What Makes Professional Development Programs Effective? Shedding Lights on Turkish Teachers’ Expectations

Country in Focus Article #2: In this short article, Murat Gunel and Elif Adibelli-Sahin from TED University, Turkey, attempt to give voice to teachers' perceptions towards effective PD programs by considering their prior and AmgenTeach training experiences.

You can download the article in PDF form, here.



The AmgenTeach project has completed the third year in Turkey by engaging with about 400 science teachers across the country. While dissemination and professional development (PD) projects such as AmgenTeach heavily focus on a target number of teachers and students, there is an emerging area that calls for not only the evaluation of the impact on learning outcomes but also rethinking the structures and teacher trainers' pedagogies of PDs as well as the sustainability of the programs after training. As the AmgenTeach Turkish team, we perceive the impact of the program as very much interrelated with the research and development (R&D) processes of the training. Thus, we consider that linking possible resources (human, funding, networks, etc.) to scaffold and accelerate the R&D processes in AmgenTeach in Turkey appeared to be an effective working model.

The process of investigating, evaluating, reflecting, and refining our training programs was funded by the CO-FUNDED Brain Circulation Scheme (Co-Circulation), which is supported by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Department of Science Fellowships & Grant Programs (BIDEB), and the Marie Curie Action COFUND of the 7th Framework Program (FP7) of the European Commission. Enhancing our team with a full-time post-doctoral researcher , we delved into Turkish science teachers' expectations and experiences toward effective PD programs. We aimed to shed light on the teachers' expectations, previous PD experience, and AmgenTeach training fulfillments. This article focuses on some of the emerging themes that we believe are valid, important and applicable within the AmgenTeach program and across the teacher training realm.

The Investigation

Over the last three years, within the AmgenTeach project, our team has conducted several small-scale investigations in relation to the impact of the training on the participant teachers' pedagogical competencies. This research particularly focused on the 3rd year (2016-17 academic year) of the project, and in alignment with our positive 1st and 2nd years' evaluation reports provided by EUN, we decided to focus on the following areas for an in-depth investigation;

● What are the participant teachers' expectations and experiences about an effective PD program prior to AmgenTeach training?

● How do the participant teachers' expectations and experiences about an effective PD program change after their participation in the AmgenTeach training and why do they change?

In keeping with our focus, we aimed to investigate teachers' thoughts about the relative importance of the features of an effective PD program and how these thoughts were affected by their participation in a 3-day inquiry-based PD program. In order to pursue our investigation we administered pre- and post-questionnaires (including Likert, ordering, close-ended, and open-ended questions) to about 100 participants comprising physics, chemistry, biology, and general science teachers.

The pre- and post-instruments were quite similar. While the pre-instrument referred to the participants' previous experiences, attitudes, and expectations about PD and related issues, the post-instrument focused on change, gains and the impact of the AmgenTeach training on those above mentioned domains. Consequently, the content of the post-administered instrument covered (a) whether, and how, the teachers think that the AmgenTeach training differs from other PD programs in which they had previously participated; (b) where they place the AmgenTeach training on a scale ranging from content vs. pedagogy oriented training, practice vs. theory oriented training, and the learner as passive vs. the learner as active; (c) whether, and how, they think the AmgenTeach training has contributed or will contribute to their professional development, classroom implementation, and development of their students and colleagues; (d) whether, and how, their thoughts about the features of an effective PD program had changed; (e) how they rank the importance of given 7 features of an effective PD program, with 1 indicating the most important feature; (f) whether, and what, they would add to the features that make a PD program effective; (g) whether, and how, they think their thoughts about the obstacles preventing them from transferring what they have learned into their classrooms changed after their participation in the AmgenTeach training; and (h) how they rank the importance of 7 given obstacles preventing them from transferring what they have learned to their students, with 1 indicating the most important obstacle. The analyses of the collected data yielded the following themes that we consider are worth discussing within an education community.

The Emerging Findings

We have chosen to elaborate findings in a comparative manner. That is, instead of presenting a list of emerging themes prior to and after the AmgenTeach training, we prefer to provide them in a combined fashion to portray what and how the teacher participants' ideas, expectations and experiences have been shaped and changed. Although there are several crucial themes that emerged from our analyses in terms of the nature of article, audience and other constraints of the writing, we have selected three themes, which are briefly elaborated below.

The Importance of Enhancing Teachers' Pedagogical Knowledge: Both at the beginning and end of the PD programs, most of the participant teachers, regardless of their content area, considered that increasing pedagogical knowledge was a relatively more important feature of an effective PD program. At the beginning of the PD program more than half of the teachers placed the aim of increasing pedagogical knowledge among the most important three features of an effective PD program. Thus, as an effective PD program component, providing comprehensive pedagogical knowledge was ranked as more important than as it had appeared in pre-measurement. The underlying reason for such a change in teachers' expectations through their recent experiences was uncovered through the analyses of the open-ended items. The analyses showed that the teachers believed pedagogical knowledge should be increased through the provision of opportunities to experience the new pedagogical approach as a student or learner instead of just listening to teacher trainer making a theoretical presentation or a talk about the pedagogical approach as the teachers experienced in their previous PD training.

