A Project Based Approach to Professional Teacher Development

In April 2015 I gave a presentation at the IATEFL in Manchester. I am very happy that my summary of the presentation has been published in the conference proceedings. I have included the report in this post.

This is a 4-6 minute read.



The primary focus of professional teacher development is, naturally, on becoming a better teacher. Mann suggests that “self-direction is as important in teacher development as it is in language learning” and that self-direction implies a “conscious orchestration of individual capacity, environment and available resources” (2005: 104). If this is the case, then we should also be paying equal attention to enhancing the skills, competencies and attitudes that enable us to seek, identify, undertake and evaluate the appropriate professional development opportunities facilitate self-directed practice.




Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an educational approach firmly based in experiential and enquiry based learning. The key feature that differentiates PBL from project work is the reflection that takes place upon completion of the main project. This reflection has a double focus, the first being on the subject knowledge gained from the enquiry and the second on hard and soft skills, competencies and attitudes developed or learned in order to obtain the knowledge (Markham 2012).




Project Based Learning and Professional Teacher Development

This project based approach to professional development draws on this twin focus. In the context of professional teacher development the subject knowledge learned equates to the knowledge or skills obtained, through the professional development activity, to become a more effective teacher. The second focus enables reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes developed through undertaking the developmental activity. These are the attributes which contribute to becoming a more effective and self-directed practitioner of professional development.

The approach is applicable to teachers at all levels of experience who wish to continue developing as teachers. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that although the focus is on building the capacity for self-direction this does not imply a solitary activity (Ryan 2013), and certainly the stages of setting the driving question and reflection may be most effectively undertaken with a constructive and trusted colleague.




A Project Based Professional Teacher Development Cycle

The choice of focus for a teacher’s professional development may arise from a variety of contexts and motivations. Once an area is identified it can be placed within a project based cycle. This cycle contains three broad stages: the framing of developmental area as a driving question; the choice, undertaking of and reflection on the developmental activity; and finally reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes learned or developed as a practitioner of professional development. I shall look at these areas, particularly stages one and three which focus on aspects specific to this approach, in more depth.




Stage One

The driving question provides a focuses for the developmental activity and future reflection as “academic or professional reflection, as opposed to purely personal reflection, generally involves a conscious and stated purpose” (Ryan 2013: 4). Driving questions that ask “How..?” encourage the dual focus of growth as a teacher and also as a self-directed professional developer. Whereas, questions that ask “What…?” focus purely on becoming a better teacher.

A template for a focussed driving question may look like this:

  • “How can I/we ______ (develop, improve…etc + personal aim) to / for / in ______ (developmental purpose)?”

A question involving a developmental aim may look like this:

  • “How can I improve my ability to involve learners more in decision making in my lessons?”




Stage Two

The teacher identifies a suitable developmental vehicle, undertakes the development activity and reflects on the skills and knowledge developed as a teacher in relation to their specific developmental need. The choice of development vehicle may come from a range of professional development cycles that focus on becoming a better teacher (Mann 2005).




Stage Three

The final stage focuses, through reflection, on the recognition of skills, competencies and attitudes that have been learned or developed in stage two. Reflection is “a prerequisite of development” and “can happen individually or collaboratively” (Mann 2004: 108). Through reflection and recognition these attributes can be consciously added to the toolkit of the self-directed practitioner when undertaking future developmental activities.

This reflection may be facilitated through responding to two prompts:

  1. What hard and soft skills, competencies and attitudes did I develop or learn as practitioner of professional teacher development?
  2. How can I use these skills, competencies and attitudes to enhance my future self-directed professional development?





This rationale for, and the description of, the project based professional teacher development cycle is necessarily brief. Yet, I hope it provides a potentially useful tool for practitioners at all stages of their careers, empowering teachers by placing them at the heart of their developmental process.





Mann, S. 2005. ‘State-of-the-Art Article: The language teacher’s development’. Language Teaching 38: 103-118.

Markham, T. 2012. Project based learning: Design and coaching guide—expert tools for innovation and inquiry. California: Heart IQ Press.

Ryan, M. 2013. ‘The pedagogical balancing act: Teaching reflection in higher education’ Teaching in Higher Education. 18/2: 144-155.