Professional Development: A Wicked Problem in Education


Professional development in education is a wicked problem.

Calling the problem that plagues professional development wicked is not meant to infer or suggest that it is “evil” (though many of us educators may say or think otherwise). Wicked problems are ill-structured. They cannot be solved simply because they are too many mitigating factors involved. In regards to professional development in education, these factors are not only programmatic, professional, and pedagogical but also personal and even philosophical.

Consider the following reasons why professional development in education is such a wicked problem “that is impossible or difficult to solve” (Kolko, 2012):

Incomplete or Contradictory Knowledge: We acknowledge and accept that teachers need to increase their effectiveness in the classroom in order to increase student achievement. However, the knowledge about what exactly is effective instruction is unclear and often even unfounded. Just look at the concept of depth of knowledge developed by Dr. Norman Webb (19972002). There is so much contradictory information – and misinformation – over what exactly this academic concept is and how it should be incorporated into our instruction and assessment. (You can read my own commentaries about what exactly is depth of knowledge hereherehere, and here). A major cause of this is the DoK Wheel that has spread through education like wildfire and regarded as a credible document even though Dr. Webb himself has refuted the wheel and no one can specifically identify who exactly created this wheel.

Even Bloom’s Taxonomy has become incomplete and contradictory. What truly defines higher order thinking? What does it mean to analyze, evaluate, and create? Should we be using the original taxonomy developed by Benjamin Bloom that categorizes thinking by conceptual nouns or the revised version by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl that categorizes thinking as cognitive verbs? What’s the real difference between Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Model?

What is an essential question? What does it mean and look like to differentiate instruction? What truly marks measures student learning – standardized or authentic assessments? These are the questions educators ask, and we struggle to find a clear and definitive answer or explanation.

There lies one of the wicked problems with professional development.

The Number of People and Opinions Involved: Every member of society has their opinions on what and how students should be taught. These opinions come in the form of education initiatives, philosophies, or even attitudes about schooling. Just look at the campaign for teaching and learning for “college and career readiness” and the emphasis on developing and demonstrating “21st Century Skills“. However, what exactly does it mean to be college and career ready? Conley (2010) explains how college and career readiness are two of the four criteria for what he describes as postsecondary readiness. However, ACT provides this definition. Achieve says this and even provides a quiz to that assesses and evaluates “readiness”. What about the 21st-century skills students need to develop and demonstrate? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (or P21 Council)have cornered the market on what are the 21st-century skills students need to develop and demonstrate. However, other groups such as the Common Core State Standards InitiativeSCANSthe EnGauge 21st Century Skillsthe American Association of Colleges and Universities, and ISTE / NSTE have their own opinions about what exactly are the essential skills the 21st-century student needs to develop. Then there are the traditionalists who believe in the back-to-basics approach to education that is teacher-led and focuses on the 3 R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) versus the constructivists who promote student-centered learning that is active and authentic such as cooperative, project-based, problem-based, and service learning.

Let’s look again at Bloom’s Taxonomy. Should knowledge have been turned into its own dimension? Should synthesis have been taken away or should synthesis be returned to the taxonomy to allow students to express and share their attitudes, beliefs, and emotions?

Do we even dare debate what is rigor? There’s supposed to be evidence of rigor in our classrooms. It’s supposed to be apparent in our instruction and obviously experienced by our students. However, what exactly does rigor look like? Whose definition of rigor should we subscribe – Robert MarzanoWillard DaggettBarbara Blackburn, and Karin Hess, Dennis Carlock, Ben Jones, and John Walkup, or even our own professional opinion based upon our own ideas and experience (or you could read my own ideas about rigor here and here)?

Students need to be taught and learn. That’s an undeniable fact. However, what and how they learn are often driven more by perspective and philosophy.

The Large Economic Burden: This is what has truly made the problems with professional development so wicked – the cost! Professional development is expensive, and those -s’s in expenses means $$$$$$$! It costs money for schools not only to purchase the curriculum package but also the training that is provided with the package. It costs money to bring in the professional development organizations and providers not only to train the teachers but also purchase the products and services that go with the training. It costs money in registration fees, travel, lodging, and even substitute teacher staffing to send staff members off-campus to workshops that are held at the district office, locally, in-state, out-of-state, or even out of the country. It costs money to pay teachers to attend 1/2 day or full-day inservices. It costs money to bring in the best-selling academic authors or thought leaders in the field of education to be the keynote presenter for education conferences, to do 1/2 day or full day workshops, or to contract with them to provide ongoing coaching and consultation to ensure the methodologies and strategies on which they are training are implemented effectively, efficiently, and with fidelity. It costs money to hold education conferences at luxurious venues such as hotels and conference centers, which is one of the reasons why conference registration fees have spiked and attendance at these conferences have decreased. Unfortunately, while the costs for professional development is rising, the funding for PD is continuously being reduced at the national, state, and local education agency levels. Starting in 2013, states experienced a 5% cut in federal funding that would be allocated for increasing teacher effectiveness – funding that is generally used for professional development. Professional development is essential yet expensive, and the monies to afford high-quality PD are dwindling.

