The Life Cycle of PD Culture Change, Part 1 | Backon & Quigley | 19 Min Read

In 2000, Peter Senge, of the MIT Sloan School of Management, published his fourth book, Schools That Learn. Early in the book, Senge says the following about learning communities:

The idea of a school that can learn has become increasingly prominent during the last few years. It is becoming clearer that schools can be recreated, made vital, and sustainably renewed not by fiat or command, and not by regulation, but by taking a learning orientation. This means involving everyone in the system to express their aspirations, build their awareness, and develop their capabilities together. In a school that learns, people who traditionally may have been suspicious of one another — parents and teachers, educators and local community, administrators and teachers, students and adults — recognize their common stake in the future of the school and the things they can learn from one another (Senge 5).

More than two decades later, this is what we might read from an independent school head writing to the Board of Trustees:

Last year we continued our strong commitment to faculty growth and learning through professional development at Inspiration Academy. We began the year with three days of training on Equity and Inclusion presented by an outside organization recommended by NAIS. I will send you the very informative slide deck (400 slides). I am confident that our faculty are now prepared to transform our curriculum so that every course considers the issues of equity and inclusion to be a priority. In addition, we devoted four mornings throughout the year to in-service with presentations on the need for more social-emotional learning in our curriculum, grading for equity (we had Joe Feldman come and speak), how we create a Portrait of a Graduate for our website, and techniques for archiving our work (from our own IT folks). Eight faculty members attended conferences including the NAIS annual conference, NAIS People of Color Conference, and our local association’s new faculty workshops. Three faculty members took online courses to improve their teaching skills. Overall, it was a banner year for PD, and I’m sure you’ll agree that we should increase our PD budget for next year given all the activity we are seeing.

Let’s explore this picture.

  • What happened to Senge’s vision of the school that learns? 
  • Does the year of PD sound like it is aligned with a specific strategy or initiative? 
  • Do we get the feeling that there is a learning culture at this school? 
  • Is there a preferred method of professional learning given school and individual teacher needs? 
  • Do we know whether any of the chosen PD experiences had an impact on teacher practice in the classroom or student outcomes?  
  • Is there any discussion of faculty feedback on the workshops or specific goals that were achieved? 
  • Do we know why more faculty members did not elect to have PD experiences? 
  • Why did so many of these experiences consist of standard presentations/courses/conferences instead of something customized for the needs and goals of the school and individual teachers who are at different stages of their careers and have different strengths and weaknesses?

Some educators might call Inspiration’s approach “Professional Development Tourism” or a series of “PD Drive-Bys”.

This is not to say that teachers or schools dislike PD. Rather, schools don’t have the capacity to drive their PD initiatives nor do they have a vision of a learning community. Teachers enjoy learning new things but perceive their time to do so as being very limited. Some teachers even believe that a heavy dose of PD suggests that they might have professional inadequacies. It is the outgrowth of a fixed rather than a growth mindset and a culture that has forgotten that the well-being of their teachers is as important as that of their students.

Consequently, let’s consider professional development that is embedded in the school culture and driven by a learning strategy. It is informed by the needs and goals of the school and individual teachers and implemented in a manner that leads to improved practices and better decision-making. Finally, this professional development is designed to measure the results of each participating individual to ensure that it is effective. That measurement and accompanying reflection on the improvement of student learning outcomes is a key piece of the entire strategy because it will likely impact teachers’ classroom practices. It also speaks to alignment with the mission by asking the question, “What is it that we deem important in the realm of student learning outcomes?” “What will our students be able to do when they leave our school?”

The PD Life Cycle

Step 1 — Build Capacity by Creating a Learning Community

Traditionally, capacity makes one think of how much fits into a suitcase. When we throw things in randomly, the space is used up very quickly, but if we lay everything out and organize it by size, thickness, flexibility, etc., we can fit quite a bit. The same is true for schools. If we are accustomed to a “flavor of the month” PD initiative or annual priorities that will span the scope of requirements from the siloed interest groups over a 10-year period, then our capacity will be diminished. It sends a message to our faculty that we don’t really know who we are as a school, and thus react to the issue of the day with a PD workshop or program.

