Project-based teacher development

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When I was an academic manager about six years ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I had the chance to lead a few different professional development initiatives with varying degrees of success.

The ones which didn’t work as I expected were:

- a points-based rank with about ten criteria; the winner was awarded a sum more or less equivalent to a month’s salary at the end of the academic year
- weekly seminars; these one-hour workshops started out as a big hit, attendance was very high, but then for various reasons it nearly died
- a scheme for certificates or diplomas; the teacher would pay for the qualification him/herself and six months after completion if still working with the company, s/he would be refunded the amount spent on course fees.

I could go on about why each of these plausible initiatives didn’t pan out as I expected, but the reason I write this post is to tell you about the one I considered the most successful.

At the beginning of an academic year, on top of a few other CPD possibilities already in place, I offered teachers the opportunity to develop a project. The teacher could choose an area they would like to learn more about; e.g. task-based learning, lexical approach, learning technologies, testing and assessment, coaching and mentoring, etc - basically anything.

We had about 10 to 15 teachers back then, and only one decided to do this. The teacher, let’s call her Barbara (because that was her name) chose to focus on testing and assessment. Her project was to study things like formative and summative assessment, test design, portfolios, CEFR, validity and reliability, etc. The project would culminate with Barbara submitting a test pack we could use with our students and a presentation to the teaching staff.

My job was to mentor Barbara - to help her establish an action plan, to give her some reading materials, to let her know she was on the right track when she wasn’t sure if she was - you know, these things - and above all, to listen and give expert directions (not usually ‘answers’).

At the end of the academic year, Barbara successfully completed her project and was given a bonus. I think the bonus worked well as an incentive but I’m sure she didn’t embark on the project just because of this.

I cannot say that Barbara’s professional development was superior to others’ because she was the only one who did this. But I can say that to my academic manager / mentor’s eyes, she definitely stood out and showed that this initiative could yield better results than the other ones because:

- the topic is chosen "by" the teacher, which is very different to an ‘expert’ choosing and presenting it "to" the teacher
- it is continuous and coherent, which is very different to a series of workshops on different areas, delivered by different people (with different interests)
- it takes quality time and effort, again very different to just ‘attending’ CPD sessions
- it’s super individualised, if the teacher doesn’t do it, no one will do it for her
- it makes professional development more visible, it is process- and product-oriented at the same time
- the above points support the teacher to develop a specialisation - which only normally occurs in formal courses

Of course, these benefits could as well be the reasons why other teachers didn’t want to develop a project of their own: more responsibility and commitment to something more long-term than the usual CPD activities already available.

Personally, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this was that teacher development can be better if we don’t try to ‘give’ it to teachers, that is, in a transmission mode where the most important decisions (time frame, content, process, product) are already predetermined by academic managers, experts, inspectors, etc. I wish I had tried this project + mentor programme more and tried to understand in more detail how to make it better and how to get more teachers to participate, but I left the school before I could do that.

In sum, I'd like to say that we’ve come along way in developing teaching approaches and methods and we’re now in many cases able to take as given constructs such as learner-centred and learner autonomy; and to a lesser extent but growing we talk about project-based learning and teaching unplugged as desirable progressive/humanistic approaches.

So it’s probably about time the industry internalises things such as:
- teacher-centred CPD
- teacher autonomy
- project-based teacher development
- teacher development unplugged

What do you think?

Willy Cardoso is a freelance teacher trainer and course writer based in Europe. His interests include critical methodologies, artistry in teaching and philosophy of education. He has an MA in Education from the University of Bath. He is also the editor of IATEFL Teacher Development Newsletter.

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