Sunday / May 19

The Secret to Powerful Job-Embedded Professional Development

In my work helping schools and districts across the nation and abroad transition from a traditional “one-day sit and get” model of professional development to more effective and engaging models of job-embedded professional learning such as inquiry/action research and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), I often find one of the most challenging aspects for enacting more powerful professional learning for educators is deciding what to focus professional learning on.

This is not surprising as teaching and learning are such highly complex acts. It is natural and normal for teachers and principals to experience several felt difficulties and real-world dilemmas every day, making it challenging to decide where to place the limited time dedicated for professional growth and renewal in schools and chart a path for professional learning that is wrapped around the learning of students. Yet, without a clearly defined focus, mechanisms for job-embedded professional learning that hold great promise to impact schools such as inquiry/action research and PLCs, risk becoming no different than one day sit and get models of professional development, as educators jump from one topic to another without devoting the sustained time and energy needed for deep professional learning to occur.

One way to define a focus for job-embedded forms of professional learning is through the development of a good question. Capturing the focus and direction of your professional learning in the form of a question serves many purposes. First, questions inherently stimulate thinking and the pondering of practice, which are the foundational aspects of job-embedded learning. Second, questions invite wonder about how the teaching and learning conditions in one’s classroom or school could be different, and ultimately, improved upon. Finally, questions often spark more questions, keeping professional learning rich and vibrant overtime.

Not all questions are created equal, however. Teachers, who use questions on a daily basis to frame student learning, know that there are several types of questions (i.e., fact/recall, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) and use different types of questions for different purposes throughout the teaching day. A simple fact/recall question would not be the right type of question to guide professional learning. Rather, in order to invite, frame, and provide rich and vibrant direction for your professional learning, questions must contain five important characteristics:

  1. First, a good question to guide professional learning is one that evokes passion. Being passionate about your question will provide you the energy needed to sustain your professional learning over time when there are so many competing demands for your time and energy as a teacher or administrator.
  1. Second, a good question to guide professional learning is one that is focused on student learning. One of the most important aspects of job-embedded forms of professional development is that they wrap the learning of teachers around the learning of students, ensuring a direct connection between professional development and classroom practice.
  1. Third, a good question to guide professional learning is one that is focused inward on changing one’s own practice, rather than focused outward on changing the practice of others (teaching colleagues and students). An important premise of job-embedded professional development is that the only person an educator can “control” is him/herself. Questions that focus on changing the behavior of others rarely lead to the important self-discoveries about teaching and schools that job-embedded professional learning can reveal. However, when a professional learning question is focused inward and reveals important insights about student learning that is subsequently shared with others within and outside your school, it can often serendipitously lead to positive change in the behavior of administrators, teaching colleagues, and/or students themselves.
  1. Fourth, a good question to guide professional learning is one that is genuine, meaning the answer to the question is not something the professionals who wish to explore it already know. While this may seem like common sense, it is not uncommon for individuals to initiate professional learning that falls within their current comfort zone because it feels safe. However, if you stay on this path, you risk investing time and energy into professional learning that will merely confirm something you already know, and not lead to any new discoveries to inform teaching and learning in your classroom or school.
  1. Finally, a good question to guide professional learning is one that is phrased in an open-ended manner. One of the major reasons to engage in job-embedded professional learning in the first place is because, as mentioned earlier, teaching and learning are such inherently complex activities. Because teaching and learning are so complex, it’s often counterproductive to pose a question that requires a simple yes/no answer. Through job-embedded professional learning, educators are not after solely finding out if something “works”—few endeavors in education can be sorted dichotomously into a “what works” and “what doesn’t work” category. Rather, through job-embedded learning, educators explore how and why something is working or not working and even pose the question, “What does it mean for something to work in the first place?”

Formulating a good question to guide professional learning is not an easy task, and takes time and effort. To help teachers and administrators develop good professional learning questions that contain all five characteristic mentioned above, I developed a protocol with my colleague Mrs. Mickey MacDonald, a biology teacher at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Florida, who also leads professional development at her school. We used this protocol to guide small group discussion at a faculty meeting as teachers and administrators brought questions with them to help both individual and small groups of teachers and administrators develop a focus for their professional learning in the year to come:


Developed by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Mickey MacDonald

Timeframe: 15 Minutes Per Group Member


  • Is the question something your colleague is passionate about exploring?
  • Is the question focused on student learning?
  • Is the question focused on your colleague’s own practice?
  • Is the question a REAL question (a question whose answer is not known?)

 Step One:  Framing and Sharing the Question  (3-4 Minutes) – Presenter shares the dilemma that led to his/her question and shares the question with the group.

 Step Two:  Probing Questions (6 Minutes) – Participants pose probing questions about the dilemma and question.  Probing questions are open-ended and designed to help the presenter think more deeply about the framing and articulation of his/her question as well as provide more information to the group about the presenter’s thinking.

Sample Probing Questions: 

  • What is most important for you to learn related to your dilemma? In what ways does your question address what is important to you?
  • In what ways might your students benefit from your exploration of this question?
  • What do you already know about the topic of your dilemma? In what ways might gaining insights into your question enhance what you already know?
  • What aspects of your dilemma are within your control? Outside your control?  In what ways does your question reflect what you can control?

Step Three:  Fine-Tuning the Question  (4-5 Minutes) – Based on what they heard in Steps One and Two, participants provide suggestions for fine-tuning the wording of or reframing the question.

TIP:  Questions are generally not phrased in a dichotomous (yes/no) fashion.  If a question is phrased dichotomously, try rewording using the following question starters

  • In what ways does . . .
  • What is the relationship between . . .
  • How do students experience . . .
  • What happens when . . .
  • How does . . .

Step Four:  Presenter Thanks.  (1 minute maximum)Presenter briefly shares insights he/she gained into his/her question and thanks group members for their support.

Protocol reprinted from The PLC Book by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey, Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press, 2015.

The use of this protocol sparked meeting conversation that helped the faculty find a professional development focus for the year that was individual in some cases and collective in others. For example, eleven teachers at the school formed a learning community based on their shared dissatisfaction with current grading practice and interest in Standards-Based Grading.  The group read and discussed literature on Standards-Based Grading and formulated the following overarching question to guide their PLC’s work: “What are the implications of changing our practice to incorporate elements of standards-based grading?” To investigate this overarching question, the teachers in this PLC used the protocol above to develop five sub-questions that different individuals or subsets of individuals within this PLC explored and shared with the group as their work extended over the course of the 2014-2015 school year. The impact of this professional learning endeavor was so great that in the current school year, 31 additional teachers and administrators joined this professional learning community to further explore standards-based grading and its effect on student learning and achievement at P.K. Yonge!

Indira Gandhi once said, “The power to question is the basis of all human progress.” To establish a direction for job-embedded professional learning, use the power to question as a guide.

Written by

Nancy Fichtman Dana is currently professor of education in the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida, Gainesville. She began her career in education as an elementary school teacher in Hannibal Central Schools, New York. Since earning her Ph.D. from Florida State University in 1991, she has been a passionate advocate for engaging teachers in powerful job-embedded professional learning and has worked with numerous schools and districts across the nation and abroad to develop inquiry-oriented learning communities as well as conducted much research on inquiry, learning communities and other forms of job-embedded learning. She has published ten books and over 60 articles in professional journals and edited books focused on teacher and principal professional development. Her latest book, The PLC Book, coauthored with Diane Yendol-Hoppey, is available from Corwin in November.

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