DIY professional development for teachers and other learning professionals

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Paul and Carl Hendrick are the authors of How Learning Happens and with Jim Heal of How Teaching Happens. The idea behind the books is to present teachers and teachers-in-training with the seminal works of giants in the field so that practitioners can learn from them and stand on their shoulders.

Readers, in particular teachers or designers, often ask how they can best implement what’s in the books in their school or organisation.

One option could be to invite one of the authors to visit and provide training or a course of some sort to guide teachers and/or designers and help them implement the ideas as described in the book.

However, there might be a better way, as a training or course might not be the most effective approach. And even if it would be, it would be a fairly expensive enterprise.

Paul’s recommendation, though it affects his wallet, is for practitioners to use a DIY approach that could look like this:

  1. Set up a study group and meet with each other for an hour every two weeks for a year (or whatever works best in your situation).
  2. Have one member of the group (the group could consist of teachers or other types of learning professionals) carefully review one chapter plus the discussed article and prepare a presentation of approximately 10-15 minutes. The reviewer/presenter alternates each session, so that each member of the group takes a turn. The other group members read the chapter as well and might also go through some of the added reading/viewing material.
  3. In the ‘synchronous’ meetings, the ‘lead reviewer’ gives a presentation on the chapter and the original article. The group can choose to create a template for these presentations to ensure that each presentation follows the same structure and focuses on the questions that are important in the context of your group or can take a ‘free form’ approach.
  4. The presentation is followed by 10-15 minutes of discussion between all group members. One idea is to collect all members’ questions or discussion points before the presentation or, again, you can take a more open approach.
  5. The remaining 30-40 minutes can/should be spent talking about how the ideas could/should be applied in the school or section (if in schools) or in a team, division, at a regional/global level (if in the context of an organisation).
  6. At the end of that year, all chapters have been discussed and – assuming that the group takes a structured approach (taking notes and working them out into an actual plan over the year)– an implementation plan is also ready.
  7. When there’s a mutation in the team (a new teacher or designer is hired), the new person comes to a situation where all of the others are ‘experts’ and there’s a plan that has been made. Their bed is made. 😊

Of course, one of the authors (Mirjam is volunteering Paul!) is willing to kick off with a meeting on the importance of evidence-informed education and/or learning design.

An article in a recent Review of Educational Research on “Teacher Study Groups” (Firestone, Cruz, & Rodl, 2020) describes an integrative literature synthesis on different types of study groups, namely:

  1. Professional Learning Communities

A first approach is that teachers meet regularly or infrequently to discuss a topic that is of interest to them and often chosen by them. Participants find information about it themselves and discuss it with each other. These Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are generally participant-driven. This means that the participants determine the focus (for example, group members select the topic and/or content to discuss for each meeting). These PLCs function as a source from which its members draw knowledge to answer questions, with the end goal to improve practice.
For this reason, some researchers have criticised PLCs for a lack of connection to evidence-based practices and for perpetuating misunderstandings because the collective group often has no real knowledge of the topics that the group has chosen to focus on.

  1. Japanese Study Group

A second approach is that teachers participate in “lesson study cycles” consisting of planning a lesson, observing a group member while teaching, collecting data during that observation, and jointly analysing that data.

This, so-called Japanese Study Group is based on continuous, hands-on collaboration and is characterised by teachers who participate in lesson study cycles, taking turns doing so. The problem that the review’s authors point out here is that the topics chosen are often isolated issues and that some teachers who participate in them feel alienated from both the topic (we’re not sure if that’s actually a problem though you might say that one person’s problem is not the other’s) and their fellow teachers. Also, the Japanese Study Group is very time consuming and requires teachers to invest more time than they can afford to spare.

  1. Teacher Study Group

The third and final approach is the Teacher Study Group (TSG) which consists of a group of colleagues who meet regularly and focus on how their instruction affects learning. Such an TSG has a pre-planned scope, sequence, as well as content and is based on empirical research. While the other two (the PLCs and the Japanese Study Group) deal with a more or less fluid set of topics that the members select, a TSG focuses on pre-selected topics (e.g., effective learning and study strategies or the role of motivation in learning) for a period of time (e.g., a semester). Other examples are preparatory literacy, language pedagogy, English, Dutch or whatever the national language is as a second language, arithmetic/mathematics education or here, evidence-informed teaching. In addition, a TSG offers new content to enhance the collective knowledge of the team by using some form of expert input (e.g., invite experts or focus on a book such as How Teaching Happens or How Learning Happens).

The effectiveness of this approach, according to Firestone et al., (2020) lies in Desimone’s (2009, 2015) 5-factor conceptual framework for effective professional development. The factors are: (1) content focus (activities are focused on specific content and their effects on learning), (2) active learning[1] (learning through preparations made, presenting to each other, discussing the content and giving/receiving feedback ), (3) coherence (everything is geared to knowledge and attitudes towards educational practice), (4) duration (activities include at least 20 hours of contact time), and (5) collective participation (the group is composed of teachers of the same subject, level or school to build an interactive, sustainable learning community).

Firestone and colleagues conclude that these factors influence both learning (teacher and student) and teaching. Teachers experience effective professional development which increases their knowledge and skills and/or influences their attitudes and beliefs about the subject. Teachers then use this new knowledge, skills, and attitudes to improve their instruction, pedagogical approach or both which, in the end, results in more student learning.


Teachers shouldn’t only stand ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ but should also stand on each other’s shoulders to improve practice. What else could we want?


Desimone, L. M. (2009). Improving impact studies of teachers’ professional development: Toward better conceptualizations and measures. Educational Researcher, 38(3), 181–199.×08331140

Desimone, L. M., & Garet, M. S. (2015). Best practices in teachers’ professional development in the United States. Psychology, Society, & Education, 7(3), 252–163.

Firestone, A. R., Cruz, R. A., & Rodl, J. E. (2020). Teacher study groups: An integrative literature synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 90(5), 675–709.

[1] We’re not really comfortable with the term ‘active’ learning as it suggests ‘passive’ learning also exists, which isn’t the case as learning is always cognitively ‘active’. However, in this context it means that the group’s participants actively drive, structure, and prepare learning activities, as well as actively discussing what they’ve prepared and improving their practice together based on their activities.