Coincidentally, that approach aligns with our traditional pedagogical approach in the classroom. Students learn content and skills, and we conclude a segment of that process with a summative assessment. Students who perform poorly on that assessment then become the objects of a reactive strategy to recover their lost knowledge and catch them up to the classroom standard. What if we shifted to a learning culture (instead of a school culture) that was defined by extensive formative assessment as part of the learning process so that summative assessment is simply a confirmation of what we already know about students because the formative feedback loop makes learning visible, a key component of a learning culture.

If we develop a learning strategy in the context of a learning culture that is aligned with our newly-created brief, impactful, and unique mission statement, then capacity has the potential to increase once we have aligned each constituency of our community with both the mission and the learning strategy. How does one do that? By involving all of those constituencies in the process (who are we as a school and how do we want to change the world?), we get buy-in at the core of our institution. With students and faculty trusting that school leadership will help make their lives better, they will sign up for the program. Change occurs more frequently and smoothly, and capacity expands. These principles apply to all school constituencies, but the focus of this piece will be faculty and their role in the learning community.

Schools will only increase capacity if the priorities of their constituents are aligned with those of the strategy and mission builders. If there is limited buy-in for the new program, then capacity will not grow and the project will not have the committed resources to fully succeed. Instead, school leadership will experience frequent occurrences when faculty members say (tacitly or verbally) they accept the program but in reality don’t. If there is no trust between members of the leadership team, administrators, and faculty, then power relationships become the guiding principle, and acceptance and buy-in part ways. Capacity-building will garner true support and enthusiasm while top-down initiatives will garner passive resistance and undermining of priorities. How does one know what true buy-in looks like? Begin with what true student or teacher engagement looks like. The two are quite similar.

In both cases, you will sense an increased level of motivation. Often, it is in the form of questions, either of clarification or challenge. When students are inquiring or actively pushing back, they are engaged. When they are not, they say nothing or make polite comments. The same is the case for faculty. When you describe your vision, the response will tell you if they are engaged. Avoid being too prescriptive as you articulate the vision and strategy. That is implementation and you will want your faculty to have autonomy for the practitioner phase. It is what they do. The same would apply to students. You might ask them a “big” question and tell them the goal is to come up with an insightful response, but not tell them how to go about finding the answer. That is what students do when they are engaged, 

Now you have a fairly good sense of who is on board. There will inevitably be a group of obstructionists. They don’t like your vision because it represents a change to their current practice, it wasn’t their idea, it conflicts with their philosophy of teaching and learning, it seems like too much work, or it is a loss of confidence and well-being that they will mourn. Often it is expressed with statements such as “I am too busy” or “this is too much on top of my workload.” The objections are legitimate and need to be addressed if the school is to move forward with its individualized learning strategy. More on the techniques for expanding alignment with your vision and what to do about those who are unconvinced in the two subsequent articles on building a PD culture. 

Step 2 — Identify Your PD Goals for Creating a Mission-Aligned PD Strategy

If you have a vision for a learning community, what are your specific goals? How will those goals align with the school’s broader strategy for moving forward? For example, if one of your strategic goals is to develop a more individualized approach to student learning (presumably a hallmark of independent schools), what will that look like and how will it impact each school constituency (students, faculty, parents)? Let’s focus on the faculty. If they buy into your vision, creating alignment with this strategic goal, your capacity for change increases and improves the odds that the program will succeed. 

The first step would be to answer the question, “What does a master teacher that instills the values of our school (we are a supportive learning community that keeps our students safe) and is committed to individualized learning look like? Are we able to describe that teacher by defining the competencies for learning adults and then identifying how faculty will demonstrate those competencies? Once we identify those key skills and how they will be affirmed, they can be articulated as a framework that will be used whenever the school provides professional development.

Some will object to this approach, describing it as a creed leading to indoctrination (one size fits all). Be sure everybody understands that the strategy and associated goals are the results of listening to the needs and concerns of all parties invested in the success of students at the school. Remember, frameworks are all about flexibility to adapt to individual circumstances within community-accepted guiding principles.  For example, what teacher or parent would not want the school to address the individual needs of their child? The specific pathways to achieving those goals will vary, based on the individual experiences of the students and the teachers. Some may be well-versed in competencies from workplace experiences, some may want to focus on the merits of project-based work, others may believe that SEL is the key to success in competency-based work, and others may think executive skills are the key to success in the new framework. All of those considerations should be incorporated into a comprehensive learning community strategy, and expertise in each area will be necessary for the success of that strategy. Everybody should understand that, as a learning community, the network of resources that all of the adults in the community bring to this endeavor is important.

