Vol 1 . . . No 4 . . . April, 1991
Editor: Jamie McKenzie, Ed.D.

Designing Staff Development for the Information Age

by Jamie McKenzie

"What business do English teachers have teaching word processing? That belongs in the business department!"

Teachers trained in one technology and mind-set sometimes find themselves gridlocked into old patterns and perceptions. Thrust into a world of new technologies, they persist in seeing them in terms of the familiar; the wordprocessor, for example, is viewed as a glorified typewriter with powerful editing features rather than as the idea processor it can be. To understand the computer's power for idea processing and improved composition, one must take a computer home, live with it, and write with it. Only by embracing the technology can one experience the kind of immersion that breaks through the surface understandings to a deeper level of involvement:

"I used to have a problem with `writer's block.' The word processor changed all that. And my students report that their ideas flow more smoothly at first writing. They worry about word choice and coherence at a later stage. Word processing is different from writing with a pencil."

Whether it be learning to teach for thinking, to deliver lessons witinh a cooperative learning framework or to master new technologies such as videodiscs and multimedia, the traditional conceptions of staff development must be reconsidered and revised to support the kinds of adult learning which will bring educators enthusiastically to the cutting edge of practice without encountering the bleeding edge.

Traditional Staff Development - A Dismal Track Record

How do teachers learn to become pioneers, inventors and shapers of the new culture rather than the transmitters of the old?

First we must acknowledge that such a metamorphosis is as profound as the change from caterpillar to butterfly. Shifting from Industrial Age thinking and teaching to Information Age thinking and teaching is as dramatic an adjustment as shifting from teaching in a classroom to teaching underwater. The training agenda is no simple list of skills; everybody must learn an entirely new approach. Actions that worked on the surface, such as running, jumping, and yelling, create different effects underwater. Adaptation requires major readjustments and realignments. It requires immersion.

To support such fundamental change, schools need to apply a different model of adult learning from the one which has perched on the back of staff development for decades. The historical solution to the problem of changing teacher behaviors - traditional staff development - cannot begin to meet this challenge. At worst, staff development is a waste of time and resources.

Teachers recite horror stories of being crowded into steamy auditoriums to hear some outside expert describe the latest trend in education. In many school systems, the ritual nod to the learning of new teaching skills comes just once each year, when the school district sends its students home and devotes a single day to staff learning. In other districts, teachers gather after a full day of teaching for workshops that offer little or no compensation for the time spent.

These workshops often give teachers inadequate opportunity to practice new skills and offer little ongoing support or follow-through during succeeding months. Hence, there is frequently negligible transfer of the new skills from the workshops to the classrooms. Teachers sometimes see exciting demonstrations of new techniques, but they rarely experience the immersion that would allow them to master the new techniques.

The poor record of staff development programs is a product of the lack of support on the part of school districts and a lack of understanding of research identifying the elements required to launch a successful program. Most districts set aside little money in their budgets for teacher training and devote little attention to the creation of teacher training programs. As a result, the training often occurs at the wrong time of day in a room that is either too hot or too cold, and the teachers are often expected to subsidize the learning process with their own time and money. And because the honorariums paid to trainers are often skimpy, the quality of presentations is frequently marginal. Quite a contrast with training in private industry which takes place in comfortable training centers or hotels with good food and superb session leaders!

Where staff development has been successful, the goals have usually been incremental: learn this new skill (lesson design), master this new program (TESA), try this new technique (guided inquiry). Most programs have added on to the core of each teacher rather than trying to modify the core itself. If staff development is to transform the current generation of teachers into pioneers, there must be a radical change in the nature of in-service training and a major increase in the resources devoted to the continuing education of teachers.

