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Professional Learning: The Key That Unlocks Knowledge for Teachers and Their Students

Important research shows that the impact of high-quality instructional materials is even larger when teachers participate in curriculum-based professional learning.

Read more to learn what characteristics differentiate effective professional learning, and how can districts and schools invest wisely in the success of their teachers and students.

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every child is capable of greatness.

Interest has grown in high-quality instructional materials as a tool to help students master the complex skills needed for continuing education and work in the 21st century. Why? Because a strong evidence base shows that high-quality instructional materials—those that are research based, standards aligned, content rich, and accessible for all students—accelerate student learning. But important research also shows that the impact of high-quality instructional materials is even larger when teachers participate in curriculum-based professional learning.

A study of middle school math instruction found that when teachers used new, high-quality instructional materials but did not receive professional learning support, students’ math achievement increased by 6 percent of a standard deviation. However, when teachers used the new materials and participated in curriculum-based professional learning, their students’ test scores improved by 9 percent of a standard deviation—about the same effect on student achievement as replacing an average teacher with a top performer or reducing class size by 15 percent (Short and Hirsh 2020).

At its best, pairing a high-quality curriculum with professional learning can build teachers’ own content knowledge and pedagogical expertise so that they better support students in learning rigorous subject matter. But too often, professional learning is disconnected from the curricular materials, instructional vision, and academic priorities of a school, and teachers receive general, isolated, and disjointed experiences that do not result in improved instructional practice or student achievement.

Districts and schools collectively invest $5.3 to $18 billion annually in teachers’ professional learning (Chang 2017; Short and Hirsh 2020), and teachers spend at least 39 hours each school year participating in district-mandated development efforts (The Mirage 2015). So, what characteristics differentiate effective professional learning, and how can districts and schools invest wisely in the success of their teachers and students?

Research-Based Professional Learning in Action:

There is a growing body of research on professional learning and what makes it effective, but there is no single, universal, or perfect model. In recent years, several organizations and researchers have sought to uncover and distill the evidence-based attributes of effective professional learning, and some key briefings on this topic include

These researchers conducted interviews with practitioners and reviewed methodologically rigorous studies that have demonstrated a positive link between professional development, teaching practices, and student outcomes. While each report presents a unique framework for action, their findings converge on five core features, which are outlined below. Professional learning from Great Minds® delivers on these calls to action, offering curriculum-based professional development (PD) and coaching experiences that align with these research-based essentials.

1. Curriculum Based and Content Focused

What the research says: Professional learning should build teachers’ subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge by grounding development experiences in high-quality, educative curriculum materials. It should help teachers understand the rationale for a curriculum’s learning sequences. And it should support learning that is relevant to teachers’ actual classroom contexts (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Principles for High-Quality n.d.; Short and Hirsh 2020; Standards for Professional Learning 2022).

Research in action:

Professional learning at Great Minds is designed by our teams of teacher–writers to immerse educators in the content and pedagogy behind Wit & Wisdom®, Geodes®, Eureka Math®, Eureka Math2, and PhD Science®.

The individuals who deliver professional development and coaching are not generalists across all curricula; they are deep content experts and draw on their experience in the classroom to help participants prepare for and sustain successful implementation.

Not only are professional development sessions rooted in Great Minds’ uniquely educative and content-rich materials, but they also provide opportunities for educators to learn and practice specific, research-based pedagogical strategies in their subject area of focus.

For example:

  • The Launch professional development session for each subject area provides an in-depth look at the curriculum’s research foundation, instructional approach, how the materials and lessons are organized, and builds educators’ skills in navigating the core and supporting resources.
  • In PhD Science’s Grade Band Progression session, educators study the progression of learning and map the coherence of science concepts across a grade band. And in the Focus on Instructional Techniques sessions, educators study, observe, and practice specific instructional strategies like facilitating the development of student-driven anchor models and driving question boards.