Finally, make sure you hit the target when diagnosing the current challenges. If the community misses the mark, and you develop a solution for a symptom rather than the root problem, your strategy is likely to be unsuccessful. For example, if you conclude that the problem is students are not turning in homework, you might revamp your homework policy and see no change in the regularity of submissions. It might be because the homework issue is a symptom of lack of student engagement, the real problem. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that you own the problem. You have a talented faculty who are quite dedicated; how can students lack engagement? Talent doesn’t de facto translate into effective learning. It needs to be channeled, and that is what building capacity and identifying strategic goals as a learning community is designed to do: get everybody on the same page by diffusing blame and emphasizing the possibilities by rethinking a few key steps.

Step 3 — Prioritize the PD Results

One of Steven Covey” “Seven Habits” is, “Begin with the end in mind.” Covey and Grant Wiggins must have known each other because they are both advocates of backward design: 1) What will it take to provide every student with an individualized learning experience? and 2) What will that look like and how will we know the experience was successful? What will each teacher be able to do that they were unable to do before this program (the same question we would ask about our students in a competency-based program)? The tendency is to start by identifying all of the policies and practices that have to change and then create a team to address each. For example, we have to change our grading system because competencies don’t use letters or points. Is changing the grading system a need that should be prioritized? Or is it the result of a more fundamental change? What if we (the teachers) define the competencies we believe make the best teachers (and then students), and decide how they will periodically demonstrate those competencies? Then the grading exercise becomes the natural result of creating a competency-based system. The change results from building something new, not fixing something old. Then the school can decide on a transition plan; perhaps grades will appear with competencies on grade reports and transcripts for three years, and then grades will be dropped.

How do we know what PD is needed and when? Identifying competencies results from the question of what we value in great teaching and learning (what’s our “North Star”?). What we value expands the PD choices rather than narrowing them. PD will now be prioritized by the questions that must be answered to build a new program. How do we identify great teaching and learning given that individualized learning is the strategic/mission-based priority? What does it look like at our school? Does it look different at other schools? Why is it important that we focus on these qualities we have identified (as opposed to others)? Isn’t our program driven by the sheer talent and effectiveness of our faculty? Is there anything threatening about discovering and identifying our collective strengths?

Note that these questions suggest that competencies, unlike standards, will be cross-disciplinary or learning community goals. It is great for a geometry course goal to state: students will be able to calculate the hypotenuse of a triangle if they are to successfully survey property lines. That is not, however, a community goal or competency. Instead, it may be one of several skills from Geometry that meet the criteria of a competency such as critical and analytical thinking skills. Students might satisfy the requirements of that competency through a pathway that offers specific skills in some academic disciplines. Then think about how teacher success would be ascertained. Is it all about student success, relative or absolute? Are there mitigating factors that might shift the focus from student success?

If we are going to improve student learning at our school, and that is certainly a goal for which we all strive (hopefully in unique ways from school to school), then we have to focus on identifying what we want our students to take from their education at Inspiration Academy (like the example above) and how we will know that they have learned what we have prioritized. You are likely thinking about summative assessments, as that is how we currently identify ways in which one demonstrates what they have learned. The notion of a summative assessment is instructive in this context if we broaden our thinking about types of assessments. If the competency is effective communication skills, then how do we confirm that a student or teacher has met our expectations? What types of assessments would be appropriate and who would administer them? As Covey and Wiggins say, once we identify the learning community goals and associated competencies, the success criteria (assessment) is the next step. We work backward until we arrive at the actual PD requirements that support the success criteria and the learning community goals.

Step 4 — Implement Your PD Plan

Now it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. You have a vision. You’ve been able to build a learning community with buy-in or alignment from most of your community in support of that vision. You have prioritized the PD needs based on a series of questions that will ultimately provide different answers to different people. Now it’s time to create the actual PD. How would we create a flexible workshop or a set of resources for independent or small group work? We’ve got some content to think about (what are competencies?), we’ve got some skills to consider (how do we choose the five or six most important competencies, and what do we do with those we decided not to use?), and we’ve got an approach to determine (what are the pedagogies for the PD experiences?). 