The Interconnected Nature of These Problems with Other Problems: Here’s what also makes professional development a wicked problem – all these facets and factors impact each other. There needs to be money to pay for professional development, but from where will that money come if the federal, state, and local legislatures and education agencies continue to cut funding? Schools and staff need to incorporate instructional methodologies and strategies that are validated and verified by scientifically-based research. However, for every academic philosophy or practice that advocates a particular approach, there’s another that will challenge or refute it – with scientifically-based research! Then there are the others problems that extend beyond education – circumstances and issues related to poverty, politics, philosophy, or even public opinion. The advent of the charter school movement and online education provides more choice for what and how students will be taught and learned, but the claims and conclusions on the effectiveness of these options or alternatives are incomplete and contradictory.

This is why professional development is such a wicked problem. There are just too many facets and factors involved. Still, professional development is an essential component of teaching and learning. Like any organization or professional, schools and their staff need continuous teaching and training in order to hone their craft and meet the needs of their “clients” and “customers” – in this case, the stakeholders in the school community. However, how the wicked problem of professional development can be addressed and handled depends upon what kind of ill-structured problem the school and staff are experiencing (Jonassen, 2011).

Strategic-Performance PD Problem: Strategic performance problems involve applying “a number of tactical actions aimed at solving a more complex and ill-structured problem, usually under significant time pressure while maintaining situational awareness”(Jonassen, 2011, p. 98). In regards to professional development, the “significant time pressure while maintaining situational awareness” is the school day and year. Local education agencies need to allocate and find adequate time to provide and implement PD. Unfortunately, this involves taking way time needed for instruction, assessment, and even planning – and there is just only so much time during the school day and year. Also,  professional development typically takes a minimum of three to five years for the changes to be implemented effectively, efficiently, and with fidelity (Guskey, 1995McCarty, 1993Quick, et al., 2009Hunzicker, 2010). However, schools and society demand immediate results, but that’s not going to happen. Hence, the wickedness of the problem.

So how can this be solved? It cannot. Again, that’s what makes professional development so wicked. However, it can be addressed and handled. Time allocated to professional development does not have to be designated to 1/2 day inservices, full-day workshops, or two hours before or after school. It also does not have to be presented to the entire staff during staff meetings and gatherings. The time can be spread out through mentoring; coaching; observations; forming small groups, teams, or committees (such as P.L.C.s) in which the methodologies and strategies are implemented, tested, and modified not only to meet the needs of the student population but also the teaching and learning style of the teacher.

Also, realistic expectations must be set and stated explicitly. Professional development takes time! That’s what the word development infers and suggests. It will take time to develop the skills and strategies to implement new and novel methods and techniques. How can teachers be expected to learn a new methodology or strategy within 90-120 minutes at the level of expertise needed? The desired results of PD will not come from a one-day make-and-take.

Also, one-day make-and-takes do not work. Lasting change will not happen as an outcome of a two-hour meeting, a 1/2 day inservice, or a full day workshop. The philosophies and practices addressed in the PD need to be revisited and revised continuously through staff meetings, instructional rounds, mentor meetings, or small group sessions. If a school is going to go in a particular direction with the philosophies and practices of the PD, that needs to be the primary focus of all academic interactions between the staff.

Also, the person providing the professional development must be given time to implement the philosophies and practices with the staff. They should not just come for one day and never be seen again. They should act as a coach, an observer, and an adviser who can help and support the instructional shifts that are occurring. Most importantly, the PD provider needs the time to establish a relationship with the staff built on trust. The staff needs to look at the PD provider not as the “guru” who swoops in, shares their ideas, and then is never seen again. They need to regard the PD provider as a resource, leader, and even colleague who is there to support them.

Policy PD Problems / PD Case Studies: Policy problems and case studies with professional development involve investigating and implementing what works in education – or, more specifically, what is believed to work or has worked for a particular school and staff. The policy relates more to philosophy, program, and practice rather than the guidelines and rules for how professional development is presented and provided. The problem arises when a staff or school decides to define or declare who they are based on a philosophies, practices, or programs — e.g. we are a S.T.E.M. / S.T.E.A.M. school, we are a Core Knowledge school, we are a dual language school, we are an MYP school, we are an AVID school — without any evidence that the methodologies or model will work with their student population, the support needed to train and support the staff, or the buy-in from all stakeholders – hence, the wickednessof policy problems / case studies with professional development.

Again, there is no solution to wicked policy problems/case studies in professional development. There can only be a resolution – the acceptance that every school and its staff and students have unique needs and the understanding that these needs will not be will not be met simply by implementing a philosophy or program. Also, if a school is adopting a particular philosophy, practice, or program, then they must be all in and invested. It cannot be done piecemeal or like a buffet in which the school and staff only incorporate the instructional strategies and structures they like. Educators are on an endless quest for what works in schools to increase student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance. However, educators must resolve there is no magic bullet or secret to a school’s success and what works in one school will not work in every school.

