

  1. Opportunities to study the rationale of a new practice, its purposes, evidence supporting it, and its application to school curriculum areas—the basic and applied knowledge base.
  2. Opportunities to see it in action—the study of the knowledge base is interwoven with modeling. Video has been a boon—complex processes can be captured with students of varying characteristics in several curriculum areas.
  3. Opportunities to plan for practice—the participants develop lessons tailored to their own students and curriculum. Essentially, they leave the workshop setting ready to practice. Without studying the rationale, studying demonstrations, and preparing to practice, the participants will not have the skill to implement.


Given those three components, almost everybody builds the knowledge and skill to use those lessons, and they do so. However, when they are observed and interviewed a few weeks down the road, only a handful have created their own new lessons and units and are using them.

Were we stymied? This type of PD is much more elaborate than most staff development offerings. What next to do?

The teachers knew all along!

Teachers had long complained that when a course or set of workshops is over, it is rare that anyone follows up, visiting and providing support and encouragement.

It made good sense to pay attention to those colleagues, so follow-up by the workshop providers was instituted in our next set of studies. Meetings that included more demonstrations, discussions, and preparation of lessons were scheduled every few weeks. And, importantly, the providers dropped in every couple of weeks to discuss progress and offer help.

The duration and frequency of practice rose dramatically—90 percent of the participants used the additions to their repertoire until they became a normal part of practice. Normal means normal. (Our longest follow-up study has lasted 10 years.)

Importantly, as the providers talked with the teachers, most of their expressed needs had to do with weaving the new approach into the curriculum and the flow of their normal practice. They were fine with the interactive skills needed to use the new models. Planning was the major need.

The next question was “Can teachers help each other?”

The problem with provider follow-up is that it is not practical. A couple of providers can work with groups of fifty, sixty, even 100. But they can’t visit that many people on a regular basis. So, we needed to learn whether pairs of teachers could follow themselves! Let’s add to the design a monthly follow-up workshop. Then let’s ask the pairs of participants to get together on a regular basis and discuss how to make the curricular or instructional model work. Even better, they can plan lessons that they both teach so they can share the results and generate solutions to problems.

And they can follow themselves successfully! The arrangement enables implementation to be very high. By the way, teachers do not need special training to be able to work effectively with partners. No special skills are needed for folks to relate over common content and goals. The following figure summarizes the results of the set of studies.

Figure 1.1 Elements of Design

Components Effect on Knowledge Short Term Use–

% implementing

Long Term Use –

% implementing

Rationale +++ 5-10% 5%
Rationale Plus Demonstrations  






Rationale Plus Demonstrations Plus Support for Preparation  







80% and higher





All of the Above, Plus

Peer Coaching




90% and higher


90% and higher


These findings are when new curricula and instructional repertoire is the object. Polishing existing repertoire is easier, but versions of the same components are still helpful.

Related Reading and Guides to Research

Joyce, Bruce & Calhoun, Emily. (2010). Models of Professional Development. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Joyce, Bruce, Weil, Marsha, & Calhoun, Emily. (2015). Models of Teaching. Boston: Pearson.

Joyce, Bruce & Showers, Beverly. (2003). Student Achievement through Staff Development: Alexandria: ASCD.

Joyce, Bruce, & Calhoun, Emily (2012) Realizing the Promiseof the 21st Century. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Written by

Bruce Joyce grew up in New Jersey, was educated at Brown University, and, after military service, taught in the schools of Delaware. He was a professor at the University of Delaware, the University of Chicago, and Teachers College, Columbia University, where he directed the laboratory school and the elementary teacher education program. His research, writing, and consultation are focused on models of teaching, professional development design and implementation, school renewal, and programs for K12 beginning readers and Grade 3-12 struggling readers. Primary topics of his speaking and consultation include Teaching Methods, Curriculum and Content, Staff Development, and 21st Century School Renewal. He lives in Saint Simons Island, Georgia, and can be reached via e-mail at With Emily Calhoun, his most recent book is Models of Professional Development (2010). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Emily Calhoun currently focusses on school improvement and professional development, where she combines practice and research. She specializes in the language arts, particularly the teaching of reading and writing in the elementary grades and literacy development K-12, including programs for struggling readers.

She writes and consults on action research, The Picture-Word Inductive Model of Teaching, and ways of incorporating digital technologies into K-12 learning environments through the development of hybrid courses. She lives in Saint Simons Island, Georgia.


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