5 Alternatives to Traditional Professional Development for K-12 Professionals

Many paths lead people to careers in K-12 classrooms, but getting there is just the beginning. Here are alternatives to the traditional professional development options.

By Susan Brooks-Young

Many paths lead people to careers in K-12 classrooms, but getting there is just the beginning. Despite conventional wisdom that teachers are born and not made, the best in the field recognize the importance of ongoing, well-designed professional development activities for all educators, not just those who don’t find teaching second nature.

Why? K-12 instruction is ever-evolving. Researchers have learned a great deal about sound instructional practices, assessment, and classroom management techniques over the last few years and are discovering more all the time. Advances in mobile technologies and increased student access to these devices requires new approaches to classroom instruction.

The good news is that every teacher can become even better, given the right opportunities. The bad news is that not all professional development activities are appropriate or relevant for today’s teachers.

Late last spring the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published a list of the current top 10 hot topics in the world of education technology. Not surprisingly, the list included things like coding, making, and virtual reality.

But one item was a revelation: A large number of teachers cited the need for alternative forms of professional development, such as unconferences, Twitter chats, and informal online gatherings using tools like Google Hangouts.

Curiosity piqued, I decided to dig in and learn a bit more, not only about the types of alternative professional development activities educators are asking for, but also how technology is (or can be) used to support these endeavors.

I wanted to see how broad the range of possibilities might be from a teacher’s perspective. I was also curious to know if research supports these alternatives to more traditional forms of professional development. Five specific alternative professional development activities kept cropping up, making them the focus of this article.

What are teachers asking for?

A very high bar has been set when it comes to what today’s educators are expected to accomplish. Time is more precious than ever, and most teachers are reluctant to devote large blocks of time to professional development activities that aren’t clearly aligned to their work responsibilities. Conversations with teachers about the kinds of professional development activities they prefer nearly always include mention of:

  • Individualized professional growth plans;
  • Modular ongoing activities that can be accessed on multiple schedules (i.e., full- or half-day workshops, as part of a staff or grade level meeting or even as an online experience); and
  • Real-world, experiential undertakings that are immediately applicable.

Opportunities to learn from one another in addition to outside experts is another option frequently mentioned.

Fortunately these requests all reflect characteristics of well-designed professional development as identified by research.

For example, several studies identify the importance of ongoing, job-embedded professional growth opportunities that offer educators opportunities to engage in collaborative, meaningful work while increasing their knowledge of subject matter and effective instructional strategies.

Other research supports professional learning communities that are flexible in terms of size, format, membership, and function. But how does this evolve into an effective professional development for your school community?

As is the case with so many aspects of the school community, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will adequately address all professional development wishes. There may also be some dynamic tension between personal learning preferences and pressure to ensure that all staff members receive a consistent message related to important topics.

Relying on various strategies, from individual study to learning in groups, face-to-face, or online experiences, offerings that provide a blend of strategies can go a long way toward better meeting a broad spectrum of adult learning needs.

5 alternatives to traditional professional development

Observations and coaching

Description: Teachers improve their own instruction by observing how other teachers work with students or by working with a coach who might model a lesson for the teacher or co-teach and then provide feedback. The critical aspects of this approach to professional development are that individuals have opportunities to see how other teachers work and engage in follow-up discussions about what can be improved or enhanced. Challenges with this approach are freeing teachers to observe one another, even on their own campus, and the cost of hiring coaches.

How technology supports this strategy: These days it’s easy for teachers to video themselves teaching a lesson for later review—individually or with someone else. Uses for these videos include:

  • Personal viewing and reflection;
  • Viewing with colleagues for discussion;
  • Critiquing with an instructional coach; and
  • Viewing as part of a formal evaluation.

Recorded classroom activities allow teachers to observe one another without having to leave their own classrooms. Videos also provide a common experience for viewers. Interpretations may vary, but videos can be watched multiple times to remind viewers what actually happened during the observation.

Lesson study

Description: Teachers work in groups of three to provide more effective instruction for students. They start by identifying an area of concern about student learning. Next, they research the concern to see why it might be a problem for their students, review lessons written by other teachers, and seek feedback from curriculum experts. The team then writes a lesson as a group.

