Six characteristics of great professional development (and great classrooms)

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Tom Daccord

For nearly a dozen years, I’ve travelled to various schools to deliver professional development (PD) workshops and presentations.

Over the years, I’ve also sat in on many education technology workshops and presentations at schools, conferences and ‘un-conferences’.1

These experiences have taught me that if our goal is to create fundamental change in classrooms, PD workshops should ultimately devote less time to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of technology and more time addressing pedagogy and best practices. Technology, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily change learning. So, the primary focus of any workshop must be the educator’s vision of a technology, and not the technology itself.

My EdTechTeacher colleague (and HarvardX2 researcher), Justin Reich, and I believe that if we want teachers to integrate exemplary practices and lead and inspire the next generation, then we must prepare them in exemplary learning environments. To this end, we’ve analysed many workshops – ours and those of others – and identified six characteristics that help define exemplary PD workshop environments for educators.


The best PD workshops are constructivist, or marked by experiential learning. In these workshops, participants are actively discovering the features, properties and potential of a tool, app or/and a device. They are also being challenged to make sense of tools for themselves. In sum, we want our participants (and, ultimately, their students) engaged in active inquiry and problem solving, and assuming increased responsibility for their own learning.


We want teacher participants to work collaboratively to uncover solutions to the challenges we provide, and we want them to share and communicate solutions to each other. Putting technology in the service of learning, in our view, means putting technology in the service of preparing students to solve unstructured problems and communicate with deep understanding. As such, we want teachers to exchange ideas and experience a collaborative classroom from a student perspective. Fundamental changes in instructional practices are principally the result of peer-to-peer interaction, whether formal or informal. One reason that edcamps3 are so popular is that they provide a forum for multiple and varied peer-to-peer exchanges throughout a day. Collaborative exchanges between colleagues and discussion around instructional practices sit at the heart of every workshop (or online course) that we run.


By providing both beginner and advanced hands-on challenges, participants work at their own pace, allowing us to model strategies for differentiated learning. We introduce varied tools and apps that provide multiple pathways to learning. These workshops differentiate not only in pace and tools, but also in the modality through which content is delivered.


As instructors, we circulate the room, providing just-in-time assistance and encouragement. We work as facilitators and not principally as experts, and try to foster a proper balance between self-exploration and direction. While participants are working individually or in groups, the instructor is now free to move about the room and engage students on a more individual and personal level, providing guidance and support. The learning becomes less teacher-oriented and more student-centred.


The future of technology is mobile, and a mobile device is the principal means by which many of our students access information and communicate. A mobile device adds a unique element to professional learning, because it removes the limitations of a classroom. Yet, many teachers and administrators struggle to conceive of mobile learning beyond their four walls or in networked communities. So, our primary focus isn’t on mastering the device. It’s rather on helping educators grasp instructional scenarios in a mobile, personalised and differentiated learning environment.


To prepare students effectively, we have to teach them to learn. In our workshops, we attempt to simulate the types of learning spaces we hope that teachers will emulate in their classrooms. In all, there is a marked emphasis on student-directed learning. It is in the constructive learning environment where the learners are making sense of the tools and technological environment. PD should inspire teachers to integrate technologies as creative platforms that manifest student learning and nurture essential skills for our digital age.

At the heart of any educational reform is change in the instructional core. Infrastructure, hardware and apps are important, but the fundamental measure of success is the impact on learning that comes from exchanges between teacher-student and student-student.

Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organisation (see: Daccord is a guest speaker at the South African iPad Summit to be held in Johannesburg in February 2015. Visit for more details.

1. See, for example:
2. HarvardX integrates the development of instructional approaches and digital
tools across Harvard’s campus by providing faculty with pedagogical and
research support. Harvard is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the US.
3. See:

Category: e-Education, Summer 2014

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