The Professional Learning Sweet Spot

For the better part of my educational career, I always referred to any type of learning to assist me as a teacher or administrator as professional development (PD).  It was always referred to like this, so who was I to argue.  For the most part, this consisted of attending mandatory district “PD” days, professional learning communities (PLC)’s or approved off-site experiences such as conferences, workshops, or webinars.  The experiences where I had some level of choice were the most meaningful to me and resulted in real changes to my educational practice. I think the same can be said when it comes to the learners we serve.

In March of 2009, I began to use Twitter, and it was at this time that I began to create a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Through the use of social media, I realized that I didn’t really need to be “developed.” What I craved were experiences that I valued and could pursue that would help my school and district achieve collective goals. Thus, my thinking changed. Up until this point, professional development was always done to me as opposed to something that I wanted to be an active part of. Intrinsic motivation should always be the focal point of any experience geared at improving professional practice. If we find and see value, the emphasis becomes embracement as opposed to buy-in.

With a PLN, I was able to learn anytime, anywhere, from anyone I wanted for free. I now had access to a human-generated search engine where I gleaned the best resources, ideas, supports, and advice. Questions became a more prized commodity than answers. No longer did I have to continually fret about reinventing the wheel or coming up with the next most fantastic innovative idea.  I was both enlightened and empowered. It was at this time that I began to shift away from PD and instead embrace a culture of professional learning. There is a big difference in my mind.

Learning should be a personal experience, deeply rooted in purpose, meaning, authenticity, practicality, and relevance.  If the goal is to provide this for our students, then the same must be emphasized for teachers, administrators, and support staff. Personalization emphasizes high-agency approaches such as voice, choice, path, pace, and place, perfect for both kids and adults. Even though the individual level is the most important in my mind, we cannot discount our organization, district, or school needs. 

In order for a mission, vision, and goals to become a reality, it takes a collective effort to learn and grow together. The professional learning sweet spot evolves through a balancing act, as depicted by the image below.

In Digital Leadership I emphasized how input from educators is crucial to the success of any professional learning experience, as is time. When you think about the image above, take a critical lens to what you currently engage in and what is provided to you by your organization, school, or district.  On-going and job-embedded experiences lead to sustained changes to practice and improve student outcomes when it comes to results. A dynamic mash-up of workshops and coaching definitely falls into the sweet spot. It is crucial always to align any professional learning with current trends and needs. The COVID19 pandemic has brought a few of these to the forefront, such as social-emotional, remote, personalized, and blended learning. As schools begin to develop plans for student and staff re-entry, pertinent professional learning supports will need to be emphasized.

Below are some pathways to consider that are more personal and focus on the unique needs of educators:

  • Personal Learning Network
  • Asynchronous, self-directed opportunities (i.e., Professional Growth Period, flipped sessions, webinars, open courseware, digital badges/micro-credentials)
  • Edcamps and Teachmeets
  • Professional Learning Communities where educators determine the focus
  • Blended approaches
  • Peer observation
  • School and site visits

Effective and meaningful professional learning is all about striving for the sweet spot. At times there will have to be concessions in terms of time, choice, and available funding. 

That’s just how it goes. The key takeaway that I hope you leave with is developing professional learning opportunities through consensus and ensuring mechanisms in place lead to improved outcomes.  In the event that you are not satisfied with what is provided to you through your organization, district, or school, then there is a myriad of options that you can pursue.