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Trends In Professional Development in CS - it’s not all good

My friend Tom tweeted earlier which led me to this piece on trends in CS professional development (PD). Tom's tweet was talking about virtual vs in person PD so I initially thought I'd write about that and PD in general but the article actually led to some deeper issues with PD.

The article talks about PD being focussed on specific units or modules, narrowing to more popular offerings and also becoming less localized. This led me to think about a real issue with CS PD that a few of us have been harping on for years. The VAST majority of CS PD is provided for by "content providers" - people with a product to sell. That might be a curriculum, a technical platform, or both but something to sell. It's not just CS knowledge and how to teach it. I include organizations like in this bucket because while they're not selling in the same sense as a textbook publish, they are selling or pitching their curriculum and platform.

It's easy to see how we got here. There are so few people out there that actually know both the CS content and how to teach it that there was a void so EdTech and a few others stepped in. The truth is, most of the big PD providers also don't have both deep CS and deep CS pedagogical knowledge. What they do have is influence. This isn't to say that they're all bad. There are some providers whom I like very much and I think are doing a great job but that's not the point here.

So, we're left with a system where the majority of CS teachers have very little CS or CS teaching experience and the providers are pushing very specific training tied closely with their product, course, or curriculum. I know I'll get some hate for this but it's just where we are right now.

This might change over time as preservice teaching programs start to emerge but I fear that many of them will just continue the trend of pushing canned curricula. I've already seen proposed and existing programs that essentially have a teacher candidate go through a version of APCS-A, APCS-P, a computers in society class and something else similar and voila, CS teacher.

Let's contrast all of this with math PD or at least the math PD that I was subject to for most of my high school teaching career. Most department meetings I attended always had a PD piece and that was usually something interesting, or at least supposed to be interesting presented by a colleague. It might be one of their practices or it might be something they got from a conference or an outside PD. We'd also have larger PD sessions a couple of times a year. Topics would be things like:

  • How to use the graphing calculator to explore functions
  • History and math
  • Math in your student's worlds
  • Exploring math competition problems
  • An introduction to some advanced or new math topic
  • Motivating a lesson on something or other

Few of these were tied to a specific course and none were tied to a specific implementation or curriculum. There might be a special section on something like Geometers Sketchpad or a vendor might run a session but those were in the minority.

It was mostly about math and how to teach math and most offerings were by teachers not content providers.

I don't know what math education PD is like now but what a word of difference.

Will CS PD get better, and I do think locally, teacher generated PD is better? I don't know. I've been told that the sessions I ran pre-covid were worthwhile but I don't see those happening again until we can do in person events and in any event that's small scale.

All this said and I haven't touched on what led me to the article to begin with - the point that PD is going much more virtual. Is this a good thing? Sometimes but it's also, in my opinion a confirmation on the sad state of PD in general.

The idea behind PD is ongoing professional growth but the truth is, teachers don't really have time for PD during the school year so what they do is mostly mandated. In my own experience and in talking to many teachers in many subject areas the majority of PD forced upon teachers is garbage. Even if it is good, too often it's not relevant to the teachers day to day and by the time it matters, if it ever does, it's long forgotten. Unfortunately, many teachers are required to accumulate PD hours. In NY they're called CTLE hours (Continuing Teacher and Leader Education).

Since teachers are being forced to accumulate these hours and they don't find them valuable they're taking the path of least resistance. That frequently means online offerings.

None of this is to say that online PD is bad or always bad. It can be very effective for some things. Others really should be done in person. I'm just saying that it's not a surprise that we're here and that we have to look deeper to figure out how we got here and why.

Where do we go from here? I have no idea. I've long resigned myself to try to just worry about my corner of the world. I'll make the best offerings I can be they in my pre/in service courses or in PD wether they're in person or online. I think that those that come will find value so those are the ones I'll worry about.

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