More specifically, in the questionnaire we asked the participant teachers whether, and how, they thought the AmgenTeach training was different from other PD programs in which they had previously participated. In response to this question, the majority of the teachers who agreed on the different nature of the AmgenTeach training expressed their thoughts as "active engagement in learning about the student centered pedagogy" and we termed such statements as "experiencing the target pedagogy as an active learner". Our lesson learnt from participant teachers is "shifting teachers' pedagogical practices requires them to experience it as learners". Consequently, we believe in our claim that focusing on the PD provider's implementation pedagogy is at least, as important as the content to be delivered. Hence, the effectiveness, sustainability and success of the teacher training needs to be reconsidered from the perspective of the PD trainers' implementation pedagogy rather than merely the number of contact hours, amount of content, or materials to be delivered.

A Need for Instructional Materials/Activities: The participant teachers identified the area of "providing the samples of instructional materials/activities" as another most important feature of an effective PD program on their pre-questionnaires. While all of the participants ranked this dimension among the first three, about half the teachers saw it as the most important component of an effective PD program. However, at the end of the training, the teachers started to perceive that providing instructional materials/ activities was less important than they had originally considered. Extended responses from the participants indicated that the underlying perception shift was due to their realization that receiving a number of instructional materials/activities does not guarantee the effective implementation of a new pedagogical approach in classrooms. In other words, what makes a PD program effective is to help teachers to develop a comprehensive conceptualization of pedagogical and content knowledge to be able to use given instructional materials effectively in their classrooms.

Since our aim was to illuminate the role and importance of instructional materials/activities, from our pre-measurement results, we realized that instructional materials/activities were also seen as an important obstacle for teachers to not being able to reflect the PD content and learning into their classrooms. More specifically, at the beginning of the AmgenTeach training, about half of the participant teachers indicated that "lack of supplementary instructional materials" was among the most important three obstacles preventing them from implementing PD learning outcomes in their classrooms. Yet, at the end of the training, the number of teachers holding this belief dropped about half. When we investigated the reasons behind this significant shift, our analyses of the open-ended responses revealed that materials and activities were perceived to be the most vital and leading component in teaching environment if the teachers were hesitant about or incompetent in the instructional approach or pedagogical innovation. Once they have experienced the multifaceted nature of the approach as a learner and teacher, their reliance on and need to be given materials/activities significantly decreases. Our lesson learnt from the participant teachers is "the perception toward, urge and need for instructional materials or activities are somewhat correlated with the level of pedagogical competencies achieved through PD programs". Consequently, we believe that materials/activities are effective only if they fit into the teachers' instructional framework, which is an outcome of the competencies possessed by the teacher. Hence, the need and use of material and activities are, and should be, heavily dependent upon the teacher's understanding of why, how, and when to teach the given concept. Therefore, the role and impact of the activities/materials given during and after the training should be reconsidered in the light of the above-mentioned findings in order to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy.

A Feeling of Being Valued: At the beginning of the PD program, one third of our teachers indicated that "feeling of being valued during the training" is among the first three important features of an effective PD program. However, after their participation, such perception was shared by half of our teachers. In her post open-ended response, a physics teacher, who believed that "feeling of being valued" is the most important feature of an effective PD program, elaborated her reason as follows: "Before this training the thought of a practice-oriented workshop worried me, but in the learning environment of this training I learned the situations, such as not needing to know, posing a question, making a mistake, which I had considered negative before, were actually much more important in the learning process." Similar to several other responses, the above quotation indicates that a PD program becomes more effective if the participant teacher considered that what s/he thinks or feels during the training would not be judged by the trainers. Creating a non-threatening and comforting learning environment is not only necessary for the students but also the adult learners, especially the teachers. As we further analyzed the teachers' post responses, we discovered that the participants' feeling of being valued was also highly related to the trainers' open attitude towards making mistakes, acknowledgement of their own shortcomings, limitations, and pedagogical obstacles during their delivery of the PD program. Combining such open communication in the implementation process with well-structured, organized, caring, responsive and well-timed training organization shifted the participant teachers' perceptions about this feature to a more important position than before. Our lesson learnt from participant teachers is "emotional security, empathy and openness created by teacher trainers are as important as courtesy, hospitality, and event organization in PD programs". Consequently, a feeling of being valued is not an emotional domain only affected by the physical and organizational features of the PD program, rather it is closely related to the teacher trainer's pedagogy, interaction, perception and attitudes when working with teachers during the training.

Final Remarks

In this short article, we attempted to give voice to our teachers' perceptions towards effective PD programs by considering their prior and AmgenTeach training experiences. We firmly believe that teacher training requires immediate, ongoing and timely feedback for the teacher to effectively implement what they have learned in the classroom. Thus, we intended to provide feedback from Turkish AmgenTeach setting to be somewhat reflected in a larger scale. Finally, we would like to thank EUN for their continuing support and motivation to guide project partners, and express our gratitude to the Amgen Foundation for the unceasing dedication and inspiration to pursue state-of-the-art science education programs across all countries in the world including Turkey.