Wednesday / April 24

Close-to-Practice Professional Learning

Is your professional learning close to practice? Schools and districts would do well to consider this question for each investment they make in professional development activities for both teachers and administrators.

Consider the following continuum of professional learning activities:


Activity that is “far from practice” seldom penetrates the classroom to influence teaching and learning. Research consistently demonstrates that we can’t improve teaching and learning by relying on generic coursework and materials, single episodes of training, or even complex assessment and evaluation systems. And yet, so much of what we propose, debate, and measure in education fits this description. These activities can be useful resources to support the improvement process, but they ultimately stop short of the classroom and leave teachers to independently navigate implementation and improvement efforts.

Conversely, activity that is “close to practice” meets four critical requirements:

  1. Involves deep study and understanding of specific curriculum;
  2. Focuses on highly relevant, day-to-day work and pressing instructional issues;
  3. Hinges on deliberate study of the relationship between teaching and learning;
  4. Is sustained over time and embedded into teachers’ regular routines of planning, teaching, and reflection.

These types of improvement activity hold ecological validity: engaging teachers in analysis of “key complexities–curriculum, student characteristics, materials, and physical environment…that must be taken into account as we try to improve classroom teaching” (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999, p. 122). Japanese lesson study and other forms of collaborative teacher inquiry provide useful examples.

They also require significant support and resources and often take years to scale and develop. Fewer resource-intensive learning opportunities play an important role as well, such as simulated teaching exercises and video analysis tasks to practice classroom decision-making. These closer-to-practice models can help teachers deepen knowledge and judgment but still remain supplementary to job-embedded, sustained, close-to-practice forms of continual improvement.

With such important outcomes at stake and such limited resources available for schools, the question of proximity-to-practice should be front-and-center for policymakers, district officials, and school leaders. Teachers, parents, and students deserve nothing less.


Ermeling, B.A. & Graff-Ermeling. G. (2016). Teaching better: Igniting and sustaining instructional improvement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ermeling, B. A., & Gallimore, R. (2014/2015). Close to practice learning. From the December 2014/January 2015 online version of Educational Leadership, 72(4). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. ©2014 by ASCD. Adapted with permission.

Stigler, J., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

Written by

Bradley A. Ermeling is a Principal Research Scientist with Pearson’s Research and Innovation Network and a member of a research team from UCLA and Stanford. He spent seven years working as an educator in Japan, developing firsthand knowledge and expertise with Japanese lesson study, and has published numerous articles on developing and supporting systems for collaborative inquiry and continuous learning. In the United States, he taught high school English, special education, and directed professional learning programs, before shifting his attention to educational research. He was a co-recipient of the 2010 Best Research Award from Learning Forward for his contributions to research on instructional improvement through inquiry teams. He was also coauthor for the article titled “Learning to Learn from Teaching: A Firsthand Account of Lesson Study in Japan” which was named 2015 Outstanding Paper of the Year by Emerald Publishing and the World Association of Lesson Studies. Dr. Brad Ermeling’s current research interests include lesson study and collaborative inquiry, facilitation practices that promote productive struggle, and digital resources that support the study of teaching and learning.

Genevieve Graff-Ermeling is Chief Academic Officer at Orange Lutheran High School, educational researcher and consultant. She spent seven years working as an educator in Japan, developing curriculum and participating firsthand in Japanese lesson study projects. She also taught and designed curriculum at the high school level in the United States. She has held several positions as an external coach and site-based facilitator of teacher reflection, design of assessments, inquiry-based science teaching, and the use of data to inform teaching in multiple subject areas for both elementary and secondary, public and private schools. She has a degree in behavioral science with an emphasis in anthropology and helped lead a medical outreach team conducting research in Honduras. She was coauthor of the autoethnography titled, “Learning to Learn from Teaching: A Firsthand Account of Lesson Study in Japan” which was named 2015 Outstanding Paper of the Year by Emerald Publishing and the World Association of Lesson Studies. She was also an elite runner, NAIA national champion, and competed in the 5000 meters for the 2004 US Olympic trials. Genevieve Ermeling’s current research interests are practice-based professional learning for high school educators, transformative models of teacher professional growth, and methods for assessing and assisting learning through the zone of proximal development.

Brad and Genevieve are the authors of Teaching Better: Igniting and Sustaining Instructional Improvement.

Latest comments

  • Your blog raises a question which challenges me in my work with school leaders: How can we help school leaders more actively use the concept, “Close-to-Practice Professional Learning,” as an effective lens for planning the professional development for their schools? What I often hear when working with school and district leaders is their “need for a workshop or PD on reading, writing, math, the resource, or standards.” What I do not hear and what they cannot answer without great difficulty is “What do you want your teachers to be able to do with the information after the workshop or PD?” While this may seem like a simple question to an outsider, to a school leader without a long-range plan the answer is often elusive; so money is wasted on PD unrelated to real teacher/school needs, teacher morale suffers, and principal/district leadership credibility is compromised. To move closer-to-practice, school leaders must partner with PD providers making the connections between the PD and the school goals/needs. How do we help leaders do that? I look forward to your insights on this and your new book, Teaching better: Igniting and sustaining instructional improvement. Thank you for your latest publication and research on the topic.

    • Dear Laura,

      Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and reflective comments about close-to-practice teacher learning. Thanks also for raising the important question: How do we help leaders partner with PD providers to make more intentional connections between PD and the school’s specific goals/needs? A good place to start would be to sit down with the school leader, inventory their current PD initiatives and (using the continuum and criteria listed in this post as a starting point) identify the “proximity-to-practice” of each current PD initiative/investment. For those that are lower on the continuum, discuss whether they are worth continued investment or how they might be adapted for closer-to-practice types of professional learning. Then strategize on ways they might collaborate with PD providers to discuss and implement appropriate changes.

      Thanks again for your comments, Laura.

      Brad and Genevieve

  • Aloha,

    I enjoyed reading your blog for several reasons. The first is perhaps stems from a personal perspective in that I am working on my dissertation, problem of study the amount of money spent on teacher/administrators attending professional development and student achievement is stagnate. How can school leaders create a system of PD enhancing teacher efficacy and increase student achievement. Second, I have completed my first year as a school principal and want to ensure school monies are spent purposefully on PD opportunities. Thanks for reading. Any suggestions you have I would love you to share

    • Aloha, Dawn. Thanks for your thoughtful comments on our post…both from your dissertation work and your current role as principal. Glad you are wrestling with these important questions as you determine how to invest funds and provide effective professional learning opportunities for your faculty. The question of effective systems is complex and multi-faceted but a good place to begin is by building a solid team of instructional leaders (teacher-leaders, administrators, and coaches if available) and investing time and resources to equip them as facilitators of adult learning. Close-to-practice learning for teachers requires leadership and support that is dedicated to establishing, protecting, and nurturing settings for continuous inquiry and growth. For every “PD” setting that you invest in for teachers, consider the equally important question: What corresponding settings, resources, and assistance will be needed to help ensure that each professional learning setting is highly relevant, curriculum-aligned, and deliberately focused on the study of teaching & learning?
      – Brad and Genevieve Ermeling

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