  • The Eureka Math2 team provides personalized coaching focused on Content Study, which builds teachers’ understanding of the content and its role in the larger math story by engaging teachers in a transferable process of studying a module, topic, or lesson along with its connection to previous and upcoming content.

2. Authentic and Active Learning Experiences

What the research says: Professional learning should use real artifacts (e.g., lesson plans, unit plans, sample student work) and interactive activities that provide teachers with an opportunity to engage in the same style of learning they are designing for their students. Active learning—such as practicing instruction or participating in model lessons as students—engages teachers directly in constructing their knowledge and provides teachers with a clear vision of what best instructional practices look like (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Short and Hirsh 2020; Standards for Professional Learning 2022).

Research in action:

Great Minds professional development sessions are a balance of study, experiential learning, analysis, and practice that sets participants up for success. Educators explore the research foundation, learning design, structure, and key components of the curricula and receive practical guidance for successful implementation. Sessions are grounded in real-life lesson materials and examples, supplementary tools, model lessons, and sample student work. Application and reflection exercises prepare educators to implement their learning in the classroom.

For example:

  • In Launch Eureka Math, educators experience a full, live demonstration of a real-life lesson, which enables them to see effective, evidence-based instruction in action before they implement the curriculum in their own classroom.
    • Zoom Session: 2 hours
    • Lesson Demonstration: Implementation with Fidelity
    • During the second virtual PD session, participants will
      • experience a full, live Eureka Math lesson and
      analyze that lesson through the lens of rigor and
      • engage with the three-step preparation and
      customization process.
  • In Launch Wit & Wisdom, educators practice using the curriculum’s Content Stages to examine complex texts, the same framework that they will use in the classroom with their own students. And in Writing in Wit & Wisdom, teachers study how the curriculum supports all students in becoming effective writers and apply their learning by analyzing student writing samples.
    • Wit & Wisdom's Reading Framework
      • Study a visual art text.
      • Practice using the Content Stages to examine complex texts.
      • Apply the Content Stages to a shared text.
      • Analyze how using the Content Stages supports deep comprehension of complex texts.

    • Create: Putting It All Together
      • Analyze student writing based on elements of effectiveness.

3. Collaborative and Ongoing

What the research says: Professional learning should be intentionally organized—for example, grouping teachers by subject, grade level, and how long they have been working with the curriculum materials—so that teachers can target specific, shared learning goals. Teachers should have regular opportunities to share ideas, collaborate in their learning, and work with peers to study, practice, reflect on, and refine instructional strategies over time (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Principles for High-Quality n.d.; Short and Hirsh 2020; Standards for Professional Learning 2022).

Research in action:
Great Minds organizes professional learning experiences by content area and grade band so that educators can learn alongside peers who have similar experiences and development needs. To set educators up for sustained success, our team of experts crafted three-year learning sequences for each content area so that all teachers can feel confident with the curriculum and continue to refine their practice as they become more familiar with the materials. This learning sequence integrates professional development and coaching supports, and moves educators from foundational sessions on to more advanced coursework that will deepen their understanding of the curriculum and strengthen implementation.

These three-year learning sequences are based on the success of implementers nationwide, but the Great Minds team can also tailor a professional learning plan to the specific needs and implementation goals of individual districts and schools.

Sample Three Year Professional Learning Plan

Year 1

Professional Learning for Teachers Professional Learning for Leaders

SUMMER
(prior to implementation)

Foundational PD Sessions:

- Launch Wit & Wisdom
- Module & Lesson Study

Cornerstone Bundle for Leaders:

- Strategic Planning
- Lead Wit & Wisdom


Leadership Consulting (4 hours)

FALL

Foundational PD Sessions:

- Getting Started with Geodes

Cornerstone Bundle for Leaders:

- Understanding Wit & Wisdom’s Design: Knowledge-Building
- Guided Observations for Leaders


Leadership Consulting (8 hours)

SPRING
 

Cornerstone Bundle for Leaders: 

- Strategic Planning
- Understanding Wit & Wisdom’s Design: Writing


Leadership Consulting (8 hours)

