Ask any teacher and they will tell you—professional development can be pretty hit or miss. Recent national coverage has focused attention on the “miss,” spotlighting PD that is wasteful, unhelpful, or downright insulting to educators.

But as Howard Gardner of Project Zero, an educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and two of his colleagues noted in the Washington Post, helpful, rich, professional development that truly supports teachers and makes a difference is often overlooked.

Gardner explained how hundreds of teachers and administrators have attended Project Zero’s summer institutes, where they have built a professional development model “around understanding as the goal of learning.”

At the institutes, educators work in small groups to wresle with classroom challenges, then create plans to take back to their schools. According to the institutes’ website, teachers also meet with leading scholars to explore how globalization, the digital revolution, and advances in neuroscience are changing learning. Schools send teams of teachers and administrators to the institutes, who then can work together to incorporate this new knowledge into their school community.

“It’s time we drastically alter course and deploy professional development funding more intelligently,” Gardner and his colleagues wrote.

Here in Pittsburgh, several groups are doing just that, opening professional development opportunities for teachers that go far beyond the “sage-on-a-stage” model. Instead, the programs are hands-on and often self-directed. Teachers are forming their own networks and connecting through social media to share what they have learned and to teach each other.

“We have moved so far beyond the old model of professional development that the new approach is invigorating all of us.”

As Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, explained at Getting Smart, districts like Elizabeth Forward are forming their own PD programs and sharing ideas with neighboring districts. Meanwhile, the AIU’s TransformED space is serving as a “digital playground” for educators, immersing them in experiences as varied as robotics and flight simulation.

“We have moved so far beyond the old model of professional development that the new approach is invigorating all of us and creating a new platform for learning,” Hippert wrote. “Collaboration is at the highest level I’ve seen in 37 years.”

A partnership with Robert Morris University, called the Ohio River Consortium, is receiving a $225,000 grant over two years from the Grable Foundation. The money will help build makerspaces at elementary schools but some will also be devoted to teacher training. The consortium will work with the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to shape the activities and programs inside the makerspaces.

This fall, MAKESHOP will also be hosting a group of West Virginia educators, among them principals, IT experts, and classroom teachers, at Maker Educator Boot Camp. The recruits will try things like woodworking and circuitry, and learn how to better incorporate project-based learning into their teaching. The boot camp will serve as a kickoff to the West Virginia Maker Network, after which educators will work with museum exhibit designers to create makerspaces in their schools. The training and support will continue online via Google Hangouts once the boot camp ends.

“We have all oversimplified and overestimated the challenges of helping teachers improve,” wrote Daniel Weinberg at TNTP, a teacher training organization. Weisberg said solving the problem of lackluster professional development will take more than a few tweaks to models already in place—it will take rethinking educational structures and how teachers are supported as a whole.

Like much else in Pittsburgh, educators and organizations are reimagining the most effective, hands-on ways to support teachers in what they are already experts at: teaching Pittsburgh’s kids.