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Designing Professional Learning to Honor the Adult Learner

How can we expect teachers to create the rich classroom environments we want for our students when their own learning experiences don’t model what we are aiming for?

By Jeffrey Homan, Vice President, Program Design and Innovation
Designing Professional Learning to Honor the Adult Learner

Just about every article we read about teacher professional learning (PL) starts with how much we spend on it every year, either as an average at the district level or total expenditures nationally. But no matter how shockingly large this number is, and no matter how many additional statistics we share about the pitfalls and questionable effectiveness of some traditional PL, we have become inured to the missed opportunities.

How can we expect better outcomes for teachers and students if we keep going down the same old path?

Most professional learning for teachers falls into one of two categories. The first is skill-based workshops focused on a specific toolkit or set of practices. You listen to a rationale, you see a model or strategy, and you might practice some. This can be really useful if you see a connection to the work that you’re doing. And when what’s being offered is practice driven, if done well, you might actually walk out with a new skill. If not, at least you met the requisite attendance metric, reflecting the same narrow orientation toward “seat time” and compliance that too often defines our expectations for students.

A second category of professional learning that can also have value but that only some are going to have access to is getting to hear an inspirational speaker, a high-profile, thought-provoking educator/scholar/researcher. It makes you think. It might challenge your beliefs about something. At the very least, it fires you up and reignites your passion for teaching.

But the value of these types of offerings can only go so far. The content is often generalized and decontextualized, especially if the professional learning provider is external to the school. The teachers (who are the learners in this case) sitting in those sessions (think classrooms) are pretty much just bodies in seats. In the end, the onus is on the teacher (again, think of them as the learner) to figure out how to make sense of and apply what they’ve learned, if anything, on their own, in isolation.

It’s an impersonal experience, but how can learning be impersonal?

Teaching and learning is a dynamic human relational exchange. As a professional learning organization, we’ve been thinking about how this belief should manifest in teacher development for a long time. Because humans learn best when they are in relationship with one another, that relational connection we want to be at the core of classroom teaching must also be at the core of professional learning for teachers. This means that in addition to developing skills, professional learning should also be about the interpersonal contexts in which those skills will be applied. All professional learning should be about deepening teacher social-emotional learning competencies, about awareness and self-reflection, about knowing ourselves, our students, and our craft, and thinking deeply about where all of that comes together in the classroom.

In our instructional mentoring and coaching model, we prioritize self-knowledge as well as the give and take between humans trying to figure something out together. And we know that the interplay of individual needs and mutual support and influence requires safety, trust, and respect. In the end, our goal is to create learning environments for adults that mirror those joyful, relevant, relational spaces we want for our students.

Our goal is to create learning environments for adults that mirror those joyful, relevant, relational spaces we want for our students.

When we think about professional learning, we know it’s not just about teaching some new skill or strategy. It’s about the experience of trying to understand, internalize, and use that skill or strategy, in context, over time, with others, peers and students. It’s not a product that can be handed over; it’s a process between people. It’s bi-directional. It’s multi-directional. And it’s ongoing. That’s what real teaching and learning look like, so let’s design professional learning for teachers that way.