Rethinking P.D. in China

If I’m lucky enough to help start a school in China, I hope to help create some breakthroughs around professional development.

Traditional professional development is venerated in China. But what we know from the USA: it doesn’t work. A mirage.


This is not an education sector problem. See Peak. It’s true of adult development.

What’s one culprit of this PD failure?

The tendency to present key ideas to teachers as if it’s reasonably straightforward for them to use these ideas.

Time. What are all teachers short of? Time. Yet this whole category of “advice” articles ignore the enormous implied time it takes for teachers to apply the key ideas being presented.

Let’s dig in with a single example.


There’s a new issue of American Educator. It has 7 articles about early childhood learning – some reading, some math, some other.

I zoomed in on the first article. Two points. Yes, the research summary is valuable. I learned a number of things and so I appreciated it.

But – and remember, the target audience in this magazine is teachers, not scholars – it’s overwhelming.

My summary of The Power of Interactive Read-Alouds

a. Read-Alouds don’t happen much. But they should. We often see 8 minutes a day, say the authors.

(Later in article: authors say they don’t want to suggest a recommended amount, despite often being asked. I question that decision).

b. Good Read-Alouds have many key components.

I imagined myself as a rookie teacher, and tried to turn this into article into a checklist. The first 3 ideas are high level.

1. Interactive. I guess that is not just a teacher plowing page by page through the whole story, though this default is not carefully described.

2. “Well-planned.” Sure. But that goes for pretty much anything a teacher does. And sometimes there are virtues to things that DON’T need planning because my teacher time is so limited, and you’re essentially telling me NOT to do other things because you have me planning. Per #1 – I would think it’s actually pretty useful to kids to sometimes just pick up a book and “wing it.”

3. Should sometimes happen outside of literacy – during science and social studies, etc. Makes sense.

Next, we get to picking actual books

4. Content knowledge matters (Hirsch), so don’t wait until decoding is fluent to focus on this, and one way to focus on content knowledge….read alouds of nonfiction.

Got it. Not just fiction.

5, 6, 7. Pick stuff with themes, pick stuff from varied cultures, sometimes read “challenging” texts.

Okay. Agree to all of them.

8. If you read challenging texts, stop to explain the vocabulary. And sometimes have kids “act out” the vocabulary or they’ll forget.

9. Do “print referencing” – run your finger under the words as you read them, sometimes stopping to ask kids about them.

10. Ask good questions. There’s a lot more to read-aloud questions than just helping kids grasp the plot. This takes planning time, per #2 above.

11. Sometimes good questions are phonics: What pictures do you see that start with the /b/ sound?”

12. Other good questions are How or Why.

13. The authors write:

There is growing evidence that young students are capable of higher-order discussion to support deeper comprehension of text. Young children need opportunities to apply ideas, to compare and contrast different parts of a text or multiple texts, to determine the author’s purpose and to consider whether the text accomplishes this purpose, and to take a stand on an argument presented in a text.

This is a little intimidating. Fine, as a teacher, I’ll try to get those types of questions in my read-alouds.

Honestly, though, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with this Checklist.

So then I arrive here:

Sometimes when teachers engage in read-alouds, they focus so much on planned learning goals that the meaning of the text can be lost for children.

Gee, ya think? You just listed 13 different key ideas around “planned learning goals”! No wonder the teachers get lost.

If I had to rewrite the article’s introduction, I’d put this last sentence first. My intro:

Sometimes when teachers engage in read-alouds, they focus so much on planned learning goals that the meaning of the text can be lost for children.

Teachers: the FIRST job of any read-aloud (or silent reading, or ANY form of reading, or any form of story-telling, like movies, plays, etc): make sure kids can follow what is going on.

Let the author’s magic happen!

IF and only if that job is going reasonably well, you can try to “do more.” Vocab, how and why questions, compare and contrast, author intent, cultural connections, etc. But add that stuff cautiously, always willing to pull back if kids are lost.

This article will describe all of these things.

Our advice is not that as a teacher, you need to incorporate these ideas by yourself. We recommend X, Y, and Z as thoughtful read-aloud curricula that have already created an integrated approach of well-chosen books, good scaffolded questions, and integrated teaching moves. These are plug-and-play starting points.

This article instead gives you an understanding of what those curriculum designers are trying to accomplish. By understanding their intent, you’ll be better able to “use their stuff.”

To summarize:

1. I have no bone to pick with the authors. They’ve written an article in a style that happens thousands of times per year.

2. I have a bone to pick with that style of article. I don’t think those articles are likely to help kids.

We already know that P.D. focused on “knowledge transfer” doesn’t improve adults very much. You have to make it easy for them to use the knowledge, which means someone ELSE spends the enormous time to turn the research into applied (usable plug and play stuff), steer teachers that way if they feel like using it, and if they do, THEN let them understand the key ideas “over the top.”

3. What do the best charter schools do?

Places like Success and IDEA:

a. Curate curriculum – i.e., the X, Y, Z I mentioned above. Make it easy for prospective teachers to know what they’ll use (so they can decide if it’s the right school for them), and then make it easier for new teachers in particular to not reinvent the wheel. These schools are constantly using data (student achievement, teacher like/dislike) to make and update these decisions.

b. Focus group P.D. on nuances of how to use X, Y, and Z, analyzing actual problems that arose from real classrooms, not reading and discussing the big abstract ideas. What we need is lots more articles that are applied case studies and offer concrete paths forward. Note in the article I described, the authors – following the common norms of their profession – won’t even suggest a recommended amount of read-aloud time, despite teachers asking them.

c. Minimize group P.D., and maximize 1:1 coaching, where the teacher is not just getting feedback on the lesson she just taught, but actually practicing what to do tomorrow.

That’s what I hope to do if I can help start a school in China.

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