All aboard! Reluctant passengers on the training journey

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the March 2010 print edition of Teacher.

We teachers don't always make the best students. Just as doctors often make challenging patients and mechanics often drive cars in desperate need of a tune up, teachers as a group tend to be reluctant passengers on the training journey.

So how do we create dynamic professional development training that gets the most out of participants and encourages them to get the best out of themselves?

To prepare for this article, I contacted some old teacher buddies and asked them two simple questions: what turns you on and what turns you off when you're involved in PD or training? Overwhelmingly, my teacher buddies agreed that the training has to be relevant and it has to honour their existing experience.

Keeping it real – and relevant

The key to engaging participants with PD or training is finding the balance between attraction and distraction.

One way to do this is to issue a ‘Keeping it real' card to each participant in any PD training. The front of the card actually says ‘Keeping it real.' The back of the card is for action points.

Explain to your group that the card serves two purposes. Firstly, you encourage them to write some action points during the workshop for implementation after the session. This ensures that they take things from the workshop that they can apply straight away.

Secondly, advise the participants in your PD or training that if you stray from relevance, they hold up the ‘Keeping it real' card so that you can see it. This is surprisingly fun and keeps everyone on their toes. It also gives some control back to the participants and supports a certain buy-in to the workshop.

Attending PD or training is a bit like walking into a retail store. If a salesperson comes up to us too early, we'll raise our ‘just looking' barrier. If they don't come soon enough, we get frustrated and lose interest.

Rather than beating the group into submission with a content-heavy introduction, followed by a dozen sedating slides outlining all that needs to be covered, use an ice-breaker activity to get the buy-in and trust you need.

Let's play games

The right games, used correctly with the right audience, will enhance the content and promote learning. The key is selecting activities to complement or partner the material to assist your participants in making the necessary connections.

A question and answer approach in a quiz-show style can be a fun way of revisiting material or checking for understanding. Similarly, checklist tasks can motivate your participants when they can see the relationship between the activity and the outcome.

I did an activity with a group of teachers on continuous improvement. I divided the group into teams of three or four and gave each team a packet of drinking straws. I told them that they had to build a structure using only the straws and this structure had to support the weight of a full 375ml can of soft drink.

The instructions were basic, but each team busied themselves with the task, with varying success. After their first attempt, I asked them to review their design and make a list of improvements.

Next, I gave them a checklist of the kind of things that should be included in a successful design and asked them to review their design again. Finally I gave them a copy of an engineer-created design to benchmark their own design.

This activity provided high involvement and engagement, and helped to illustrate the benefit of different review methods; namely, self-assessment, audit and benchmarking, all related to the continuous improvement concept.

Use tactile learning tools

For decades, students have been lambasted for fiddling and doodling in class. Often seen as a sign of distraction and inattention, these practices have been all but outlawed in many cases.

When used correctly, however, they can actually be very powerful learning tools. They can relieve stress, improve focus, create a sense of calm, and promote a creative and playful mindset.

Place some tactile learning tools – toys, stress balls, puzzles, highlighters, interestingly-shaped items – out on the tables and invite participants to take one. During the session, encourage the participants to try different ones or swap with others at their table. At the end of the session you may want to debrief by asking if they helped. Additionally, you could engage in a discussion around which ones worked better than others, and why?

Find the comfort zone

It's important to realise that our participants need to find their comfort zone – to know there are boundaries in place so they feel safe – because if they feel threatened, they're not likely to engage or take risks.

Many teachers have been through ineffective mandatory PD or training in the past and they can be pretty sceptical about the presenter's agenda or guarded in their interactions. Besides making clear the boundaries for the session you're presenting, it's a good idea to acknowledge the experience in the room.

A simple way of doing this is by counting up the combined years of teaching experience of your participants and stating something like, ‘With 172 years of experience, we should be able to find the answers we're looking for.'

Be a technology trailblazer

More and more teachers are embracing new technologies both personally and professionally, and building their personal learning network online. Our universities are also producing tech-savvy graduates eager to use information and communication technology in innovative ways and there's a wave of support for digital pedagogy from the Commonwealth government. With all that, our training might usefully incorporate technology.

One activity I use is what I call the Five Live Quiz. After first providing some content or ‘class notes,' I divide the participants into smaller groups and give them a list of questions, but they have to use at least five different sources to find the answers, these being: class notes; phoning a friend – who can't be another participant; emailing a friend – who can't be another participant; using a smart phone to search online; and posting a question online via a blog, bulletin board or social media site.

To add an element of fun, you can give a prize to the group that finishes first. This activity will show how quickly information can be obtained and how truly connected we all are.

Participants in your PD or training session are more connected than they've ever been. Today, you have access to a whole reference collection from a single handheld device that can be updated at a fraction of the cost of traditional collections.

Try new things, test applications, ask participants how they'd like to connect, consider multiple platforms of delivery, have the courage to extend yourself.

Six quick tips for professional development or training

1. Your introduction should orient the audience to the context, purpose and direction of the session.

2. Slides should be easy to read and easy to navigate. Too many bells and whistles will detract from your content.

3. Encourage participants to jot down additional notes to promote reinforcement and to create an enduring resource for later reference.

4. Ask participants to highlight pertinent points on their handout – this helps to reinforce content and makes later reference easier.

5. Use relevant anecdotes and examples to reinforce points and make the content real.

6. A fun quiz at the end of the session helps to reinforce content and supports checking for understanding.


Pike, B., & Chris Busse, C. (1995, 2004). 101 Games that Trainers Play. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the March 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.