Teachers Learning: Engagement, Identity, and Agency in Powerful Professional Development

Thesis Type:

Ed.D. Dissertation



Professional development (PD) is seen by a broad cross-section of stakeholders — teachers, principals, policymakers — as essential for instructional improvement and student learning. And yet, despite deep investments of time and money in its design and implementation, the return on investment and subjective assessments about PD’s effectiveness remain uneven. In this thesis, I focus in-depth on professional development experiences that teachers identify as their most powerful and ask what these experiences could suggest toward improving PD design, policy, and research.

Specifically, drawing on 25 in-depth accounts of powerful professional learning, I analyze PD across three papers, each of which applies a distinct analytical lens. First, using self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 1985, 2000), I explore the extent to which powerful learning experiences help to satisfy the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Second, using the growing body literature on professional identity (e.g., Beijaard et al., 2004), I posit that teachers may be motivated to pursue professional learning experiences that align with their core beliefs and identity. Extending this literature, I elaborate three distinct conceptions of how identity interacts with PD: an affinity for the what (content), the who (facilitation), and the with whom (community). I similarly discuss ways that powerful learning may help to form or transform teacher identity. Third, observing a pattern in the data and drawing on emerging literature on teacher agency (e.g., Priestley et al., 2015), I define teacher agency in professional learning as a multi-dimensional construct – agency over, during, and emerging from PD – and analyze the extent to which each dimension was evident in powerful and contrastingly negative professional learning experiences. I conclude that increasing dimensions of agency may be a promising lever for improving professional learning at both an individual and system level.

Finally, by privileging teachers’ unique perspectives and emphasizing the deeply subjective nature of learning, this thesis aims both to complement and complicate the existing research on PD design and effectiveness and the policy imperative for scale.

Last updated on 10/14/2016