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Making Professional Development Relevant: My Experience With Inquiry Based PD

Nicole Wolff Education, Professional Development

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I certified as a National Board Certified Teacher in 2018. Part of the power behind the National Board Certification process is the completely individualized professional development. As teachers work toward achieving certification, the instructional emphasis is laser focused on their own practice and the needs of the students sitting in front of them.

This is very different from typical teacher professional development. Most PD opportunities for teachers are broad in scope and the teacher must dissect the new learning for relevant pieces that may (or may not) work in their specific context.

While National Board Certification’s power is in the individual relevance of the work, not all teachers are ready, able, or willing to pursue certification. Notwithstanding this, teachers deserve a personalized approach to professional development. One that respects and values their professional needs and encourages them to take informed risks. This belief is part of my core values as an Instructional Coach.

Enter Inquiry Based Professional Development (IBPD). For the last few years, developing a structure and protocol for more personalized and relevant PD has occupied a lot of my brain space. I had a general idea rolling around in my mind, but struggled with organizing my thoughts and goals into a systematic plan that would empower teachers, yet still yield student achievement results.  For a long time, the ideal plan proved to be elusive. Then I came across this blog about Inquiry Based PD.

The article was what I needed as a catalyst to begin the planning process for personalized professional development. It described IBPD as a cycle of generating questions, researching strategies, trying them in the classroom, reflecting on success, and refining the strategy. Using the information from the blog, my co-coach and I began to plan our own cycle of IBPD.

The Process

We followed the process as described fairly closely. However, we did make some key modifications.  The most notable change we made was the level of autonomy we afforded our teachers. Rather than selecting a few topics from which teachers could choose, we allowed our teachers to choose any topic for inquiry.

Another significant variation in our process is we allowed some teachers to work independently on an inquiry topic. We discovered some teachers were deeply interested in researching and implementing particular strategies. We wanted to honor their professional choices even if that meant working outside of a group (they did have one of us as a thought partner and collaborator).

After inquiry topics were chosen, teachers developed research questions, identified resources, determined success criteria, wrote action plans, and set up monitoring/reflection logs.  Each of these steps was introduced, modeled, developed, and supported during our dedicated professional development time.

Once the foundation was built and plans were written, our professional development time became more personalized.  The teachers were placed in small groups by topic (some worked as “singletons” on their own topic). This is when the true action started. During our PD meetings, teachers were the drivers of their inquiry and learning and I was the facilitator.  Each meeting followed the same cycle:

  • Evaluation and reflection of the results achieved since the last meeting
  • Determine the next step and be able to justify the necessity of the next step
  • Develop an action plan for the next step
  • Write success criteria for the next step
  • Agree on a “bring back”

The teachers were the force behind the discussions and decisions. My role was to ask questions that facilitated critical thinking and cognitive growth, help with resource identification and location, and when needed offer some specific ideas for implementation.

We utilized the IBPD process for the second half of the school year. As some teachers achieved the desired results of their action plans, they began a new IBPD cycle with a new topic.

Teacher Feedback

We had extremely positive feedback to our implementation of IBPD. An anonymous survey at the end of the school year revealed that 78% of teachers said the process positively impacted their professional practice and student achievement. The same percentage said IBPD was more relevant to their practice than traditional PD.

Almost 70% indicated they wanted the opportunity to participate in Inquiry Based PD next year. The others were neutral. Not one teacher indicated they did not want to do IBPD again.


As a coach, I observed teachers become more invested in their professional development. They had control over their learning. It was relevant and personal and therefore they were motivated to capitalize on the process.

The survey revealed the aspects of IBPD the teachers found most beneficial:

  • Relevance – almost every teacher described the positive impact of being able to focus on learning that was specific to their own practice and their students’ needs right now
  • Collaboration – most teachers said they believed the quality of collaboration was much higher with Inquiry Based PD versus traditional PD (possibly because they were focused on a common, self-selected purpose)

 Opportunities for Improvement

I am proud of what we accomplished with IBPD. As the planners and facilitators, I think my co-coach and I did well planning, presenting, and supporting the process. The teachers did phenomenal work with their IBPD cycles. They were solutions focused, data driven, and reflective.

Through survey responses and our own self-reflection, we have identified ways to improve the process next year:

  • More time for research – we had a bit of a slow start to the action planning phase of our cycles. We believe building in more time to research resources and strategies may make the action planning phase more efficient, effective, and strategic.
  • Provide a menu of topics – some of our teachers found it overwhelming to select an inquiry topic on their own.  Next year, we plan to provide a list of topics that are areas of need for our school (based on data). Teachers will not be required to choose from the menu, but those who need ideas will have that support.

A goal without a plan is just a wish. After years of wishing I could provide teachers with more relevant and personalized professional development, I was finally able to actualize a plan for it.  While there are definitely areas for improvement, the implementation was more successful than I anticipated.

I can’t wait to make adjustments and begin the process again next year.

What is your experience with making professional development more relevant to teachers?








I'm a California native. However, I've spent my entire career teaching in Arizona public schools, as well as instructing at the university level. My passion for teacher advocacy and support led me to become an Instructional Coach in 2013. I am currently a coach at a K-8 school in Goodyear and love the students and teachers I get to work with every day. I have spent my career actively involved in instructional improvement, chairing many committees including Response to Intervention, Academic Accountability, and Professional Development Committees. I was named Dysart Hero (teacher of the year) in 2012. I was honored to serve as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I earned a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Education/ESL from Ottawa University. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I’m also endorsed as an Early Childhood Specialist, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Specialist. In my free time, I enjoy reading, camping, and spending time with my family.

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