Effective Staff Development

Staff development can make a powerful difference in performance of both students and teachers. According to Joyce and Showers (1983), effective programs require sustained, ongoing efforts with proper funding. Participants must be acquainted with what Joyce calls the "problem of transfer." As teachers learn new skills and attitudes, they should consider the obstacles to make these skills work in their classrooms. Before trying the new skills in their classrooms, teachers should have ample opportunity to practice the skills in relatively controlled and safe environments until a significant degree of confidence and "executive control" has been acquired. "Executive control" refers to teachers learning how to learn and how to adjust new strategies as they practice them in real situations. Over succeeding weeks and months, "coaching" by peers and sustained practice are essential if the new approaches are to take root (Joyce and Showers, 1983, pp. 15-22).

Hunt (1971) differentiates between two major kinds of staff development. The predominant model is concerned with changes in specific teaching behaviors and strategies - the incremental approach described earlier in this article. The second type of staff development centers around the possibility of shifting the structure of a teacher's educational perspective and belief system. Such training, which goes to the core of the individual, requires immersion. This approach involves the recognition that teachers are adult learners with individual learning styles, different stages of development, and quite divergent interests and needs (Bents and Howey, 1981, p. 18). The challenge to the staff developer is to provide a program that builds appropriate matches between learners and experiences.

Sprinthall and Sprinthall (1980) have proposed a model for staff development that promotes the developmental growth of teachers through a blend of immersion and reflection. Their model stresses the importance of role-taking experiences (learning through active involvement in real situations), an appropriate match of teacher levels of development with experiences and leaders, careful and continuous guided reflection, a balance between action and reflection, extension of the program over a significant period of time (two to three years), and the provision of personal support for the learner, along with a reasonable level of challenge. Bents and Howey (1981) offer a demonstration of how one might translate this approach into staff development that fits the developmental stages of teachers. They also explain how staff development can be adjusted to respond to the different levels of concern teachers may have regarding specific innovations (pp. 20-33).

Staff Development for the Information Age

In order to lead students out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age, teachers must be prepared to adapt and adjust to the many changes that will occur as this century comes to a close. If teachers are to shed their time-honored role as transmitters of the present culture and assume the role of continuous learners, staff development practices must shift radically during the next decade. Greater time and resources must be devoted to teacher learning, and greater attention must be given to the needs of teachers as adult learners. A generation of teachers who view themselves as pioneers, inventors and discoverers must be nurtured so that when the waves of the future hit the shores of our present our teachers will dive headlong through them rather than ducking, running for shore or allowing themselves to be swept away.

To create an appropriate program of continuing education for teachers during the next decade, staff developers should consider all of the following elements:

1. Staff development must offer immersion and transformation.

For the teacher who has approached thinking and problem-solving from a predominantly left-brained perspective for some twenty years, more than a one-shot afternoon workshop is required to shift thinking into the right hemisphere. Profound shifts of attitude and behavior are acquired through immersion. Testing the waters with one's toes does not suffice.

A full week of drawing on the right side of the brain using the methods made popular by Betty Edwards can lead to significant shifts. Over the course of five days, left-dominant learners experience dramatic shifts of mood and thought as they copy pictures upside down, draw their hands without looking at the paper, and try out a dozen activities that break old habits and free the mind to draw what the eyes see.

The fledgling artists begin noticing detail, line, form and negative space. Many report losing track of time. This mood, or state of mind, is called R-Mode (Right-Mode) and is associated with daydreaming, reverie, fantasy and other mental states that support the incubation of creative thought. After several days the teachers begin to appreciate a whole range of thinking behaviors that have lain dormant. As the behaviors awaken, the teachers begin considering what visual thinking and the right side of the brain can do for their teaching and their lives as a whole. At the end of the week, teachers report that they "see the world differently." Their senses have been heightened and their appreciation quickened.

Unless these shifts are sustained by follow-up sessions in succeeding months, however, and unless participants are encouraged to continue drawing and talking with peers about their discoveries, the momentum of past attitude and behavior overrides the magic for many. In one district where the summer course was rated superior by nearly all participants, many reported ceasing drawing within six months and few could report any classroom changes that emerged as a result of taking the course. Thirty years of thinking in one manner do not evaporate or shift over night. The gridlock is not easily broken.

