© Marco Antonio Torres/Digital Promise

How do teachers learn and grow professionally?


Research shows that teacher quality is one of the most important in-school factors determining student achievement [i], and that there is a wide gap between the least and most effective teachers.[ii] Ensuring that educators are effectively trained in research-based teaching methods may be one of the most powerful ways to reform education.[iii]

Training to become a teacher traditionally begins in pre-service teacher education programs at universities, which typically combine both theoretical and practical learning.[iv] There are also an increasing number of alternative certification models, such as Teach for America, that place new teachers directly in the classroom and provide training simultaneously. Teacher education programs prepare educators by providing training in instructional approaches, subject-specific teaching methods, and classroom management.[v]

After teachers are certified, they continue learning throughout their careers through professional development (PD) activities, which are often required for teachers to maintain their certification or license. The quality of PD varies widely, however, and less than one-third of teachers are highly satisfied with available learning opportunities.[vi] Researchers and educators are exploring new approaches to provide high-quality PD, such as the use of online environments to exchange knowledge and resources.

The sections below highlight key findings from the research on instruction and teacher learning.

Key Findings

Instructional Best Practices

Mastery of both content knowledge and subject-specific teaching methods is essential.

Successful teaching involves both subject knowledge and effective teaching practices. The better an educator’s understanding of a content area, the more successful his or her students are.[vii] However, educators also need to have pedagogical content knowledge – the understanding of how to teach a particular topic.[viii] A review of research found that this domain-specific teaching knowledge was the biggest contributor to educator effectiveness.[ix] Educators also need to understand and address the specific literacy skills students need for each discipline, such as analyzing and evaluating primary sources in history or reading graphs and charts in chemistry.[x]

Instructional strategies like scaffolding and problem-based learning encourage students to be active learners. 

Because children learn by actively constructing knowledge (rather than passively receiving it),[xi] scaffolding and problem-­based learning can be very effective instructional methods. Scaffolding is a technique that provides students with verbal and visual prompts that facilitate active learning, and then gradually removes these supports as students progress and can learn more independently.[xii] For example, an educator might walk students through an exercise step­-by-­step, then have students complete it on their own using written instructions, and finally complete it without instructions. While scaffolding is an instructor-­directed technique, problem­-based learning is student-directed, with support from the instructor. In problem­-based learning, students construct their own knowledge by actively solving open­-ended problems. Both scaffolding and problem­-based learning are most effective when educators carefully plan to provide students with the right amount of guidance and support.[xiii] 

Effective use of technology in instruction supports learning.

As technology continues to transform education, educators will need to use a variety of technologies to support instruction, including extending beyond the physical classroom to virtual learning environments. Just as there are appropriate techniques for teaching different subject areas, technology-supported learning also requires specific approaches and methods, called technological pedagogical content knowledge, or TPACK. TPACK requires educators to bring together their knowledge about using technology with the appropriate pedagogical techniques for various technologies and subject areas, and their knowledge of how technologies can be used to build on students’ existing knowledge.[xiv] Educator support of and comfort with technology is fundamental to technology adoption in the classroom.[xv]

Educators can be more effective when they learn how student backgrounds affect learning.

Differences in race, culture, and socio-economic background affect how students learn, what educational opportunities they receive, and their outcomes in school.[xvi] Teacher training should address how student backgrounds shape learning experiences, and how difference can be addressed in the classroom.[xvii] Educators can make learning more meaningful by looking beyond traditional academic texts to incorporate lived experiences and literacy practices that are relevant to students, such as analyzing popular music lyrics or solving math problems that use examples from their daily lives.[xviii]

Teacher Learning/Professional Development

Reflection can be an effective strategy for helping teachers develop their practice.

Authentic teacher learning entails more than just exposure to new content knowledge and teaching techniques.[xix] It also involves teachers reflecting on their classroom experiences, analyzing what factors contributed to their successes and difficulties, and developing and implementing improvements to their practice.[xx] This process of reflection can be facilitated by activities such as keeping a teacher diary, recording and reviewing lessons, discussing classroom issues with colleagues, and gathering feedback from students and peers. Reflection and teacher learning are shaped by a teacher’s school and cultural environments, so professional development practices should take into account the specific context of the teacher, school, and community.[xxi]

Opportunities for collaborative learning allow teachers to learn from the successes and struggles of their colleagues.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), Communities of Practice (CoPs), and other collaborative learning opportunities create spaces for teachers to learn from their colleagues.[xxii] These models are becoming increasingly popular to help teachers to share ideas and experiences and collaboratively develop their teaching practices. A review of research suggests that PLCs may improve teacher practices as well as student learning outcomes.[xxiii] Research indicates that PLCs are most successful when they emphasize student learning, operate with a culture of collaboration, and consider classrooms as sites for inquiry and data-gathering about what works.[xxiv] It is also important for teachers to learn from each others’ successes, rather than simply focusing on areas of deficiency that need to be improved.[xxv]

Effective ongoing professional development is essential.

