Two-thirds of U.S. teachers state that they have no say in what or how they learn in the professional development opportunities provided to them in schools (U.S. Department of Education, 1994).
The importance of learner-centered instruction can be illustrated by considering the case of Ellen and Molly, two teachers at a progressive urban high school. Ellen is a 25-year seasoned English teacher, a master at teaching writing, opening doors to literature for all students, and creating high standards for her students and ensuring that they achieve them. She is a strong mentor to beginning teachers. For her continuing professional growth, she craves meetings with other faculty members to develop curriculum. This is how she experiences strong intellectual camaraderie and maintains the interest and challenge she needs to keep vital in the classroom. Ellen wants the stimulus of talking about the big ideas with colleagues. She needs the adult interactions to balance and enhance her student interactions.
In contrast to Ellen, Molly is a second-year science teacher whose primary professional concerns involve classroom management and how to develop and maintain it. Molly must master these fundamentals before she can implement any new approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. She needs to see how to coordinate work on curriculum and assessment with the development of norms and responsibilities in the classroom that help all students learn. Obviously, Ellen and Molly have very different needs for professional growth, for becoming better teachers.
It can be difficult to meet the different needs of Ellen and Molly and all their colleagues. In a study of the development and implementation of Minds on Physics (Leonard et al., 1999a-f), it quickly became apparent to the development team and the evaluators that they did not have the resources available to tailor professional development to the needs of the individual teachers (Feldman and Kropf, 1997). The 37 teachers in the project taught at different levels (high school and community college), in different settings (urban, suburban, and rural), had different undergraduate majors and different amounts of graduate studies, and ranged from new teachers to 30-year veterans.
Some projects provide professional development opportunities that include different stages of participation. The Wisconsin Teacher Enhancement Program in Biology (WTEPB) provides teachers with multiple roles that change as they become more expert in teaching science. Betty Overland, an elementary teacher in Madison, went from avoiding the teaching of science to being “an enthusiastic missionary for reform in science in the elementary schools” (Renyi, 1996:51). She began by participating in a 2-week workshop. This led to her involvement with the members of the biology department at the University of Wisconsin, and she then borrowed their equipment and invited their faculty to visit her class. The next summer she was a facilitator for one of the classes offered to teachers by WTEPB,