The dual challenges of transfer and application may well prove frustrating. Immersion is a personal strategy, one that engages the learner on an essentially individualistic basis. The results are attitudinal and operational rather than methodological. Only when teachers are comfortable with right-brained thinking after some six months of exploration are they ready to focus upon classroom applications. Recognizing the need for learners to pass through several stages of development before they are ready to jump into the classroom and teach word problems with visualization, staff developers in the district above revised the course to provide follow-up sessions maintaining teacher engagement over an entire year.

Immersion requires time, commitment, and a major change in perspective. The ultimate goal of the strategy is to effect a profound shift in the ways the learners react to change, the ways they look at themselves, the ways they think about thinking, and the ways they feel about teaching. Immersion is intended to touch the core of each teacher's identity.

2. Staff development must inspire teachers to invent.

Because change will be frequent and persistent throughout the decade on into the next century, successful adaptation to the Information Age will require invention. Teachers and students must become tool-shapers, tool-breakers and tool-makers, modifying their skills to meet the shifting needs of a changing world. Pat answers, recipes for success and simple algorithms will not suffice. The days of two-step world problems and true-false answers are numbered. Everyone must learn to adjust to the unfamiliar, the surprising and the curious because there will be no guidebooks to survival in the Information Age.

Too many staff development programs are built upon the assumption that teachers are only tool-users. Such programs present a package of skills and strategies to be learned and practiced by the teacher. Often these packages are promoted as being "teacher proof," - in other words, individual teachers cannot "mess things up." The implication is that the strategies will work in just about any classroom. Yet the wise teacher twists and changes the strategies (breaks and shapes the tools) to fit the special demands of Room 236.

Successful teachers have always been inventive, making art projects out of "found objects," countering the prejudice of bad textbooks with liberal doses of supplemental reading, devising miracle cures for "impossible students," and turning an undervalued profession into a rewarding experience. Staff development programs should use this natural talent for invention as a foundation upon which to build, appealing to the teachers' sense of adventure and pride.

3. Staff development must be experience-based, with learning resulting from doing and exploring.

Teachers - like their students - too often sit passively listening to staff development messages. The assumption seems to be that one quick look at a new method or approach is sufficient to empower the audience to turn their classrooms upside down. The research reported earlier in this article exposed the fallacies underlying such an assumption. Substantial shifts in perspective and behavior depend upon active involvement, experience and role-playing. Although workshops using such methods will necessarily take longer than traditional workshops, this time investment will pay greater dividends over a longer time period. Active involvement in exploration, which results from wrestling with experiences and attempting to integrate them into one's understanding leads teachers to feel more committed to the discoveries made and more comfortable with the process of changing perspective.

4. Staff development must hook the curiosity, wonder or passion of teachers.

In order to promote change in attitude and perspective, the learning experience must touch teachers at their core, awakening their curiosity, appealing to their sense of wonder, and harnessing their passion. Too many workshops are dry, ho-hum affairs, offering a cognitive porridge that appeals to no one. There is often little attempt to relate the learning to the questions, doubts, and beliefs that drive the learners. In designing workshops, the staff developer should explore the techniques used by various kinds of performers to cause the eyes to widen and the mouth to drop open. A few hours spent watching a master juggler or magician is well worth the investment. Attention to dramatics, body language, energy level and strategies for welcoming the questions of learners will kindle enthusiastic involvement in the course.

5. Staff development must respond to teachers' appetites, concerns and interests.

Staff developers should involve teachers substantially in the planning of their continuing education, identifying the types of courses teachers desire by using interviews and surveys as well as inclusion of teachers on planning committees. Evaluations of courses should be completed routinely by participants so that the staff developer can identify which elements and strategies are most effective, as well as which courses address teacher interests and concerns. Although district goals deserve attention in staff development plans, training planned around district goals alone is often based upon a deficit model - "You need this to be a better teacher." The teachers read this as a "You're not OK" message and resist the meal being offered.

