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An inquirED Blog

Can Curriculum-Based Professional Learning Transform Teaching?

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

From an inquirED PD Session with Inquiry Advocates

We were joined on today's webinar by Jim Short (Program Director, Leadership and Teaching to Advance Learning at the Carnegie Corporation) and Shanti Elangovan (Founder and CEO of inquirED). Scroll to the bottom of this blog post to view the webinar recording. This blog post and the associated webinar are sponsored by inquirED and the National Council for the Social Studies.


Rethinking Professional Learning

Something is wrong with traditional models of professional learning. It's estimated that schools and districts across the country spend roughly $18 Billion on professional learning activities every year. Despite that large investment, the Gates Foundation reported that less than 30% of teachers and administrators are satisfied with the professional learning in their schools, stating that most of it “is not relevant, not effective, and most important of all, not connected to teachers’ core work of helping students learn.”

How can we make professional learning relevant, effective, and connected - so it meaningfully develops teacher practice and improves student outcomes? We explored that compelling question on today’s webinar. But before we can answer that question, it's important to dig a little deeper into teaching practice.

How does teaching practice develop in the first place?

Mostly, it’s sink or swim.

At least that's how my teaching practice developed when I entered the classroom at the ripe old age of 23. I was given a textbook, classrooms full of students, and a one-hour-long prep period.

Not surprisingly, I mostly sank.

So I built my teaching practice out of necessity - to stay above water - as a defense mechanism against failure. When something worked, I did it again. If it didn't work - I threw it away. I patched together a curriculum and engaged students through supercharged expenditures of my own energy and enthusiasm. It wasn't pretty, but it helped me survive, so it became hard-wired through trial and error; fixed into place by a complex mixture of experience and emotion.

I’m fairly certain my story is not the exception but the rule for most teachers. Like me, their practice develops over time to meet the day-to-day demands of the classroom, in response to immediate feedback (ie. Did it work? Did we survive?), and with reinforcement and validation - both formally and implicitly - from administrators and colleagues.

Curriculum-Based Professional Learning

Curriculum-Based Professional Learning (CBPL) is rooted in the idea that meaningful growth and development of teaching practice only happens if professional learning:

  • Connects to day-to-day instruction through the use of high-quality instructional materials

  • Includes opportunities for meaningful collaboration

  • Provides mechanisms for direct feedback on instruction and student learning

Curriculum Matters

During the webinar, Jim Short of the Carnegie Corporation explored several of the critical CBPL components that can help teachers undertake a shift in practice. First, he stressed the importance of providing teachers with high-quality instructional materials: "They build teachers content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge."

A vetted, high-quality instructional materials would have been a lifesaver to me as a beginning teacher. It would have given me the chance to start improving my practice through action. It's like providing a beginning cook with a really great kitchen-tested recipe: here are high-quality ingredients, descriptions of the tools and utensils you need, instructions to combine, and methods to bake, broil, or flambé. Add spices and seasoning to taste. Over time, improvise based on the recipe, add more or less of one ingredient, try a different method, change it entirely. In other words, make it your own.

Conversely, the lack of a curricular component in traditional professional learning models is like pointing that beginning cook towards an empty kitchen and wishing them luck.

Beyond Traditional PD

In addition to to high-quality instructional materials, what I desperately needed as a beginning teacher - and throughout my career - was effective professional learning to help me develop my teaching practice. But what I got instead were “PD Days.”

PD Days consisted of drive-by workshops that never seemed to relate to what I was doing in my classroom. I do remember a few inspiring days that introduced project-based learning, but I could never translate that experience into action. Without a community to support me, a mentor to give me feedback, and some kind of curriculum to guide me, I always ended up falling back into my teaching-practice-as-self-defense mode.

By defining CPBL, Carnegie is seeking to move beyond that limited model. The Structural Design Features that Carnegie developed are critical parts of ensuring that professional learning is effective. When learning is designed to encourage collective participation, teachers can learn together using the same instructional materials. Additionally, according to Short "Summer Institutes are only the beginning, but not the end." Effective professional learning requires dedicated time throughout the school year.

Changing Teacher Practice and Beliefs

Remember me back in my first-year classroom? -After my first few years, it would have been hard for anyone to convince me to change my beliefs and practice. They were helping me to survive.

During the webinar, Jim shared a powerful idea about how practice actually changes.

Which of the answers below looks like the right one to you?

If you answered C then you are in line with the research. It also makes sense for teachers. After my first chaotic year, if you gave me high-quality instructional materials supported by a CBPL model - student learning would have improved and a shift in my beliefs would have followed.

There is so much more to the CBPL model. Check out the "Resources Shared or Requested" section below to find additional information.

CBPL in Elementary Social Studies

Shanti Elangovan, CEO and Founder of inquirED also joined us on the webinar to talk about why CBPL matters in social studies. "There's a consensus developing that inquiry is the way forward in social studies," Shanti stated, "but teachers weren't trained to teach this way - and there are few high-quality instructional materials to support them. Social studies needs a robust CBPL model."

At inquirED, we've been working on our CBPL model from the early days of the company. Much of our energy was initially focused on creating high-quality instructional materials in the form of Inquiry Journeys, our elementary social studies curriculum. We then imagined that we would market professional learning options to support the curriculum. Shanti described how we shifted away from that division: "It became clear that professional learning needed to be included free with the curriculum - so we made that shift."

Central to our CPBL model is the role of the Inquiry Advocate. They are teacher leaders, instructional coaches, or other leaders selected by the school or district. They onboard teachers and support ongoing implementation with direct assistance from inquirED's Partner Experience (PE) Team. Each month, Inquiry Advocates meet with inquirED's PE Team to help develop the skills and use the resources provided to support teachers. Shanti shared the important role Advocates play: "it's really about building capacity for professional learning at the school or district level. We could deliver all of the PD ourselves - but we can't be there everyday like an Inquiry Advocate can.

So what now?

Carnegie's research indicates - and my experience as a teacher has taught me - that change is a gradual process that happens when teachers are supported with high quality materials, and given the opportunity to engage in relevant, continuous professional learning connected to those materials.

I asked Jim about the first step in creating a CBPL at a school or district - and he came back those high-quality materials, identifying them as the necessary first step - and relating that using them as a young biology teacher really set him up for success and helped him become a better teacher.

I know that at inquirED, we'll keep working hard to refine our CPBL model, using feedback from our partners. And we'll have Jim on next year to learn more about what Carnegie is discovering about CPBL in action.

Resources Shared or Requested

View the recording of the webinar below.


About inquirED

inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More.


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