Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Are the Elements of Good Professional Learning?

What characterizes a great learning experience for adult learners? It's not that different than what is great for students. Aside from the obvious - you cannot please everyone, all the time - there are a few key things that can be done to create an environment in which adults will want to learn. Luckily, educators and researchers like Michael Fullan, Thomas R. Guskey, John Hattie, and even the Ministry of Education (among many others!) have written extensively on engaging educators in their professional learning.
  1. Provide Choice: allow educators to "choose their own adventure". No one likes being told they have to do something, so forcing someone to participate in a new initiative isn't likely to yield results. Differentiate professional learning opportunities to appeal to your audience. Sessions need to range from ballroom delivery models with "experts" to job-embedded collaborative inquiry.
  2. Create a Professional, Respectful Environment: treat educators as the professionals they are. Have high expectations of staff, but honour their experience and knowledge. Build on it to help develop new knowledge and understanding. Invite teachers to reflect on their practice in a non-judgmental forum. Assume positive intentions.
  3. Foster a Growth Mindset: Use a strength-based approach (sometimes referred to as appreciative inquiry) to help educators identify what they do well and build from that strength. Foster positive mindsets in staff, especially if significant change is happening. See Carol Dweck's work on growth mindsets in students. The same assumption - that people have the ability to grow and learn - is true of our educators.
  4. Facilitate Discussions: Provide ample time for teachers to talk about what new learning they are experiencing. Let them learn from each other. Use protocols (such as those explained by the National School Reform Faculty) to structure these conversations and ensure that all voices are heard.
  5. Model Effective Practice: Demonstrate and model new strategies for teachers. Encourage them to engage in the activities and effective practices we would like to see replicated in our schools.
  6. Purpose/Audience: Make the purpose of the learning relevant, meaningful and authentic for the intended audience. Plan and communicate clear intended outcomes. Share the outcomes with participants. Everyone should know why they are participating in professional learning. Big ballroom sessions rarely lead to transformative change, but they can introduce new ideas to people. It's important to follow up with next steps. Guskey points out the importance of planning for intended outcomes:
    "...the first thing people need to do when they plan professional development is to specify what impact they want to have on student learning. They begin planning by asking, “What improvements in student learning do we want to attain and what evidence best reflects those improvements?” Then they step back and ask, “If that's the impact we want, what new policies or practices must be implemented to gain that impact?” Next, they consider what types of organizational support or change are needed to facilitate that implementation, and so forth. This planning process compels educators to plan not in terms of what they are going to do but in terms of what they want to accomplish with their students. All other decisions are then based on that fundamental premise.

"Know thy impact" 

John Hattie, through his comprehensive meta-analysis, tells us that there are many effective and ineffective teaching and learning practices. Hattie's research tells us that we "need to retain learning at the forefront and to consider teaching primarily in terms of its impact on student learning." (2011, 1). All educators (including those who deliver PD) need to recognize that their practices have impact on learning; further, all educators need to constantly question whether or not they are having positive impacts on learning.

“The teacher’s role is to change students from what they are to what we want them to be, what we want them to know and understand – and this of course highlights the moral purpose of education” (Hattie, 2012).
Fullan references "the moral purpose of raising the bar and closing the gap for all students" (2013, 3). Appealing to educators' motivation for teaching makes sense. Fullan also discusses how new technologies, new pedagogies, and what he calls "change knowledge" will help motivate staff to further their own learning:

"Change will become more enjoyable when it proffers experiences that are engaging, precise, and specific; high yield (good benefit relative to effort); higher order (stretching humans in creativity, problem solving and innovation); and collaborative for individual and collective benefit." (Fullan, 2013, 3).

And finally, while it might not seem important to everyone, good food and coffee help. If we are going to pull teachers from their classrooms to engage in their own learning, the least we can do is feed them!  


Fullan, M. (2013) Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Kreider, H. and S. Bouffard (Winter 2005/2006). "A Conversation with Thomas R. Guskey," The Evaluation Exchange: A Periodical on Emerging Strategies in EvaluationVolume XI, Number 4. Harvard Family Research Project.

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