Professional development can take a number of forms, from one-time workshops to mentoring and coaching programs to self-paced online learning tools.[xxvi] Although the format may vary, the characteristics of the PD model matter the most.[xxvii] Research shows that PD is most effective when it aligns with the educator’s own experiences, goals, school environment, and student context,[xxviii] and incorporates job-embedded opportunities to use and apply their learning.[xxix] It should also actively engage participants and encourage them to collaborate and develop relationships with their colleagues.[xxix] Finally, effective PD must have a clear content focus and be sustained over time.[xxx]


Teacher Professional Development
The Teacher Professional Development subtopic explores mentoring, coaching, portfolios, and other approaches to support the professional growth of teachers.

Literacy Instruction
The Literacy Instruction subtopic includes research that describes and evaluates different approaches to teaching writing and reading skills. Several studies explore digital literacy applications and new media for literacy learning.

Math Instruction
The Math Instruction subtopic includes research studies that describe and evaluate different strategies and methods for teaching math.

Teaching for Collaboration & Creativity
The Teaching for Collaboration & Creativity subtopic includes research on instructional approaches to encourage and support collective problem-solving in the classroom.

Teacher Knowledge
The Teacher Knowledge subtopic includes research on in-service and pre-service teachers’ knowledge in various areas, including teaching methods, subject areas, and technology. Frameworks such as TPACK are explored.

Learning Communities
The Learning Communities subtopic includes research on communities of learners, both online and in-person, related to social interaction, collaboration, and authenticity.

Teacher Professional Identity
The Teacher Professional Identity subtopic explores how teachers develop their professional identities, with a focus on approaches to reflective practice.

Culture & Learning
The Culture & Learning subtopic explores the ways students’ backgrounds and social and cultural identities influence educational outcomes and experiences.

Education & Student Background
The Education & Student Background subtopic explores how student differences such as race, ethnicity, and class can lead to inequities in education opportunities.

Teacher Effectiveness
The Teacher Effectiveness subtopic includes research on effective teaching, and how teacher quality influences student achievement. This subtopic also explores policies and programs to recruit, evaluate, and retain high-quality teachers.

Research Methods
The Research Methods subtopic includes research into instructional practice and explores a variety of research methods related to teaching and learning.

Science Instruction
The Science Instruction subtopic includes research studies that describe and evaluate different methods of teaching science, with a focus on inquiry-based teaching, as well as approaches to professional development for science teachers.

Evidence & Assessment
The Evidence & Assessment subtopic includes research related to the validity and reliability of educational assessments. This subtopic explores challenges related to implementing evidence-centered design and the application of education research in practice.

Explore this topic in the Network View or Chord View of the Research Map.