 


Year 2

Professional Learning for Teachers Professional Learning for Leaders

SUMMER 

Foundational Sessions for New Teachers:

- Launch Wit & Wisdom

- Module and Lesson Study

Sustaining PD:

- Writing in Wit & Wisdom

Cornerstone Bundle for Leaders: 

- Strategic Planning
- Understanding Wit & Wisdom’s Design: Writing


Leadership Consulting (4 hours)

FALL

Sustaining PD Sessions:

- Focus on Fluency

Leadership Consulting (4 hours)

SPRING

Sustaining PD Sessions:

- Testing and Wit & Wisdom

Wit & Wisdom Coaching Series

Wit & Wisdom Coaching Series

Leadership Consulting (4 hours)


 


Year 3

Professional Learning for Teachers Professional Learning for Leaders

SUMMER

Foundational Sessions for New Teachers:

- Launch Wit & Wisdom
- Module and Lesson Study

Leadership Consulting (4 hours)

FALL & SPRING

Wit & Wisdom Coaching Series

Wit & Wisdom Coaching Series

Leadership Consulting (2 hours)

 

Virtual Open Enrollment professional development sessions offered throughout the year further support the accessibility and flexibility of ongoing development opportunities for both new and seasoned educators. Designed for 20–35 participants, these sessions convene educators from around the country for live online, facilitator-led sessions that are inspired by the same learning design and goals as in-person sessions.

Learn more about in-person and virtual open enrollment professional development sessions for Eureka Math, Eureka Math2, Wit & Wisdom, and PhD Science.

4. Just-in-Time Coaching and Feedback

What the research says: Professional learning should provide teachers with curriculum-focused coaching, structured feedback, and ongoing opportunities to reflect as they transfer what they’ve learned and incorporate new materials into the classroom. Feedback and reflection can help keep teachers stay connected to the process of change, avoid plateaus in their practice, and thoughtfully move them toward proficient, evidence-based practice. Feedback should serve to describe a teacher’s individual progress, diagnose their challenges, and create a roadmap for greater success—not formally evaluate their performance (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Principles for High-Quality n.d.; Short and Hirsh 2020).


 

Research in action

After teachers and leaders complete foundational professional development sessions, coaches from the Great Minds team can expertly guide educators to apply what they learn to their own classrooms and schools. Through modeling and observation, Great Minds coaches help teachers improve implementation and help leaders develop effective ways to understand and support classroom practice.

Learn more about personalized coaching for Eureka Math, Eureka Math2, Wit & Wisdom, and PhD Science.

 

TRACK 
Address Unfinished Learning*

This coaching series focuses on effectively using Eureka Math Equip to address unfinished learning. Teachers will engage in a transferable process of using data to address unfinished learning for whole class, small group, and individual instruction.

The Guided Observation for Leaders will focus on classroom observations to gather evidence of teachers making connections to and leveraging students’ prior knowledge, responding to data in instruction, and addressing unfinished learning in an equitable way. This observational evidence will inform the next steps for the PLC sessions with teachers.

*Teachers must take Addressing Unfinished Work with Eureka Math Equip before this coaching session.

Sessions Included in Each Track

 

SESSION 

Guided Observation for Leaders

In this session, a Eureka Math coach guides up to 10 leaders through classroom observations to establish an understanding of the current state of instruction.

SESSIONS 

Professional Learning Community

Sessions 2, 3, and 4 offer teachers explicit, personalized guidance from a Eureka Math coach to meet objectives based on the coaching focus selected.

SESSION

Guided Observation for Leaders

In this session, a Eureka Math coach guides up to 10 leaders through classroom observations to establish an understanding of the current state of instruction.


 

 

TRACK 
Prep for Success

This coaching series focuses on implementing Eureka Math successfully. It was designed for new implementers as well as groups with experienced Eureka Math teachers seeking additional customized support to improve their implementation.