While we might agree on content and skills, pedagogy might be less clear, and it may not be “one size fits all.” This is where good PD design enters the picture, and while it might seem unimportant to the earlier questions and challenges, it can make or break the success of the entire initiative. To say it another way, if faculty do not have a good PD experience for this project, all the time you spent building the alignment and trust between you and your faculty will be wasted.

Do we have models for the PD that will fit best at your school? Unfortunately, based on your questions and success criteria, you may well come to the conclusion that most of the PD your faculty experienced in the past was a waste of time and money because it was disconnected from the learning community goals and strategies. That’s why, for example, sending a team of three teachers to a DEI workshop or conference resulted in no qualitative or quantitative change in intra-community relations. While the workshop leaders may have been very inspiring and helpful, they were unable, by definition, to apply the context of your institution and its challenges.

You may ask who the experts are if they are not those who lead these conferences. They are experts in their field, but they are amateurs at applying their knowledge to your school community, particularly from the podium at the conference. Independent schools are often married to what we call “best practices.” The term confuses a normal distribution, which defines frequency, with the concept of quality. If many schools are applying a specific practice or system, it means that it is popular, not that it is excellent. The experts on excellence at your school will be found in your community. You may need support in extracting that excellence from outside experts who are willing to commit the time to fully understand your culture, but at the end of the day, you will be implementing the programs that lead to change, in this case, more individualized education.

Again, there is no magic bullet for success. We do know a few things that should be instructive as we consider the implementation plan:

  1. Active learning is the theme of the day. While your faculty may have been well-trained to be effective passive learners, imagine how well they will do as active learners (the same applies to students).
  2. Self-service is another important theme. It’s okay to provide learners with resources if you feel they are “essential” to the successful learning of the target skill or content. However, in a learning culture, learners discover on their own, sometimes with guidance.
  3. What about the online vs. F2F debate? It doesn’t matter. The quality of the learning experience is the goal. Delivery of that quality experience should be secondary. If we were married to the research, we would provide a blended experience.
  4. The setting is critical and should be appropriate to the topic. For example, if tomorrow’s workshop is focused on experiential learning, a conference room or classroom is not an effective setting for learning.
  5. The overall size of the group for the PD experience? Size doesn’t matter. If the entire faculty will be involved at the same time and we respect #1-4, then the group will, by necessity, be broken down into smaller groups or individuals (we prefer small groups because learning is a social process and the brain is a social organ). When do you need to bring larger groups together? When the goal is common understandings (we all need to work on conflict resolution, for example), differentiated from the inventory of competencies and knowledge that your learning community faculty will embrace on their own.


Some of you may be thinking that the life cycle of PD culture is vastly different than the PD you have experienced in the past. That’s because learning organizations commit to a prescription: follow steps 1-4, rinse (self-evaluate), and repeat. We are building a community of people who understand the mathematical concept of limits. We can get closer and closer to the axes (our goals), but we never quite get there, and thus we are in a process of continuous improvement to meet the goals that align with our strategies and mission. That’s why building a PD learning culture is cyclical (and non-Western!). Gone are the days of “drive-by PD”. These are one-shot PD workshops that are disconnected from the core goals and strategies of the school, often led by “experts” from outside (because there are no experts at the school?), and are often selected by administrators for a larger group of teachers with the assumption that they all have the same needs and aspirations. Instead, view LeBron James as the learning culture role model. Arguably the best basketball player in the current game, James spends his entire off-season practicing and improving all the skills he is famous for because there is always room for improvement, in his view. That is a cornerstone of a learning culture. We can always serve our students better than we currently do.

Joel Backon

Joel Backon has been the Editor of Intrepid Ed News since its inception in January 2021, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network, owner of Intrepid, in 2019 as Vice President. Joel spent much of his career at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held founding roles in Information and Academic Technology, as well as being a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, coach, dorm head, and student adviser. Prior to Choate, Joel spent 15 years in the printing and publishing industry educating printers on how to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. He has crusaded to achieve consensus on the question of why we educate kids in an effort to meet the learning needs of every student.

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