How Teachers Change: A Study of Professional Development in Adult Education 2004

How Teachers Change: A Study of Professional Development
in Adult Education

Part One: How Teachers Changed
Part Two: Factors Influencing Change
Part Three: Conclusions and Strategies for Supporting Teacher Change

Part I: How Teachers Changed


The research question driving this study was: How do practitioners change as a result of participating in one of three different models of professional development, and what are the most important factors that influence (support or hinder) this change? Our goal was to discover the relative effectiveness of different models of professional development, in order to help professional development decision makers-adult education administrators and professional developers at the program and state level-plan and deliver effective professional development, and understand the factors that mediate the influence of professional development.

The main activities of the study were:

  1. Developing and testing three models of professional development activities (multi-session workshop, mentor teacher group, or practitioner research group) appropriate for adult education.
  2. Gauging the change (differences in thinking and acting) for teachers who participated in one of these professional development activities.
  3. Identifying the most important factors that influenced whether and how teachers changed.

The study was conducted with 100 teachers in three New England states (Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts) between 1998 and 2000. Teachers participated in an 18-hour professional development activity that focused on the topic of learner persistence in adult basic education, designed according to one of the following three models of professional development:

  • Multisession workshop -- a "traditional" professional development activity, but organized in multiple sessions and including experiential, active learning activities.
  • Mentor teacher group -- a "reform" type of professional development activity, blending features of study circles with features of peer coaching and observation.
  • Practitioner research group -- a "reform" type of professional development activity where teachers investigate their own classroom practice by collecting and analyzing data to answer a question of concern to them.


How Teachers Changed:

  • The research identified four types of change: (1) no to minimal change, (2) thinking change (more change in knowledge relative to changes in action), (3) acting change (more action taken relative to knowledge change), and (4) integrated change (new knowledge and action were used together, or "integrated").
  • Of teachers completing the professional development (n=83), 24% demonstrated integrated change, 13% demonstrated acting change, 35% demonstrated thinking change, and 28% demonstrated no or minimal change.
  • Most teachers, even dropouts (teachers who attended for less than 12 of the 18 scheduled hours), changed at least minimally through gains in knowledge or actions in their classrooms; relatively few experienced no change at all.
  • However, one year after the professional development, a majority of teachers had changed only minimally and then mostly in their thinking. For example, almost all (90% of the whole sample, 95% of completers) gained some knowledge on the topic of the professional development (learner persistence), but for many it was only a concept or two.
  • Similarly, the majority (78% of the whole sample, 87% of completers) took some action in their classrooms or programs to address the issue of learner persistence, but for many it was minimal or short-lived (e.g., they called absent learners a few times, or tried an observed technique once in their class).
    Changes were most often seen in teachers' roles as classroom teachers (rather than their roles as learners, program members, or members of the field).

Part II: Factors Influencing Change

Factors Influencing Change: Teachers who gained the most from the NCSALL professional
development were those who:

  • Had a strong motivation to learn about the topic or about theories of good teaching and wanted to integrate new learning with their actions.
  • Began their teaching in the field of adult education, had fewer years of experience in the field, and did not have a post-graduate degree.
  • Participated in high-quality professional development (as rated by the researchers), for more hours, and perceived it to be of high quality.
  • Worked in programs where they had a voice in decision-making and where strategies suggested in the professional development had not yet been implemented.
  • Received benefits as part of their adult education jobs and had access to prep time.

To a lesser extent, teachers tended toward more change when they were not required to use a particular curriculum, worked more hours in adult education, had more paid professional development release time, expressed a weaker level of commitment to staying in the field of adult education, participated in professional development groups where all participants were from the same program, and had access to opportunities to share ideas with colleagues during and after participating in the professional development.

Model of professional development was not one of the most important factors, although there were different patterns of change related to model: teachers completing the practitioner research group professional development had slightly higher overall change and teachers completing mentor teacher group professional development were slightly more likely to demonstrate integrated change.

Part III: Conclusions and Strategies for Supporting Teacher Change


  • We conclude that teachers' pathways to change were neither simple nor linear; change was complex and shaped by interaction among who they were as individuals, the quality and amount of professional development in which they participated, and the features of the programs and systems in which they work.
  • Adult education teachers work within a particular ecosystem of funding, structure, and policies, and these factors intertwine with individual factors and with the professional development in which they participate.
  • Slightly more than one third of the teachers who completed the professional development changed their thinking as a result, but this did not always translate into changes in practice in the classroom and program. This lack of concrete action was due partly to individual motivation and partly to the quality of the professional development and to the working conditions and program factors that hindered teachers from taking action.
  • However, about one quarter of those teachers who completed the professional development made significant change across multiple roles, and this professional development had a strong effect on them and their practice: in particular, these were teachers who had less experience in the field and less formal education, had a strong motivation to learn more about the topic or about theories of teaching and student success, participated in high-quality professional development groups, and had access to working conditions that supported change (prep time, benefits, opportunities for sharing with colleagues, a voice in decision-making in the program).
  • This study confirmed that, like recent K-12 research (Garet, et al, 2001; Porter, et al, 2000), it is the features of professional development more than the model that makes a difference in teacher change; since all three models shared features of on-going, experiential learning with colleagues, we did not find that model was a critically important factor.
  • Specific implications and recommendations for professional developers include:
    • Ensure that professional development is of high quality. The quality of the professional development, as rated by us and by the participants themselves, was an important factor influencing change.
    • Offer a variety of professional development models for teachers to attend. All three models of professional development tested in the study (multisession workshops, mentor teacher groups, practitioner research groups) supported teacher change. There is, however, every reason to believe that a single model of professional development wouldn't have sufficed for all the teachers in our study, year in and year out. Teachers may opt to participate in different models based on their experience or situation. No one model of professional development is sufficient for the range of adult education teachers in our field.
    • Be clear during recruitment for "reform" models of professional development what participation will be like for teachers. Providing enough information about the professional development during recruitment is important, because participants' expectations of the professional development affected group dynamics, and this was especially true for newer, "reform" types of professional development such as mentor teacher groups or practitioner research groups.
    • Help teachers acquire skills to build theories of good teaching and student success. Teachers, especially new teachers, often say that they need new techniques and practical ideas; however, a larger "bag of tricks," while helpful to those "acting" teachers in our study, did not lead to sustained, integrated change. We found that reflecting critically on one's practice in order to build continually one's theories of teaching and learning was not a skill that some teachers simply acquired by dint of being teachers Teachers need to understand why to use a particular technique, not just how to use it; they need the underlying foundational theory of teaching and learning that will allow them to integrate new thinking with new actions.
    • Add activities to professional development that help teachers strategize how to deal with the forces that affect their ability to take action. Teachers need support in order to translate their new ideas into practice. Professional development cannot erase the barriers to change that exist in teachers'working contexts, but it can provide time and a platform for teachers to discuss these barriers and strategize how to deal with them on their own.

From the study "How Teachers Change: A Study of Professional Development in Adult Education" (Smith et al, 2003), a publication by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Please note: We do not control and cannot guarantee the relevance, timeliness, or accuracy of the materials provided by other agencies or organizations via links off-site, nor do we endorse other agencies or organizations, their views, products or services.