[i] Rivkin, S.G., Hanushek, E.A., and Kain, J.F. (2005). Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement (PDF). Econometrica, 73(2), 417–458. Nye, B., Konstantopoulos, S., and Hedges, L.V. (2004). How Large Are Teacher Effects? (PDF). Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(3), 237-257. Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Teacher quality and student achievement.”Education policy analysis archives 8 (2000): 1.
[ii] Hanushek, E.A., and Rivkin, S.G. (2012). The Distribution of Teacher Quality and Implications for Policy. Annual Review of Economics, 4, 131-157.
[iii] Darling-Hammond, L. (2009). Teaching and the change wars: The professionalism hypothesis. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 45-68). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree. Rivkin, S.G., Hanushek, E.A., and Kain, J.F. (2005). Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement (PDF). Econometrica, 73(2), 417–458. Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Teacher quality and student achievement.”Education policy analysis archives 8 (2000): 1.
[iv] Back to the future: Directions for research in teaching and teacher education [Article] Grossman P, Mcdonald M in AM EDUC RES J (2008)
[v] Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4–14.
Emmer, E. & Stough, L. (2001). Classroom Management: A Critical Part of Educational Psychology, With Implications for Teacher Education. Educational Psychologist, 36(2), 103-112.
[vi] Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development.
[vii] Effects of teachers’ mathematical knowledge for teaching on student achievement [Article] Hill HC, Rowan B, Ball DL in AM EDUC RES J (2005) Content Knowledge for Teaching What Makes It Special? [Article] Ball DL, Thames MH, Phelps G in J TEACH EDUC (2008) Teachers’ Mathematical Knowledge, Cognitive Activation in the Classroom, and Student Progress [Article] [19 different authors] in AM EDUC RES J (2010) Redefining disciplinary learning in classroom contexts [Article; Book Chapter] Ford MJ, Forman EA in REV RES EDUC (2006)
[viii] Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1–22.
[ix] Teaching effectiveness research in the past decade: The role of theory and research design in disentangling…[Review] Seidel T, Shavelson RJ in REV EDUC RES (2007)
[xii] Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89­-100.
[xiii] Belland, B. R., Glazewski, K. D., & Richardson, J. C. (2008). A scaffolding framework to support the construction of evidence-­based arguments among middle school students. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(4), 401­-422.
VanLehn, K. (2011). The relative effectiveness of human tutoring, intelligent tutoring systems, and other tutoring systems. Educational Psychologist, 46(4), 197­221.
Dochy, Filip, et al. “Effects of problem-­based learning: A meta­-analysis.”Learning and instruction 13.5 (2003): 533-­568.
Hmelo­Silver, Cindy E. “Problem-­based learning: What and how do students learn?.” Educational psychology review 16.3 (2004): 235­266.
[xiv] Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge [Review] Mishra P, Koehler MJ in TEACH COLL REC (2006)
[xv] Teacher pedagogical beliefs: The final frontier in our quest for technology integration? [Article] Ertmer PA in ETR&D-EDUC TECH RES (2005). Integrating technology into K-12 teaching and learning: current knowledge gaps and recommendations for future research [Article] Hew KF, Brush T in ETR&D-EDUC TECH RES (2007).
[xvi] Does segregation still matter? The impact of student composition on academic achievement in high school [Review] Rumberger RW, Palardy GJ in TEACH COLL REC (2005). Exploring sociocultural perspectives on race, culture, and learning [Review] Nasir NS, Hand VM in REV EDUC RES (2006)
[xvii] Culture and mathematics in school: Boundaries between Cultural and Domain knowledge in the mathematics classroom… [Article; Book Chapter] Nasir NS, Hand V, Taylor EV in REV RES EDUC (2008). Exploring sociocultural perspectives on race, culture, and learning [Review] Nasir NS, Hand VM in REV EDUC RES (2006).
[xviii] Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space [Article] Gutierrez KD in READ RES QUART (2008)
Ideas and Identities: Supporting Equity in Cooperative Mathematics Learning [Review] Esmonde I in REV EDUC RES (2009)
[xix] Webster-Wright, A. (2017). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learningReview of educational research, 79(2): 702-739.
[xx] Ghaye, T. (2010). Teaching and learning through reflective practice: A practical guide for positive action. New York: Routledge.
Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.
[xxi] Opfer, V. Darleen, & Pedder, David. (2011). Conceptualizing Teacher Professional Learning. Review of Educational Research, 81(3): 376-407.
Cobb, Paul, Zhao, Qing, & Dean, Chrystal. (2009). Conducting Design Experiments to Support Teachers’ Learning: A Reflection From the Field. Journal Of The Learning Sciences, 18(2): 165-199.
[xxii] Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.
[xxiii] Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and teacher education, 24(1): 80-91.
[xxiv] DuFour, R. (2004). What is a Professional Learning Community?. Educational leadership, 61(8): 6-11.
Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008).
[xxv] Schechter, C. (2010). Learning from Success as Leverage for a Professional Learning Community: Exploring an Alternative Perspective of School Improvement Process. Teachers College Record, 112(1): 182-224.
[xxvi] Edsurge (2014) How Teachers Are Learning: Professional Development Remix
[xxvii] Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L. M., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 915-945. Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward Better Conceptualizations and Measures [Article] Desimone LM in EDUC RESEARCHER (2009) https://www.wested.org/online_pubs/teacher_dev/TeacherDev.pdf
[xxviii] Conceptualizing Teacher Professional Learning [Article] Opfer VD, Pedder D in REV EDUC RES (2011)
[xxix] Ball, D., & Cohen, D. (1999). Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. Teaching as the Learning Profession San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain. Educational researcher, 33(8), 3-15.
[xxx] Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., and Adamson, F. (2010). Professional development in the United States: Trends and challenges. Dallas, TX: National Staff Development Council.