This two-part post provided in collaboration with the P21Blogazine from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. 

Driving Question: Professional Development: Reactive or Proactive?

From the 90s, I remember a popular saying: “All that and a bag of chips”. This saying basically refers to the episodic shifts that make life and worries different every day. With teens, the changes deal with what is cool at a given moment. What is cool changes from day to day. Their shifts, like so many chips in a bag, are ever changing in shape and form. Today the teen worries about who is the most popular, who is the cutest, who is the best athlete. Tomorrow, it’s a different chip.

Today, I see many educators attending quick, superficial in-service events around the latest topic or trend in education, told “what “ it is, and then being sent back to the classroom to implement what they have learned. That’s it. No time to stop and think. Just go and do tomorrow…at least until the next hot topic comes along. With classrooms filled to the max, new standards, new tests and new mandates, is it any wonder that so many teachers are overwhelmed and not sure where to go or what to do. There are just too many chips to gobble down.

Just as many speak about how we are cramming too much information into students, I think we often are  doing the same to our teachers–RTI.  Standards for kids.   Standards for teachers.  AYP. Formative tests. Summative tests. More formative tests.  One command follows another to make sure the assembly line has all the widgets working up to snuff. We have turned education into a competition for conformity rather than continuing to take our teachers to the next level in their understanding and practice. We have squeezed out individual talent. Stay inside the lines.  Eat every chip as fast as you can because tomorrow will bring a new bag to swallow.

I am hearing over and over that the United States Education System is in a very dismal place. “Yes”, we do have very little money for our schools. “Yes”, we have too much student testing. “Yes”, we have more students being placed in special education than sound testing warrants. “Yes”, we have more requirements for teachers to implement and push students past standardized tests. “Yes”. more  and more, our education looks at how to refine the widgets on the assembly line and forgets that learning is first.

From Reactive to Proactive

It is human nature to react to change. However, today our teachers are locked into being 100% reactive to every chip that comes out of the bag. An overabundance of shallow tests has created a super-reactive mindset. And of course, when things don’t go right, who is at fault?  Too many look at the teachers as the main suspect. “Your students’ didn’t meet the standards.” “Your students get good test scores.” “Your kids are dropping out.” With the fingers of fault pointing at them teachers can do little more than  continue to react.

Because teachers have no control over what is going to come next into their classrooms, it is extremely hard for them to control what changes happen. What the federal or state government will require, what the latest technology will come out with next, what catastrophe happens in their town or the world, teachers can’t predict. So instead of having them struggle with how to handle the mandate chips, ,  can school leaders not help teachers cope with change and take control of the learning in their classrooms by being proactive rather than reactive?

There is a way to answer that question with a loud “yes!” My notion of what works is what I call the Proactive Professional Learning Experience™  (PPLE). PPLE is at least a one year learning program that focuses on the bag and not the chips.  PPLE’s are a model of professional learning that enables teachers to think and act outside the box, critically and creatively, communicate with each other and collaborate to find local solutions to the learning challenges faced by their students.. The goal of PPLE is to build a culture for learning that enables teachers to continually adapt to “the latest and greatest”  by  learning how to manage change, not be its victim.

“A Proactive Professional Learning Experience is a specific and systematic mode of interaction based on the social-constructivist view point which incorporates the practice of 21st-century skills in communication, knowledge sharing, critical thinking and use of relevant technologies so that educators can generalize and transfer their knowledge and build a strong foundation for communicating ideas. It creates a culture of change management that enables educators to advance learning rather than react to mandates and other episodic changes.. (Bellanca, K, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015.)

In PPLE’s, teachers are able to take a proactive stance to any idea, including a mandate, test their ideas about how a new idea might work in their classrooms, synthesize the ideas of others, and build deeper understanding of what they are learning and how they will implement the topic so that it solves a particular problem, or resolve a needs they see in their school.

The worth of a PPPE is deep.

  • Large and small group discussions allow for debate and uncover the local value of an idea.
  • Teachers are afforded opportunities to exercise self-regulation, self-determination, and a desire to persevere.
  • Insightful discussion, motivation, collaborative skills, and the ability to problem solve emerge as key teaching tools.
  • Increasing teachers’ opportunity to talk with one another and discuss their ideas also increases their ability to support their thinking, develop reasoning skills, and to argue their opinions persuasively and respectfully.
  • A feeling of community and collaboration develops in and outside of school.

The PPLE’s Goal

A Proactive Professional Learning Experience has the goal of creating a new culture of learning for and by teachers. They build it. They make it. In that culture, they consider mandates as well as local issues, determine how best to respond to those mandates and issues for the good of their children, and how to reject what doesn’t fit. They aren’t eating one chip at a time without careful examination of what it provides for the learning health of their children. They study the bag.

The PPLE culture is enacted  in  a given school or group of schools by enabling them to look at what are their current problems and challenges and breaking that big problem into smaller ones, analyzing them (qualitatively and quantitatively), and developing a cohesive plan for systematic implementation for both teachers and for students. Teachers start with an inquiry into the topic—who, what, when, how and most importantly, why.  After they plan how they will implement their ideas, they welcome on-going classroom visits throughout the year by experts in the field so they gain other points of view through feedback. By year’s end, there are evident, countable changes in teaching practice as well as more substantive evidence of student learning than any of the current standardized tests provide.

They are able to do this, because the culture puts into place a cycle of professional learning that involves not only hearing information about a mandate, hot topic or local concern, the examine it, make plans for how to implement it in their own classrooms, are supported by school leaders for making their changes, and review the results of their work so as to refine a new idea into a best practice or reject it after thoughtful consideration of the data.

Professional Learning Experiences Cycle






More Equals Less

In many areas of the United States, I do hear teachers’ and school leaders’ frustrations with not being able to solve specific problems in order to increase student success in a way that fits their school.  Those frustrations are like a bag of chips–multiple things to do with no connection of parts to the whole. Eating single chips is not enough. Single bites are episodic.  What will help nourish the school is a proactive culture of change in which teachers get the chance to taste test the whole bag, make connections and make new ideas work for their kids.

 Tomorrow’s  Post: Part II: What’s In the Bag? The PPLE Cycle in Practice

About the Author

KballancaKate Bellanca has dedicated her career to working directly with districts, schools, families, and other helping professionals to assist them in affecting change in students learning. Today, Kate is Chief Executive Officer at the International Renewal Institute.  Email: kjb@iriinc.us. Website: www.iriinc.us; Facebook: International Renewal Institute; Twitter: @iriinc; LinkedIn: International Renewal Institute.


You can read added posts from the P21Blogazine on this site or by subscribing to its RSS Feed at www.p21.org for three times per week posts. Monthly themes connect  21st Century Deeper Learning  and the 4Cs theory and practice.

About Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley is a senior technical assistance consultant and Educational Technology and Innovation lead at the American Institutes for Research. His current work focuses on innovative, technology-infused solutions to improve educator professional learning. He is the Project Director for Connected Educator Month and serves in a leadership capacity on several other projects focused on educational technology for K-12 and adult learners.
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