Strength-Based PD

“You are allowed to be a masterpiece and a work in progress, simultaneously.”  – Laura McBain


Over the last 30 years, I have seen a lot of different models of staff professional development.  We have brought in speakers, sent people to workshops, provided books to read, held focus groups, and offered after school classes, to name a few.  Very often, the topics for the PD have been created by administrators or small groups of teacher-leaders (e.g. the district curriculum committee), and the topics have focused on areas identified as weaknesses or areas in need of improvement. Our math scores have dropped – let’s bring in a math expert to teach teachers to do a better job teaching math.  Students are misbehaving in classrooms – let’s show videos at a staff meeting on effective student discipline techniques.

So how successful has this approach to PD been over the years?  You can answer that question for your own schools by thinking of issues you have had and the PD you provided to rectify these issues. Did it work?  From my point of view, I would have to say that the efficacy of traditional professional development has been mediocre at best. This begs the question, “Is there a better way to for us to learn and improve our practices?”

After reading George Couros’s book, The Innovator’s Mindset, I may have found another approach to PD during the school year. In chapter 8, George writes,

What if we stopped operating on a deficit model, that focuses on a learner’s weaknesses and started operating on a strengths-based model that builds on the learner’s strength?

For the purposes of this post, let’s use the term “learner” to mean teacher, administrator, or student, because we all are learners, and we educators must be modeling learning for our students.

Couros shares some research that found that people were more engaged in their work when managers focused on their employees’ strengths – rather than focusing on improving their weaknesses (or ignoring them completely!).  He explains the need for strength-based professional development where educators further develop areas in which they are already strong.  I would add to this by including PD based on educators’ passions and strong interests.

I believe that if a person is passionate about a topic, or if she is confident in her skills, she will more than likely want to dig deeper and improve more quickly.  Conversely, if a person lacks confidence or is uninterested in a topic, he may “drag his feet” when asked to improve. This idea fits very nicely with Carol Dweck’s concept of the Growth Mindset.  “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

I am fortunate to work in school district that has moved most of the professional development work back to the local schools.  I think this is great, but we need a new, better model for this to be effective.  So, this year, I plan on implementing a strength-based mindset, or model, for PD.

At the start of the school year, we will ask staff members to reflect on their strengths, passions, and interests.  Then, we will survey them for PD ideas based on these.  The next step will be to sort the strength-based ideas into four or five similar clusters.  Each staff member would self-select a cluster based on a strength, passion, or interest, and NOT on a cluster where they felt they needed to improve.  

We will call these clusters “Learning Leader Cohorts,” or LLCs, that will meet at least monthly to study, discuss, and plan around their strength-based topic of choice.  Each LLC will be self-directed, will develops goals for the group, and will define measures of success for the school year. I will provide the resources they may need to dig deeply into their topics.  The LLC members will keep notes on their work in a shared document to which the entire staff will have access. Finally, each LLC will present their work to the entire staff at least twice during the school year.

The ultimate goal is to develop “home-grown” cohorts of experts on topics that are important to our school community.  Those cohort members will be the “go-to” people when someone has a question or would like assistance with a topic for which they are not as proficient. As George Couros writes, “Build upon each other to build something together.”