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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

TPD in Crisis Series, Week 1: How can we begin to move forward?

Teacher professional development in crisis: How can we begin to move forward?

by Mary Burns, Education Development Center-USA

We face a global crisis in teacher professional development.

Across the globe, teachers consistently receive professional development (PD) that they do not value, that they believe has little impact (OECD, 2008; Burns, 2007), and that research shows does not work (Showers & Joyce, 1996).

Across the globe, the majority of the world’s teachers, despite the diversity of their professional contexts, participate in a remarkably uniform model of PD—the workshop or “training”—despite research showing that such a model is unlikely to influence teacher practice or student achievement (Wei, Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010).

Across the globe—particularly in the world’s poorest countries, where the need for quality teaching is greatest—the frequency of professional development is episodic, its quality variable, its duration limited, and support or follow-up for teachers almost non-existent.

Across the globe, the teachers who need the most professional development—teachers who are new to the profession, who are under-qualified, or who teach outside their content areas—receive the least professional development (OECD, 2008). Further, they participate in formal learning opportunities not when and where it matters most—in their classrooms as they are teaching—but away from their schools and outside of the school calendar. 

Across the globe, our educational systems fail to provide similar accommodations for teacher learning that we do for student learning even though the two are inextricably linked.

Across the globe, teachers may receive instruction from providers or trainers who themselves have never taught, and who understand little about the complexity of teaching and learning. Many of these programs are often designed and managed by people who may not appreciate the complexity of the change process, and who are focused on inputs, not outcomes, and quantity, not quality.

And across the globe, teachers regularly fail to apply—or fail to implement with any degree of quality or fidelity—what they have learned from the professional development opportunities. Consequently, almost universally, teachers are blamed for failing to implement what they learned from a professional development system that so often fails teachers and in-turn fails their students.

In many parts of the globe, teachers may experience professional development characterized by a few of the above practices. But the world’s poorest and most at-risk teachers often experience professional development characterized by all of the above practices.
Professional development has always been like this—so why suddenly a “crisis”?

For first time in global history, nations have vowed, through the Millennium Development Goals and various national initiatives, to educate every child—at least through the end of primary school. The “crisis” exists because we cannot give children universal access to a quality education unless we ensure that they have access to a quality teacher—and the mode of professional development  described above does not cultivate or sustain or support quality teachers. Unless we commit to a new system of developing quality teachers, the aspiration of a quality education for all will be stillborn.

But there is hope—and change. Across the globe, nations, districts and schools are beginning to move away from the poor professional development practices described above and toward what we know is effective professional development.

For example, in the US, 40 of 50 states now have standards for professional development. From Singapore to Australia to numerous European nations, the external “expert” is being replaced by facilitated professional learning communities of teachers who share ideas, observe one another’s classrooms and offer feedback, and plan learning activities together.

In nations like China, Azerbaijan, Indonesia and India, more organic and collaborative models of professional learning, like open classrooms where teachers observe one another’s practice and offer feedback, are beginning to supplement, and even replace, the ubiquitous workshop. Across the globe, attrition rates for novice teachers are dropping as nations like South Korea, Scotland and Egypt institutionalize induction and mentoring programs to retain and support their newest and most vulnerable teachers (Burns, 2011).

None of these efforts will attain meaningful scale and be a reality in fragile locations unless they are backed by the political will, financial commitment and human resources of those who ultimately decide how teachers’ professional learning is organized. This commitment, in turn, will not occur without a major conceptual paradigm shift. We must begin to envision our teachers as we do students—as learners with their own individual learning styles and backgrounds; who, like their students, need ongoing interaction with experts, continuous support and scaffolding, space to make mistakes, and ongoing feedback so they can constantly improve their craft.

This online forum is premised on the understanding that a quality teacher is critical to a quality education for a child (Hattie, 2009).  For the next 12 weeks, authors from a variety of global contexts will share their own research of and experiences with effective professional development. Together, we will discuss the additional issues omitted here—the problem of scale, and of building capacity, leadership, technology, and budgetary issues. And hopefully together we can begin to identify ways to advocate for a system in which the world’s poorest children and teachers are provided with the best resources, support and instruction.



  • Burns, M. (2011, November). Distance learning across the globe: Modes, models and methods. Washington, DC: Education Development Center, Inc. Available:
  • Burns, M. (2007, October). Assessing teachers’ professional development needs: Data from four Indian states. Bangalore, India: Education Development Center, Inc.
  • Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analysis relating to achievement. Routledge.
  • OECD, (2008). Creating effective teaching and learning environments: First result s from TALIS. Paris, FR: OECD. Available:
  • Showers, B. & Joyce, (1996, March). The evolution of peer coaching. Educational Leadership, 53 (6) 12-18. Available:
  • Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., and Adamson, F. (2010). Professional development in the United States: Trends and challenges. Dallas, TX: Learning Forward.

Mary Burns is a professional development specialist at the Education Development Center (EDC), an international educational non-profit organization in Boston, MA. A former 10-year teacher in three countries, Burns has, since 1997, designed, delivered, researched and evaluated teacher professional development programs across the globe—in the US, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Mexico, and the Caribbean. She has been a school-based instructional coach (US), designed national online pilots and programs for teacher professional development (Mali, Indonesia, US), evaluated technology-based professional development programs (Jordan, Namibia, Guinea, US) and authored numerous policy documents and over 40 articles, book chapters and books on technology-based teacher professional development, most recently, Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods (available for free download from EDC at

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