Professor Mary M Kennedy

Does professional development improve teaching?

Most Australian teachers returned to their schools last week, and for many their first day back was a pupil-free day spent doing doing professional development. I am sure most teachers were respectful and attentive to whatever sessions had been organised for them and fellow staff members by their school, but after the long summer holidays it can be a challenge.

I wonder how effective these professional development experiences might be for our teachers? Do we really know? Usually professional development is evaluated on the day and feedback is given, but how reliable or useful might this be? I am especially interested having just read a new paper by Professor Mary M Kennedy from Michigan State University.

So how does teacher professional development work?

Kennedy looked at 28 studies of all types of professional development (PD) programs for teacher learning in the US. Kennedy invites her readers to think about the idea that although there is widespread agreement about the importance of PD, and that PD can foster improvements in teaching, there is little consensus about how PD actually works.

She asks questions such as: What happens in PD? How does it actually foster teacher learning and furthermore how is it expected to change teaching practice? How can education researchers give more attention to developing their ideas about teacher learning alongside what they know about student learning?

Kennedy points out that there is no single overarching theory of teaching or of teacher learning and this is what makes the effects of PD complex. Now more than ever, teachers are enveloped by multiple conflicting messages about what is most important in the classroom, and that if one’s attention is in a particular area, then it may compromise their effectiveness in another. I often hear the lament that the education system is “noisy” and the feeling of being overloaded by education ideas/strategies/practices/content is tangible.

A second feature Kennedy raises has to do with how teachers’ translate new ideas into their own systems of practice. It’s worth remembering that PD is usually conducted outside of the classroom and whatever is said, modelled or shown during a PD session is meant to alter behaviours inside the classroom. It is a tall order when you break it down; the problem of enactment as Kennedy calls it, becomes very real.

Often in education literature, the terms professional development and professional learning are used interchangeably. And so, the term professional development is the activity, the process and experience teachers engage in, in order to develop their professional learning. Certainly from Australian colleagues there appears to be some agreement that professional learning primarily should be school-based and school-managed, and be focused on improving and reflecting on teaching practice. The scholarship of practitioner research embraces many of these ideals.

Critical professional development program design

In the final section of Kennedy’s paper there is a useful discussion of critical PD program design features:

  • There should be some element of content knowledge that has a broader goal of exposing student thinking
  • PD must include opportunities for collective participation – where it’s possible for teachers to discuss the intellectual work they are engaged in
  • It ought to have intensity in relation to time and the amount of information transmitted and especially when the PD program provides strategies or insights
  • Consider using coaches, again it depends on the coach, and the studies reviewed showed that coaches, as might be expected, vary in value
  • Should pay attention to the PD providers, for example, how are they selected, prepared for their work and examine how their efficacy is assessed; and
  • Issues of sustainability are critical in terms of the PD effects, and what does that look like at the end of the program, and then after one, or two years.

Kennedy finishes her review with a call to arms in that we need to ensure that PD promotes real learning for teachers’ rather than merely adding more noise to their working environment. Here, here I say!

I confess, that the Kennedy paper spoke to me at the right time. I was preparing for a PD session with teachers at Parramatta High School on the first day of the new school year. I changed a few of my plans.


*It is important to note in the paper it is PD (professional development) programs that Professor Kennedy is referring to.

The author would like to acknowledge and reference the paper from which many of the quotes and positions are drawn and trusts that this snapshot represents Professor Kennedy’s work in a meaningful and fair manner.

Kennedy, M. (2016). How does professional development improve learning? Review of Educational Research, , 86(4), 945-980.


Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies in Australian schools; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Jane was a classroom teacher, and she has received national and international teaching awards for outstanding contributions to student learning. She enjoys writing and her research-based presentations at national and international conferences challenge audiences to consider alternate education possibilities. You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01