6. Staff development must consider the feelings, fears and anxieties of the learners.

Especially when they are breaking new ground, exploring new territory or trying new technologies, many teachers will feel some degree of anxiety. Like novice scuba divers descending for the first time with a tank of air, teachers may experience heavier breathing and a sense of risk. Courses should be constructed with this phenomenon in mind. The instructor or group leader should have specific strategies for identifying anxious learners as well as strategies for easing their anxieties.

For example, one staff developer found that one way to combat computer anxiety was to encourage name-calling. "Call the machine names!" she urged. The body language of the learners relaxed dramatically as they came to view the machine as a person or animal instead of some all-powerful technological marvel. When the learners were supported in their natural inclination to make the computer less threatening and less mystical, they made greater progress with the skills being taught.

In a similar vein, staff developers have noticed that many participants reach an early saturation point when covering new ground. Pacing becomes an essential issue. It pays to curtail grandiose expectations in favor of learner comfort. In teaching word processing, for example, it is wise to teach novices four or five commands in the first lesson, just enough to support them in creating an impressive document. Once they understand the commands, they should write and write until they announce, "This is easy!" Additional commands and skills are best introduced in small doses until the foundation of confidence has been firmly laid.

7. Staff development must engage the perspective of teachers.

Staff development is often fragmented and seemingly unrelated to any philosophical structure or plan. In order to change teachers' attitudes and behaviors, the learning experiences must shift the way in which participants look at life, think about life and taste life. Ideally, a course should provide a lens that alters the color of focus of the learner's view. Like a scuba diver, the teacher needs a mask with a special lens in order to see the world clearly.

8. Staff development must appeal to learners at a variety of developmental stages.

Teachers coming to sessions differ with regard to their stage of development as teachers, their stage of life as adults and their level of concern about specific innovations. These differences can severely hinder or profoundly support learning, depending on the match between learning experience and learner stage. Ideally, teachers should be allowed to select from a menu of courses that describes the kinds of activities included in each. This process of selection increases the likelihood of a good match between learner and course.

9. Staff development must be properly funded.

Without adequate funding, staff development will limp along and fail to bring about any major changes in the classroom. In order to achieve the kind of immersion advocated in this chapter, the investment of teacher time must be substantial - something on the order of five to ten days per year. The extension of the work year by that number of days is a sizable commitment for districts that normally devote only a single day or several afternoons each year to staff development.

Without such an investment, however, continuing education will fail to reach many of the teachers who need the experience the most. Voluntary, unpaid, self-initiated education usually appeals to teachers at the advanced stages of development and self-actualization. Those teachers who lack enthusiasm for their profession and those who are "coasting out" are far less likely to sign up for unpaid workshops held at the end of work days.

Teacher education should be blended into the work year and should be a requirement for all. The resources available for such education should be sufficient to achieve "lift-off" - the kinds of major breakthroughs and changes advocated throughout this chapter. Three elements are critical to the achievement of lift-off: long-range planning, effective instructors and a comfortable learning environment. If the district economizes excessively with regard to any one of these variables, there will be few fireworks or dramatic effects.

a. Long Range Planning

Substantial teacher and administrative time must be devoted to the development and implementation of a long-range plan for continuing education. A program offering a wide selection of courses in a developmental pattern cannot be thrown together on a yearly basis. Group leaders and instructors must be signed up at least ten months in advance if the district is to obtain the services of the most effective people. In order to ensure that the program is responsive to teachers' needs and is appropriately differentiated, it is essential that an administrator supervise the collection and analysis of evaluation data and staff surveys. Because there is an important body of research identifying what works and what does not work in staff development, the administrator should be well versed in that research, not simply a generalist who happens to have fallen into the staff development assignment because no one else wants it. The task is a speciality that deserves funding and full recognition.

b. Effective Instructors

There are two primary strategies for attracting the most effective instructors and group leaders, and both are expensive. The first involves the recruitment and training of staff members to be trainers of their colleagues. A district with a five year plan for staff development can anticipate training needs further down the road and begin encouraging talented staff members to acquire the expertise necessary to lead sessions. Well-respected members of the district staff are particularly effective in establishing good rapport with their peers.

