© 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 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.

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.[v] 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 section below highlights key findings from the research on teacher learning.

Key Findings

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

Teacher-Learning-shortSuccessful teaching involves both subject knowledge and effective teaching practices. The better an educator’s understanding of a content area, the more successful their students are.[vi] However, educators also need to have pedagogical content knowledge – the understanding of how to teach a particular topic.[vii] A review of research found that this domain-specific teaching knowledge was the biggest contributor to educator effectiveness.[viii] 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.[ix]

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.[x] Teacher training should address how student backgrounds shape learning experiences, and how difference can be addressed in the classroom.[xi] 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.[xii]

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.[xiii] Although the format may vary, the characteristics of the PD model matter the most.[xiv] Research shows that PD is most effective when it aligns with the educator’s own experiences, goals, school environment, and student context,[xv] and incorporates job-embedded opportunities to use and apply their learning.[xvi] It should also actively engage participants and encourage them to collaborate and develop relationships with their colleagues.[xvii] Effective PD must have a clear content focus and be sustained over time.[xviii]

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).[xix] Educator support of, and comfort with technology is fundamental to technology adoption in the classroom.[xx]


Culture & Learning

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

Education & Inequity

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

Culture & Teaching

The Culture & Teaching subtopic includes research on teaching methods that include social and cultural perspectives and concepts.

Teacher Education

The Teacher Education subtopic explores approaches to educating teachers and developing their professional identity, knowledge, and understanding. Mentoring, portfolios, and reflection activities are among the approaches explored.

Teacher Quality

The Teacher Quality subtopic includes research on effective teaching, and how teacher quality influences student achievement. There is a particular focus on policies and programs to recruit, evaluate, and retain high-quality teachers.

Teaching & Technology

The Technology & Teaching subtopic includes research on the use of online and gaming-based environments for learning. Studies cover how these environments influence both teacher and student learning.

Literacy & Social Interaction

The Literacy & Social Interaction subtopic explores the ways people develop literacy, particularly through interacting with others, with or without technology.

Learning Communities

The Learning Communities subtopic includes research on professional learning communities, including both virtual and workplace contexts.

Teacher Knowledge

The Teacher Knowledge subtopic includes research on current and pre-service teachers’ knowledge in various areas, including technology, content, and teaching methods.

Teaching History

The Teaching History subtopic explores research on different content areas and methods for teaching the subject of history.

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] Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development.
[vi] 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)
[vii] Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1–22.
[viii] 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)
[ix] Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy [Article] Shanahan T, Shanahan C in HARVARD EDUC REV (2008)
[x] 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)
[xi] 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).
[xii] 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)
[xiii] Edsurge (2014) How Teachers Are Learning: Professional Development Remix
[xiv] 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
[xv] Conceptualizing Teacher Professional Learning [Article] Opfer VD, Pedder D in REV EDUC RES (2011)
[xvi] 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.
[xvii] 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.
[xviii] Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (2007). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. John Wiley & Sons. Supovitz, J. A., & Turner, H. M. (2000). The effects of professional development on science teaching practices and classroom culture. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(9), 963-980.
[xix] Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge [Review] Mishra P, Koehler MJ in TEACH COLL REC (2006)
[xx] 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).