Teachers will address specific areas for improvement, and the Guided Observation for Leaders session will focus on observing for effective teaching practices. This observational evidence will inform the next steps for the PLC sessions with teachers.

TRACK 
Content Study

This coaching series focuses on building teachers’ understanding of the content and its role in the larger math story. Teachers will engage in a transferable process of studying a module, topic, or lesson along with its connection to previous and upcoming content.

The Guided Observation for Leaders will focus on observation to gather evidence that instruction effectively develops student conceptual understanding and makes coherent content connections. This observational evidence will inform the next steps for the PLC sessions with teachers.

 

5. Equity Minded

What the research says: Professional learning should challenge educators’ mindsets, assumptions, and biases and promote high expectations for what all students can achieve. Professional learning should provide teachers with the tools to scaffold learning experiences so that all students can engage with rigorous, grade-level materials and activities, regardless of students’ prior knowledge and skills. And professional learning should equip teachers to deliver instruction that is responsive to different languages, cultures, and points of view (Principles for High-Quality n.d.; Short and Hirsh 2020; Standards for Professional Learning 2022).

Research in action:
Great Minds curricula encompass challenging content; detailed daily lessons; a learning design with entry points for diverse learners; and teacher-facing guidance that includes suggestions, content, and activities for scaffolding and differentiating instruction.

Before teachers can successfully use new high-quality instructional materials, they often need to rethink what is possible for their students and reimagine what effective instruction looks like. Great Minds professional development sessions prepare teachers and leaders for these shifts in mindset and practice. Sessions then help educators develop expertise in both content and the curriculum so they can confidently apply integrated tools for scaffolding and differentiation and successfully engage students of all backgrounds and abilities.

For example:

  • The Lead Wit & Wisdom PD session helps leaders identify the instructional shifts that a rigorous, knowledge-building curriculum may require of teachers and understand how to support the productive struggle of engaging all students with complex texts. And the Focus on Fluency session helps educators understand how the curriculum’s approach to fluency supports students of all abilities to access, understand, and analyze complex texts.
  • In the professional development session Preparation and Customization of a Eureka Math Lesson, participants learn
    • how to successfully implement a Eureka Math lesson,
    • how to study the teaching sequence of the curriculum while increasing the capacity for mathematics in general, and
    • the process for customizing a Eureka Math lesson to meet students’ needs.

At Great Minds, we believe in professional learning that builds the confidence and ability of all teachers to not just deliver a high-quality curriculum, but also to effectively adapt it to meet the needs of the individual students in their classroom. The time is now to move away from general professional development toward the ongoing, content-rich, and evidence-based experiences that build knowledge and improve outcomes for teachers and their students.

Click here to view our on-demand webinar about how to identify good professional learning opportunities, what questions to ask a provider before investing in a professional learning plan, and to hear from educators as they discuss the impact of professional learning on their daily classroom practice.

Chang, Richard. 2017. “Report: PreK–12 PD Market Estimated at $5.3 Billion Through 2021.” THE Journal, April 20, 2017. https://thejournal.com/articles/2017/04/20/report-prek12-pd-market-estimated-at-5.3-billion-through-2021.aspx

Darling-Hammond, Linda, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner. 2017. “Effective Teacher Professional Development.” Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. June 2017. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Effective_Teacher_Professional_Development_REPORT.pdf

“The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth about Our Quest for Teacher Development.” TNTP, Aug 4, 2015. https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf

“Principles for High-Quality, Standards-Aligned Professional Learning.” Student Achievement Partners. Accessed July 25, 2022. https://achievethecore.org/page/3242/principles-for-high-quality-standards-aligned-professional-learning

Short, Jim, and Stepahnie Hirsh. 2020. “The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning.” Carnegie Corporation of New York. Nov 2020. https://www.carnegie.org/our-work/article/elements-transforming-teaching-through-curriculum-based-professional-learning/

“Standards for Professional Learning.” Learning Forward, 2022. Accessed July 25, 2022. https://standards.learningforward.org/standards-for-professional-learning/

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