The cost to the district of this strategy is the investment in courses for the selected staff members as well as some form of salary incentive for the extra teaching itself. Although teachers will sometimes volunteer to teach such sessions, they will generally grow tired of the extra effort unless a salary incentive is offered, and a major initiative will require such assistance on a continuing basis from dozens of staff members. Since outstanding external instructors may charge as much as $400 to $750 per day and up, it makes sense to pay internal instructors a stipend to bring them to a comparable level.

The second strategy involves outside instructors. There are many people who provide staff education survives to districts, but there are few who are dynamic performers who can model sound instructional practices. Unfortunately, many districts will hire instructors without first checking out their performance skills. If someone publishes an article on thinking skills in Educational Leadership, he or she may be swamped with phone calls requesting assistance with workshops, often with less than a month's notice. "Can you do a workshop on thinking for us in three weeks?" the author will be asked. The creation of good articles is only remotely connected with effective adult instructional skills.

A second major problem is the tendency for instructors to emerge from the ivy walls of universities. Although many of these instructors are effective, quite a few others have not managed to merge theory with practice. Classroom teachers will sometimes reject such instructors because "they don't know what it's like in the trenches."

Resolving this instructor challenge requires time and money. One of the strongest arguments for assigning major responsibility in this area to an administrator is the time it takes to locate effective instructors. A five-year plan permits the administrator to anticipate needs and start "scouting": attending conferences and workshops to identify the very best people for the job. It takes several years of such hunting and reference checking to build a "stable" of good people who can then be counted on to provide services over all five years.

The essential ingredient missing from many districts' efforts at staff education is staff commitment to the task of instructor recruitment. This missing ingredient helps to explain the last minute telephone calls to line up instructors "sight unseen."

Another major problem is the refusal of most districts to pay reasonably attractive honoraria to outstanding instructors. The opening offer from many districts may be as low as $150 for an afternoon session, one which may require several hours of driving and several hours of preparation, yet the best instructors usually charge more than $350 for such an assignment. Although the difference in performance between the "affordable" instructors and the best instructors can be extraordinary, tight budgets often dictate the choice of the former.

c. A Comfortable Learning Environment

When basic needs are ignored, teacher response to staff development is often negative. Good food and a comfortable space are surprisingly important. Although some will claim that such details are frivolous, it is noteworthy that industry pays careful attention to such "frivolities" when training people. If anyone doubts the psychological impact of refreshments, she or he should stand alongside a coffee urn that is not ready when teachers first come pouring into an afternoon training session. The comments take on a tone of desperation and anger, as if the lack of coffee were life threatening. Conversely, standing next to a nicely decorated table bearing an assortment of fruits, cheeses, pastries and juices as well as milk, coffee and tea, one hears an entirely different kind of response. Any instructor prefers working with the second group.


Providing continuing education for teachers is more important now than ever before as the role of teachers is shifting to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a growing commitment in some school districts to a vastly improved conception of staff development, one which entails peer coaching and substantial, long term investment. Important research on successful programs has pointed the way for the creation of adult learning experiences which will support the development of a pioneering teacher cadre well prepared to equip this generation of students for life in the next century. It is time to convert knowledge and theory into program.

This article is adapted from a chapter of Dr. McKenzie's book, Making Change in Education: Preparing Your Schools for the Future (Westbury, N.Y.: J.L. Wilkerson, 1987).


Bents, R. and Howey, K. "Staff development - change in the individual." In Staff development - organization development. Edited by B. Day. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 1981.

Hunt, D. Matching models in education. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971.

Joyce, B. and Showers, B. Power in staff development through research in training. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 1983.

Sprinthall, N. and Sprinthall, L. "Adult development and leadership training for mainstream educaton." In Concepts to guide the training of teachers of teachers. Edited by D. Corrigan and K. Howey. Reston, Virginia: Council for Exceptional Children, 1980.

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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