Professional development for educators represents a significant investment of time and energy. If done without applying the principles of adult learning, the outcomes are minimal, whereas the results of high-quality professional development can be expansive (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Gaumer Erickson et al., 2017).
Numerous adult learning methods and professional development practices are associated with positive outcomes for participant learning and implementation (Trivette et al., 2009). Strategies to support successful implementation include relating new content to their existing context, practicing with feedback, dialoguing about the content, self-assessing and reflecting on learning, and participating in sustained implementation coaching and collaboration (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Gaumer Erickson et al., 2017; Guskey & Yoon, 2009; Learning Forward, 2011; Trivette et al., 2009).
Well-designed and implemented professional development should be considered an essential component of a comprehensive system of teaching and learning that supports students to develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to thrive in the 21st century.
—Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner (2017, p. vii)
Ongoing monitoring of the quality of professional development influences planning, implementation, and refinement. The Observation Checklist for High-Quality Professional Development—Version 3.2 (HQPD Checklist; Gaumer Erickson et al., 2023) outlines 21 key indicators of quality professional development. Since 2015, the instrument has been used to evaluate more than 5,000 hours of professional development across numerous states. To learn more about the research informing the HQPD Checklist, read the article published in Professional Development in Education (Gaumer Erickson et al., 2017) or watch the webinar sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE; Noonan, 2019).
The HQPD Checklist supports professional development providers in designing, implementing, and refining professional development practices. The checklist was purposefully designed to be applicable for in-person, virtual, synchronous, and asynchronous professional learning. It outlines 21 indicators across five domains. Click on each domain to learn more.
Begin With the End in Mind
The first step in designing professional development is to identify the anticipated outcomes. What will the learners be able to do? How will they know they are successful?
These outcomes are typically documented as learning targets or objectives (Hattie & Zierer, 2018; Marzano, 2013; Moss & Brookhart, 2012). For example:
- I will draft an IEP annual goal that meets the SMARTIE criteria.
- My team will design a unit plan integrating an academic concept with an interpersonal skill addressing each of the six instructional criteria.
- Participants will apply the principles of trauma-informed functional behavior analysis by analyzing a student’s behavior through lenses of trauma-informed analyses.
Well-developed outcomes guide the design of professional development and help determine the use of presentation time, activities, practice, reflection, and assessment of outcomes (Wiggins et al., 2005). As identified in the HQPD Checklist, the participants benefit from an opportunity to see several examples across different contexts, practice the new skill or knowledge with constructive feedback, evaluate their performance based on criteria, and reflect on how this new learning will impact their current practice.
The goal of professional development is for the participants not only to know about the content but also to become skilled in its application. Engaging participants in complex or higher-order thinking has them go beyond the basic levels of comprehension to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and interpret the content. Complex thinking about the content allows participants to process and make judgments, connect the content into their contexts, and apply the content in complex situations (Mainali, 2013; Moore, 2010).
Learning targets that address higher-order skills include verbs such as apply, analyze, evaluate, or create. Other verbs that can be used to demonstrate higher-order thinking include implement, organize, differentiate, plan, or produce. This graphic of Bloom’s Taxonomy provides examples of action verbs to engage participants in complex thinking. During professional development, engaging participants in complex thinking requires structured activities—these activities often involve processing and discussion time. The agenda should be purposefully planned to ensure time for this complex thinking.
It is critical to ensure that the considerable resources and effort devoted by the organizers, presenters, and participants lead to improved outcomes. The HQPD Checklist provides evidence-based indicators following implementation science that address best practices for adult learning. Through quality professional development, participants acquire knowledge and skills, integrate the skills into their professional practice, and observe improved outcomes for their students. Several resources, provided in the text box above, support professional learning design, including the HQPD Guidance Document, the HQPD Webinar, and Guidance for Utilizing External Presenters.