Best Practice Fits All

When you hear professional development described as “one size fits all”, what do you imagine? Heads resting on hands? Glazed eyes? Sidebar conversations running rampant? I can relate– I have sat in too many of these types of meetings myself. However, I have come to think that this type of PD is really one size fits none.

Instead, when I consider one size fits all, I imagine a baseball cap with the elastic head band.

medium_3747476234photo credit: permanently scatterbrained via photopincc

This may be a better metaphor for how we might want to approach effective teacher training. These hats can be worn by many users regardless of head size. They adapt to who’s wearing it, but it is still a hat. That’s how I truly see one size fits all professional development. Educators need to work more like a team if we expect whole schools to make a lasting difference on student learning. We cannot have lone rangers.

It’s not like the jury is still out on what works. Look at the work by Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock (2001), Hattie (2009), Wiliam (2011), and Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde (2012). They are all pretty much saying the same thing about what best practice looks like:

– Formative assessment
– Self-assessment
– Feedback and Questioning
– Integrated Units of Study
– Direct Instruction (i.e. gradual release of responsibility)
– Collaboration and Peer-to-Peer Conversations
– Student Interest and Ownership of Learning
– Independent Practice

We can call these things whatever we want: Project-Based Learning, Inquiry Circles, Flipped Classrooms. It probably helps to give these practices snappy names so we can wrap our heads around them during the teaching process. But let’s not mistake them for something new; these philosophies work because they are grounded in the best practices listed above. We can wrap the Christmas presents in whatever type of paper we want. But what’s inside is what matters, and especially in how well we use them.

When doctors receive training, they don’t go off into isolated corners of the room and do their own thing. They understand that certain methodologies must be adhered to when performing a procedure. Now, there is often more than one way to achieve a desired outcome. But the pathways toward that outcome don’t diverge that far away from each other. It’s the same with teaching and learning. There should be no one prescribed way to help students achieve their goals. Yet to refuse to learn more about practices that have large amounts of evidence to support their use, and instead stick with what we feel comfortable with, is at best being obstinate and at worst neglectful.

The onus for hosting successful professional development is on two groups: School Leaders and Teachers. School leaders who prepare these activities need to listen to their staff about their interests and requests. Leaders should differentiate what’s offered to ensure that the learning is relevant and applicable for all teachers. But they concurrently have to look at students’ needs using assessment data, learning artifacts, and evidence-based practices. Where these two areas converge is where staff development should probably receive its focus, delivered through the lens of what a school does well. It’s important that we are all on the same page. If certain practices are effective, shouldn’t we all consider employing them?

Teachers need to come to this same learning opportunity with an open mind. Maybe the topic of PD is not what they want to focus on nor spend their time with. But what if the training is really good stuff? Like, focusing on embedding formative assessment within instruction, which can double a teacher’s effectiveness (Wiliam, 2011)? If there are opportunities for staff to voice opinions about professional development, through surveys and by serving on a leadership team, then there is a good chance that what is offered to us as educators will make a positive impact on kids and their learning if applied correctly. The alternative is a lottery system, where if a kid is lucky, they will get a teacher that is using great instructional practices that every educator in the building should be using in the first place.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

5 thoughts on “Best Practice Fits All”

  1. I’ve started planning PDs by using Essential Questions, assessment rubrics (for teacher self-assessment and future dialogue), and project work time. This allows teachers to self-differentiate or for me to push and re-teach as necessary.

    The ‘one size fits all’ approach will most likely happen if the PD is conducted as a ‘sage on the stage’ experience.

    Anyway, that’s my theory. Still testing it.


  2. Matt,
    You bring up some great points. If the PD is grounded in best practices, it will meet the needs of all the learners. As educators and leaders, we need to practice what we preach. If we expect our teachers to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all children, we should do the same with the teachers during professional learning opportunities

    I love your hat metaphor. It makes a great visualization for keeping the focus on research based best practices.


    1. Thanks for the comment Matt. Many protocols for learning can work, but are they being implemented with fidelity? If I am doing project-based learning, is it more about the project or more about the learning? That is what I think about when I observe a reluctance to engage in what works.


  3. I love it. One cap with a bit of elastic to make it work for each wearer.
    I was wondering if you could share the full references for the work you refer to in your article. You make a tremendous amount of sense and I am going to share your article with my colleagues. I know they would appreicate having the references.


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