One member teaches the lesson while the other two observe, focusing on student behavior, not the presenting teacher. Follow-up discussions are used to revise and improve the lesson, then the process is repeated with another team member teaching the lesson.

How technology supports this strategy: There are several ways technology can be used to enhance and expand this process. The Internet makes it easier for teachers to conduct extensive research, review existing lesson plans, and reach out to content area experts. Use of a cloud-based word-processing tool (i.e., Google Docs or Microsoft Word in Office 365) facilitates collaboration during development of the initial plan and subsequent revision. Video recordings of students’ reactions to the lesson plan may be used for discussion as the plan is revised prior to reteaching. Finally, completed lesson plans may be stored and shared in digital formats.

Book study group

Description: Book study groups may be formally convened by an administrator, but they can also be launched by small groups of teachers with a common interest. For example, teachers within an academic department or who represent one or more specific grade levels may decide to come together to read and discuss a book related to their work, building a schedule that meets their needs.

Some groups exist just long enough to read and discuss one book, while others continue on to read multiple books. For teachers who need to earn continuing education hours to maintain their credentials, a book study group may be a way to do that.

How technology supports this strategy: Sometimes it’s difficult to find a time when all group members are available to meet. Some book study groups move their meetings online, using a blog tool (i.e., WordPress.com or EduBlogger.com) or a wiki (i.e., Google Sites at sites.google.com or PBworks.com) to create an online space where one or more moderators post discussion questions and facilitate online discussions similar to what takes place in face-to-face book study meetings. Another plus with online discussions is that they provide automatic verification of participation.


Description: An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. It may be a stand-alone event or held in conjunction with a more structured occasion. Every unconference is a little different, but there are common characteristics.

Unlike traditional conferences, unconferences are entirely participant-driven. Unconference attendees set the agenda for the event, identify the topics they want to learn about, devise a schedule, and volunteer to facilitate sessions on topics that fall within their area(s) of expertise. Unconferences focus on conversations instead of formal presentations and are growing in popularity in the education community. EdCamps (EdCamp.org) is a well-known example of unconferences for educators.

How technology supports this strategy: Unconference organizers frequently post a wiki or other online collaborative workspace prior to the event where participants are encouraged to start suggesting topics and thinking about sessions they might want to facilitate. No actual planning is done until the morning of the event, but it can be helpful to brainstorm ideas ahead of time.

During the session various technologies can be used for note taking and sharing ideas, including the original wiki or collaborative workspace, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media platforms. When using social media, tags are often used to make related posts easier to find, and participants need to be professional in their social media posts. Social media also facilitates extending the conversation beyond the event.

Personal learning network (PLN)

Description: There are various kinds of learning networks, but a personal learning network (PLN) is created by the individual who wants or needs to cast a net in hopes of connecting with other people with similar interests. A PLN in this context is about reaching out to colleagues, people you meet in classes or at conferences, or even experts in areas you want to learn more about. The whole idea is to share ideas, collaborate with others, ask questions, and learn from one another. Members of individual PLNs will come and go as the teacher’s knowledge level increases or areas of interest change.

How technology supports this strategy: PLNs of this type exist because technology makes them possible. Prior to the advent of online tools that support ongoing collaboration regardless of where individuals are located, educators were essentially limited to interactions with people who worked at the same site. There was the occasional conference where new professional relationships could be established, but few of those took root and flourished.

Social media (i.e., Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), blogs, or other types of online collaborative tools make it possible for educators to make and sustain connections with other people all over the country and around the world. Webinars and online courses are also venues for adding new members to your PLN.

Teaching is one of the most important professions anyone can choose to pursue, for educators have an impact on the life of each student they encounter every day. Just as we expect physicians, attorneys, and other professionals to give us the best possible care or service, we owe that same quality of experience to the children we teach. Taking advantage of a variety of types of professional growth activities helps us stay at the top of our game. 

Susan Brooks-Young, a career teacher and school administrator, currently works as a professional consultant and recently authored a book on mobile devices and education.