Design Problems with PD: Design problems are considered to be one of the most complex ill-structured problems (Jonassen, 2011, p. 99). They also require the problem solver to possess a deep content knowledge and the ability to think critically and creatively about how to develop, modify, and adjust the design – the plan, the product, the project, the process – to function effectively. The problem solver – or in this case, the school and staff – must be able to “apply a great deal of domain knowledge with a lot of strategic knowledge resulting in an original design” (Jonassen, 2011, p. 99).  Simply put – they must know, understand, and be able to implement the methodologies and model effectively and efficiently, and that takes time and money

Wicked design problems with professional development require the school and staff to understand deeply and extensively the academic philosophy, practice, or program the school has chosen to implement. They must understand how the methodologies and model are designed, how they are to be implemented, and how staff and students are to be supported. Most importantly, the school and staff must also know and understand how to monitor, modify, and make any adjustments necessary to meet the needs of the students without infringing upon the integrity of the philosophy, practice, or program.

That’s what makes design problems so professional development so wicked. However, there is a solution to design problems involving PD. The school and staff either need to follow the philosophy, practice, or program as prescribed or abandon it.

If a school wants a particular methodology or model to work, it must do so with fidelity. That means following every stage or step in the development, implementation, and training no matter how difficult it is or how much the staff disagrees. There can’t be any deviation and it cannot be implemented piecemeal. In fact, many organizations who promote and sponsor a particular methodology or model require schools and staff to sign contracts and receive PD from providers and trainers who are certified, licensed, or recognized by the organization in order to maintain the integrity of their philosophy, practice, or program. If a school or staff is going to declare and designate they are implementing a particular method or model, then they must be committed to working with the organization who does the training and purchase their materials.

The other option a school or staff has to address a design problem with PD is to abandon the professional development – and that is perfectly okay! If the methodology or model is not working or the organization promoting the philosophy, practice, or program is not working well, then both sides need to go their separate ways. However, there must be adequate and ample time for the relationship to build between the organization providing the training, the school, and the staff. Also, don’t make an impulsive decision to abandon the professional development due to the initial struggle staff and students experience during the transition or if the PD does not produce immediate results. That’s not abandonment. That’s giving up.

Dilemmas with Professional Development: Dilemmas are the most wicked of problems because “there typically is no solution that will ever be acceptable to a significant portion of the people affected by the problem” (Jonassen, 2011, p. 99). With dilemmas, problem solvers need to weigh all the options and listen to all sides before coming up with a decision based on a combination of evidence, experience, and emotions. However, the problem solver must also resolve that not everyone will be happy with the decision they make and be okay and prepared with any feedback or fallout they receive.

Professional development as a whole in education could be considered a dilemma. Everyone has their own strong ideas, opinions, perspectives, and thoughts about what students need to be taught and learn, what works in schools, and what makes a teacher effective. Some will appreciate and enjoy the training while others will feel it is unnecessary or a waste of their time. Some will agree or disagree with the philosophy or they will agree with the philosophy but not the practices or program the school has decided to adopt and implement. Some will enjoy and take advantage the time allotted by the local education agency or site for staff to come together and enhance their expertise while others will feel professional development is a waste of time or not given enough time. Some will feel the monies spent on the package, program, and professional development are well-spent while others will resent that the school has called in an outsider and paid them “big money” to provide training on a technique they feel is not applicable for their classroom or they are currently doing and don’t need any further training. They already have vast experience and expertise in the philosophy, practice, or program, and they don’t need some “outsider” coming in to show them “how it’s done”.

Dilemmas can only be resolved, and that resolution must come with the acceptance that not everyone will be happy or satisfied with the professional development they receive or the direction in which the school and staff are going with professional development. Unfortunately, the staff who are unhappy are typically the most vocal and the ones to voice their concerns, complaints, and criticisms. This could give the school leadership a skewed and slant perspective about the professional development. Yes, there are staff who are voicing their opinion that they are dissatisfied or unhappy. However, does the majority of staff feel this way? Are they being silent because they share that unhappiness but would rather not express it or are they just being silent because they have no complaints or concerns? The staff also needs to resolve that they are not going to receive the full benefit of the professional development from one training or even over the course of one year. PD takes time, and that time needs to be allocated and given to the teachers to develop those skills and strategies. That’s why it’s called professional development, not professional get-it-got-it-and-go-on-and-do-it.

The troubling truth is there is no simple solution to the wicked problems with professional development. However, these problems can be managed in such a manner so professional development can become more beneficial and rewarding not only for the school and staff but for all stakeholders. Once we accept and acknowledge that truth not only with ourselves but also our staff, only then will professional development become a more effective practice – and perhaps become less wicked.

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