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Moving from Professional Development to Professional Learning

Updated: Jan 2, 2019


Our educational systems need to meet the personalized needs of students. In other words, they need to become learning systems. This can happen by shifting to a student-focused mode of service delivery.


As such, our educational systems also need to change the way that “professional development” is provided. That is because, for educational learning systems to grow, everyone involved needs to have the right support so that they can understand, practice and grow - both personally and professionally.

This is particularly true given the significant and rapid changes that are happening all around us. Consider for a moment, from the 2017 K-12 Edition of the NMC/CoSN Horizon Report, the short, mid and long-term trends that are driving technology adoption in K-12 education.


Trends Driving Technological Adoption: 2017 K-12 Horizon Report




It is astonishing to consider the professional growth that will be necessary to address this scope and degree of technological advancement in education, with “long term” as little as 5 years from now. Furthermore, the report clarifies that there “is no replacement for good teaching – the role is just evolving. No matter how useful and pervasive technology is, students will always need guides, mentors, and coaches to help them navigate projects, generate meaning and develop lifelong learning habits.” (p.4) Note the change in teaching approach that is required to meet these challenges.



So, what does professional development look like to guide and support people through this change? The answer is, it doesn’t look like anything at all. That is because the shift from educational system to learning system doesn’t require professional development. It requires professional learning. This is more than wordplay. It represents a fundamental change in the way that educational system staff can receive continuous and effective support.


I appreciate the perspectives of Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray, in their book Learning Transformed; 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow's School, Today, when they clarify that professional development “has long been viewed as full-day seminars, lectures, or sit-and-get workshops. Traditionally, these experiences have been passive and less than engaging, and they’ve been focused on the dissemination of information”.


Furthermore, the authors believe “that the term professional learning emphasizes a modern approach that is interactive, engaging, and ongoing rather than one-size-fits-all and completed over a fixed time-period.” P. 147 So, the question remains; what is the missing link that allows professional learning to be interactive, engaging and ongoing?


Answer: Professional learning in a student-focused mode of service delivery purposefully uses student information to guide and assist each of the three interconnected systems of education as a whole; the classroom, the school and the district level.



Professional Development

Professional development happens within the context of the industrial era mode of service delivery and, as such, looks much like industrial-era classrooms. At its core, groups of people are brought together with information delivered through traditional lecture style approaches. Attempts to innovate professional development by fostering greater collaboration and sharing, with the support of technology to engage participants, are certainly helpful. But, at the heart of the challenge to be addressed, is the need for professional development that is differentiated to build a deeper understanding and application of coaching, mentoring, and facilitating as an alternative to direct teaching.


Further complicating this challenge is the relationship structures of the industrial-era mode of service delivery that are also founded upon direct teaching as the means for knowledge transfer. Thus, information generated at the district level is transferred to school leaders as professional development which, in turn, is intended to transfer to teachers before reaching the classroom. This structure made relative sense at a time when “one size fits all” was the norm for classroom practice. Now, with the shift to a student-focused mode of service delivery, an alternative approach to professional development is necessary.



Professional Learning

In comparison to professional development, professional learning happens within the context of a student-focused mode of service delivery. It is purposely designed to maximize opportunities for differentiated professional growth on a continuum basis. There are three key attributes to professional learning in a student-focused mode of service delivery.


1. Professional learning is guided by the ongoing access, interpretation and application of time sensitive student information.


The shift to a student-focused mode of service delivery requires that information about what students need, say, and do is applied in a useful way to promote personalization. Inherent with this use of student information is the application of ongoing research that informs what is working, or not, for specific students under specific conditions. Information is used through a variety of domains, from qualitative to quantitative and student specific to aggregated.



2. Professional learning takes an inquiry stance and strengths-based approach.


The shift to a student-focused mode of service delivery requires that, through professional learning, the approaches used to guide and mentor students are informed from curiosity and thirst for information from the student perspective. Listening and asking the right questions helps educators to help students find personal meaning and engagement. Whereas professional development seeks answers to address the gaps or deficiencies of student groupings, professional learning asks questions to advance the strengths of students as individuals.


3. Professional learning accounts for the context of the educational system to which the professional belongs.


When we think about trying new things in education, do we fully appreciate that what happens in a classroom is a different conversation than what happens in a school overall or what happens at the district level to support classrooms and schools? The conversations may be different, but they are interconnected in support of a larger educational change process.

The opportunity from professional learning is that student-focused information is used across all corners of the organization. Everyone can see the impact of their work that is guided and informed by student-focused information that is available in the right way, at the right time, in relation to the system role using that information.


For example, it may seem obvious, but professional learning for teachers implies the use of student-focused information from a classroom perspective. As a teacher, how can I interpret and apply what I am seeing and hearing from students to guide and inform my classroom practice?


Professional learning for principals is a little different. It implies the use of student-focused information from a school perspective. As a principal, how can I interpret and apply what I am seeing and hearing from students to guide and inform the culture and operating environment of the school as whole?


Professional learning at the district level is different again. As a district leader (e.g. manager, program lead, superintendent etc.) how can I interpret and apply what I am seeing and hearing from students to differentiate and support the needs of classrooms and schools? This perspective can lead to differentiated resource allocation strategies, IT applications, communication flow etc., in response to the personalized needs of students.



The shift from educational systems to learning systems holds enormous potential. After all, we are no longer confined by the walls of the classroom, school or even school district for that matter. Information can be used in any manner of ways to connect students with the right learning platforms, other students, mentoring and coaching adults, organizations and projects to inspire and personalize their learning experience.


Critical to this shift will involve the right kind support so that everyone involved in our learning systems can understand and feel connected, supported and positive about the work they are doing. This is where professional learning come into play. Clarity, through informed action, is key. Let’s help it to happen.

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