Teacher-Centered Learning: Designing Professional Development that Works

By Brianna Lawrence, Director of Blended Learning for Digital Ready

At Digital Ready, we strive for continuous, active teacher engagement through activities relevant to each school. We call this “Teacher-Centered Learning”. We want teachers to leave invigorated and ambitious, ready to tackle their classroom in a student-centered way. We support educators to think in innovative ways, challenge their practice, and give students what they need.

Our PD model habl1s four elements:

  1. Design and Planning
  2. Action and Space
  3. Cake
  4. Feedback

Below we’ll provide a brief overview of each stage. Subsequent posts will go into greater detail and provide examples.


Stage 1: Design and Planning

Every awesome PD begins with thoughtful design and thorough planning. Like a teacher preparing a good unit, we always “backwards plan,” or design with the end in mind. Our team brainstorms exactly what we want teachers to learn by the end of a session, whether it will last one hour or an entire week. We typically narrow our focus on a relatively small number (3-5) of main concepts, because we want participants to take in-depth knowledge and information back to their schools so they can turnkey to their colleagues.



Once we nail down the main concepts, we shape the arc of the workshop. We consider what makes sense on a continuum and try to string important concept threads throughout the span of the session. Our goal is to hit on the main concepts several times so that participants can digest the information in more than one way, just like we would hope to see in a highly effective classroom. Our design of activities builds on successful activities that we’ve facilitated in the past in addition to the feedback we’ve received from participants before the workshop about what they need and how they prefer to learn.


Once we have determined the desired outcomes, we begin carefully crafting activities that help participants master and internalize the concepts. As a team, we determine who will own each activity. That person will design an initial draft, assemble materials, and most likely plan to facilitate the activity. We typically generate a spreadsheet to map all the activities across a session, with columns denoting things like activity name, rationale, outcomes, materials, talking points, etc. for the team to review. During the review, we work to maintain a good flow across all of our sessions so that everything feels connected and meaningful.

Everyone on the Digital Ready team has a role in this work. We go through several planning rounds, co-create drafts of all resources, and share facilitation duties to increase team buy-in, show a united front to our schools, and create team ownership of the workshop. Each member is integral to the success of our PD sessions.


Stage 2: Action and Space

Digital Ready aims to invigorate teachers through action-oriented activities and take advantage of available space, modeling hands-on classroom learning designed with an element of fun. When an activity is stimulating, it often leads to enhanced memory of the concept and more likelihood of repetition in practice.


Whenever possible, we seek open, collaborative physical spaces because we want the work of our teachers and schools to be visible. We want the space to reflect what we expect from our participants. Good ideas should be shared (or “stolen”!), and it’s much easier to enable sharing when everyone can see each other. There’s also an element of “positive peer pressure” to see high-quality work unfold all around you.

Open space is also easier to manipulate for active exercises: gallery walks, group work, partner work and networking. We try to be creative with how we use space and take liberties with rearranging rooms for each desired pursuit. Sometimes it’s necessary to arrange chairs in rows for talks, but more often we place them at tables for group work, or push them aside so people can circulate in a larger space for a gallery walk or networking activity. Regularly changing up the room can give the look and feel of new areas and spark creativity. Teachers know that time and space have been carefully considered as they see the flow of the day unfold.


Stage 3: Cake

bl4Cake is delicious. It’s also our term for a takeaway, or something that participants didn’t have before they arrived and can readily use in their own classrooms. Cake takes many forms: a resource, activity, project or even good, old fashioned information that schools can use to serve students better. We aim to have teachers be able to use every kind of activity that we do in our professional developments in their own classrooms.


As facilitators, our team’s role is to make sure that participants leave with as much cake as possible. This means that we clear the way for learning and synthesis to occur by being meticulously organized and implementing the flow from activity to activity seamlessly. We try to emphasize the takeaways and are transparent about the rationale behind each activity so that participants can feel like their time is respected and understand that nothing is done frivolously. We try to model positive learning experiences for teachers because students often also crave this type of transparency and openness, and deserve some cake, too.


Stage 4: Feedback

Feedback is the cornerstone of user-centered design. If you don’t know what your audience wants and needs, you cannot give it to them. We alway ask participants what they need to be successful. We take feedback seriously, and we ask for it frequently. We use short “exit tickets” and longer questionnaires, and we verbally ask for feedback on which activities were awesome, what flopped, and what we missed. We continue to use formal and informal feedback throughout the planning and design process, and encourage schools to do the same for work with their students. One participant comment can spark a lengthy discussion, or change our entire approach to an activity.

Our team also incorporates a lot of structured time for peer feedback during the sessions. Feedback is not only important for us as designers, but is important for schools teams to build trust and community with other school teams. Schools are able to give and get ideas on their work, collaborate with other schools, and dive deeper into content as a school team.  We try to make our workshops feel like a network — a community that any participant can reach out to even after the session has ended to continue sharing, ask a question or get feedback.



Combined, these four stages have helped the Digital Ready team facilitate successful adult learning that is teacher-centered, gives educators what they want, helps them design their own innovations, and gets them excited about going back into the classroom to share with their students — our ultimate goal.