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Tips for School & District Administrators

Professional Development vs. Piloting New Initiatives

By Nicole Mace, MEd

Professional development (PD) is usually welcomed by educators who are looking to hone their craft, but the implementation of professional development trainings can get a bad reputation in education. After hours of learning about a new strategy or teaching method, educators are expected to return to their classrooms and implement their new knowledge. But many teachers lose motivation when they return to the reality of their classrooms.

Many wonder how they make time for this new strategy when they often lack consistent PD support and are faced with various student issues and learning needs. Often, the new strategy is then placed on the back-burner as the educator returns to more comfortable methods. So how can we solve this problem so that professional growth and student progress is seen?

Has your school ever offered a volunteer pilot program? This is common when districts want to change its curriculum, but what about fresh teaching practices, strategies, or methods? In the current educational climate, we must make opportunities for teachers to lead instructional change. Pilot programs can provide that.

Let’s look at the differences between traditional professional development sessions and voluntary pilot programs in the three stages of instructional change: strategy, implementation, and analysis.


Professional development

Who decides on the professional development needed for student success? As I’ve experienced, most professional development topics, tools, and strategies are decided with a top to bottom approach. School districts mandate what type of professional development training is provided for their teachers. This strategy can be frustrating for teachers as the concepts can be out of touch with classroom realities.

Since professional development sessions can be mandated, there is also a lack of teacher buy-in. This can bring about various colleague complaints and negativity. It’s difficult to encourage teachers to get out of their comfort zones for the benefit of their students when they feel their ideas and their students’ needs are not being considered.

Pilot program

A pilot program places teachers at the heart of their own professional development. A volunteer pilot program is even better. The power of choice provides educators with both buy-in and purpose. The strategy of a pilot program is to trust teachers as professionals and to allow teachers to be the leaders of real instructional change in their schools. Most administrators know which group of teachers would be most likely to take on change. But with a voluntary program, how do we get the rest of the teachers on board?

In most schools, there are a handful of educators who are not fans of change. Since education initiatives are often changing, there is no way they are going to volunteer for a pilot program. This is where we turn to one of the oldest social science theories: The Diffusion of Innovation Model, which explains how an idea gains momentum and adoption occurs. The theory divides any group of people (your staff) into 5 categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and the laggards.

In a school environment, the innovators are the small group of teachers who have decided they want to create a pilot program and invite their colleagues. Those who respond to that invitation are the early adopters, as this group usually takes a leadership role and are open to change.

Once the first phase of the pilot program is completed the evidence of success can be provided. This prompts the early majority group to step on board. After half of the faculty is onboard, that’s when the late majority group is ready. Although this group is skeptical about change, they usually don’t resist if the majority of the group has shown their commitment.

The last group, the laggards, is the group of staff members who are bound by tradition and are not usually open to any change. This is the most challenging group. Still, with the majority of the school on board and with the first phase of the pilot program completed, there is a range of data that can be used to show this group the real benefits their students are missing out on. In addition to the numbers, opinions from trusted colleagues can also be appealing to this small group of resistors.

The Diffusion of Innovation Model


Source: Boston University


Professional development

During the better professional development sessions I’ve attended, the trainer has structured it so that there’s time to plan the implementation of the new strategy. This planning time is great. That’s when the excitement comes. The motivation starts to build as teachers think about how to use this strategy in their classrooms. But teachers still must face their individual classroom challenges and may think:  “The PD training didn’t go over any of the challenges I’m now facing. I guess this strategy just doesn’t work for my students.” So an alternative to this is the pilot program.

Pilot program

In a pilot program, implementation is the heart of development. The teacher can plan the implementation within the context of a real classroom. The best part is that the first try and the first challenge is not where the new strategy stops. In a pilot program, teachers have designated times to meet with colleagues and discuss. The focus of these meetings is to overcome the challenges together. With the peer-suggested adjustments, the strategy is tried again. Again, reflection and peer collaboration occur. This is how instructional change happens. Every school, teacher, and student group is different. True professional growth happens when all parts are connected and professionals are supported. This cycle of learning and growth during a pilot program is actually what allows for the analysis of outcomes.


Professional development

Since professional development trainings usually occur in a teacher-only environment, analysis of outcomes is not possible without a complete pilot program.

Pilot program

In the strategy stage, clear objectives can be set and then can be measured during the implementation stage, along with all the adjustments made for student success. At the end of the pilot program, analysis of outcomes should be conducted. Here’s the best part: if the pilot program turned out to be a success, there is now a year of data, clear adjustments for success and a group of experts at your school! This is where it really gets exciting.

The next school year is the perfect time to gather the next group of early adopters to start the program with the data, known adjustments, and experts there for complete support. Teachers leading teachers toward successful instructional change benefits students and your learning community, and it truly is the future of education.

Nicole Mace earned a MEd in Educational Technology from Lesley University and a professional graduate certification in instructional design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She’s spent nearly a decade in education, teaching multiple grade levels in the U.S. and South Korea and working as a lead instructional designer at the college level. Currently, Nicole serves as an adjunct online instructor and a freelance instructional designer. Her website offers key resources for instructors looking to crack the code on quality online instruction.

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