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Three Best Practices for Effective Professional Learning

Educators know it’s not sufficient to treat every student with a “one size fits all” approach to instruction. So why is this how so much of the professional development (PD) for teachers is designed? Where are the instructional strategies, careful planning, and sustained, engaging approaches to teaching and learning that we expect to see in any effective classroom? Rather, teachers are most often given one day of PD on a specific topic in August–a day which likely feels irrelevant and is quickly forgotten. This is a great irony and a great shame. Ongoing learning (note the shift from “development”) is critical to the success of any professional, especially educators. A “one and done” model is ineffective and insufficient. It is no wonder that a 2013 report from the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education describes “the most prevalent model of PD nothing short of ‘abysmal’’. 


Our teachers deserve better, and, in truth, we know how to give them better. As the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss noted in 2014, “the reason traditional professional development is ineffective is that it doesn’t support teachers during the stage of learning with the steepest learning curve: implementation”. In contrast, effective professional development is characterized by three critical best practices. It is built to be differentiated, scaffolded, and applicable.


Every educator understands that classroom content must be differentiated. Students start at different places, have a variety of preferences and motivations, and engage with learning in their own individual ways. Effective instruction is built around that reality. And effective professional learning is no different. When it’s not differentiated, it’s more than just poor practice. It’s actively disrespectful! No teacher enjoys sitting through a bland, one-size-fits-all presentation (half the time covering the same content presented last year) with no notice given to what the teachers in the room already know and are most eager to learn. This disincentivizes teachers from wanting to improve their skills, which, in the end, hurts kids.


Differentiated professional learning follows the same basic approach as Universal Design for Learning. Participants should be able to make three affirmations when participating in a well-designed, differentiated experience:

  • There are different ways that a trainer or the materials engage me;
  • There are different ways I can participate; and,
  • There are different ways I can demonstrate my understanding.


Good professional learning should meet teachers where they enter the learning progression on the topic and build from there. This doesn’t have to be so difficult. Often, it is as simple as modifying an activity, changing an example, or implementing the same type of group and model activities that a teacher might in a classroom. But differentiation also means incorporating a variety of approaches to checking for understanding and assessing the knowledge of participants. 


At TouchMath University (TMU), we reconnect with participants after a few days and check to see what teachers may have forgotten to ask or give them a chance to check-in with us if they are unsure they are using a skill or technique correctly. This is crucial because learning new instructional methods is not something you should expect to do perfectly the first time. It takes time, practice, and feedback, and teachers deserve that support in their professional learning.


Scaffolding is another best practice common in classrooms and yet almost entirely absent from most professional learning. Whatever you want teachers to learn, you need to build up, layer by layer. Engaging with prior learning allows participants to build neural pathways that help them more easily access new content. Scaffolding also makes it easier for teachers to apply their learning and connect it with what they do in the classroom.


Whether a teacher is brand new to a certain technique, approach, or topic, or is a long time practitioner, a comprehensive approach is critical for ensuring lasting impact. Sadly, lack of scaffolding is why so many classroom tools, software, and programs get purchased but never really implemented with fidelity. Effective professional learning should meet teachers where they are and build up, using multiple ways to present information. As always, we must check for understanding and give the learners (in our case, educators and sometimes administrators) multiple chances to demonstrate their knowledge and growth. Many of these techniques (such as “I do, We do, You do”) are well-known instructional methods that educators use with students in the classroom yet are somehow neglected when it comes time to teaching adults. 


When designing our professional learning partnerships, the TMU team strives to ensure that nothing is presented before it is first connected to what participants already know. When we approach professional learning this way, we create impact. At TMU, we know our approach is working when we get feedback like, “as a district new to Touch Math, the entire process from the initial information stage to setting up professional development, to implementation has been seamless.” We can see that we achieved our goal of offering a comprehensive and scaffolded approach to professional learning that took complete beginners in our system of math instruction, built them up, and facilitated real adoption and resulted in meaningful use of our resources.



As math people, we know how challenging it can be to teach students when they don’t feel that what they are learning connects to their life and interests. Imagine how much worse it must be for educators with competing pressures and tasks who are being asked (or forced) to sit through another irrelevant professional development session. Getting one day of training in August on a new piece of software and then not using that tool until January is definitely not applicable. By the time you’re using the resource, you have forgotten 80% of what was taught since it was never used and never had the chance to enter long-term memory. If professional learning isn’t applicable, educators won’t retain the knowledge. For teachers, this is a waste of time; for districts, it is a waste of money; for students, it provides no benefit at all.


Applicable training is both differentiated and scaffolded. It’s tied to what educators already know and what and how they learn so they are ready to apply it, practice it, test if implementation is successful, retrain or adapt as needed, and really see impact. Only when educators see that their training is making a difference to students will they incorporate it into their wider instructional practices.


Providing applicable training treats teachers with respect. It treats them as partners. And it requires that we check back in. When teachers leave the initial training, they will have something of a handle on the new content, but that isn’t the end. When a student leaves a lesson having shown progress, we don’t wait until the summative exam to revisit the topic! 


Instead, approach professional learning as an ongoing process where each piece of training is delivered with the appropriate timing that allows teachers to use it immediately and revisit it throughout the year. At TMU, we hold follow-up “Office Hours” between five and ten days after each initial training and we don’t just conduct sessions in August. We work to develop true partnerships with multiple, ongoing checkpoints. We celebrate when school leaders can reflect on the professional learning they receive and say “training was hands-on, interactive and adjusted throughout to ensure all participants were able to walk away with a solid understanding to implement in the classroom.” Our team of Special Education and math experts provide schools and districts with a wide range of customized schedules and options, all able to be delivered in a virtual format.

Putting it Together

Creating highly effective professional learning is not impossible. In fact, all it really takes is the same kind of attention and effort that we ask from all of our classroom teachers daily. It’s unsurprising that teachers so often feel frustrated, jaded, or downright disrespected by the half-measured professional development they all-too-often experience. We can all do better to be authentic partners with the schools, districts, and teachers using our products and services. To do so, we simply need to keep the three best practices of differentiated, scaffolded, and applicable at the forefront whenever we design professional learning partnerships.

Ultimately, we need to approach every professional learning opportunity as an exercise in partnership. When we think of our teachers as partners, we see how important it is to engage authentically with them. Teachers learn from us, but we must learn from them–from the ways they are using the curriculum, from their needs, and from the needs of their students. We should walk away from every training with new ideas and new knowledge that we can use to improve what we do as companies and leaders. 

Effective professional learning is not one-and-done. It is holistic and designed to build internal capacity at school and districts. Our dream for TMU is that we leave behind experts who are available in the school or district for the teachers who understand the full context and who know the needs of students and teachers. That’s a true partnership. 

To learn more about TouchMath University and explore a custom professional learning partnership, click here or fill out the form below.