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By any other name: Professional development and professional learning

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

I know I’m not the only one. You’ve probably been in the same position. Sitting through compulsory PD geared towards a subject or grade level you don’t teach. Or a session for an initiative that is unlikely to be implemented or only tangentially relates to student learning. Or with a trainer who has never used the strategy, skill, or program being taught and can’t answer any of your questions.

In that context, there has been a recent shift in terminology from professional development to professional learning. Much of the shift started as a way to create distance from the ineffective and even counterproductive professional development of the past and to focus on teachers as agents in their own learning. The shift was, initially, emphasizing the role of professional learning in professional development, recentering the teacher.

The goal is laudable and particularly well-voiced by the National Council of Teachers of English in their 2019 position statement on the topic. Unfortunately, as is often the case, when put into practice by many districts and other educational organizations, the move was on changing the name instead of changing the practice, and in creating a dichotomy between the terms instead of seeing them in relation to each other. Consider that instead of the terms operating as opposing approaches, professional development is the umbrella concept under which professional learning plays a significant role. It is joined under that umbrella by, among other things, comprehensive personnel development, prioritization, scheduling, tracking, and progress monitoring.

Of all of the components under the professional development umbrella, professional learning should be the emphasis of any professional development program; it is in fact la raison d'être for all professional development programs. Teacher time is so precious and harder and harder to come by that any use of it should be purposeful and designed to yield a maximum positive result. But the only way to ensure that time is used to build competence, capacity, and confidence is through a comprehensive professional development program.

Professional development as an obligatory practice to check boxes and meet goals not aligned to classroom realities is on its face never going to result in a developed personnel ready to take on the responsibilities of educating children. If anything it creates a tension between instructional staff and administrators at the school or district level. It’s hard to trust the intentions of those who seem not to understand your present realities.

At this moment you’re probably calling to mind a few less than pleasant memories of PD as something to be endured for its own sake. I’ll share: when I was working as a literacy coach at an elementary school, we were doing an instructional review with state and district staff there to see how they could help meet our needs. The school I was serving had just had a brand new principal and half of the staff had less than five years in teaching. My staff had requested further training on how to do phonics effectively because it was scant in the district-adopted curriculum. I passed on their request and was told that we would instead be getting a half-day training on why we should do phonics instruction. I reiterated our need and was told the other training was our only option. I declined.

The immediate result of that interaction is that we stopped asking for support with any expectation of a need being met. Later, I came to realize that the district office was unfamiliar with the curriculum and wasn’t prepared to train on augmenting the materials with a systematic approach. What, do you think, would happen if a teacher was teaching order of operations instead of phonics because those lessons were good to go? Absurd, I know. Not that it never happens, but it certainly is not left unaddressed. The expectations for professional development should be higher.

Professional development should anticipate need, be both responsive and proactive, and geared towards immediate use and long term practice. Hopefully, these things don’t seem impossible because that’s exactly what we are asking of teachers on a daily basis. Teachers are constantly having to grow their knowledge base as new technology, standards, research, and policies come into play. We, as those charged with their professional development should not only be doing as much, we should be modeling and coaching the process.

With truly comprehensive professional development, the learning catalog becomes one tool of many and is developed in part based on teacher input and student performance data. The very minimum should be, with every instance of professional development, asking, “How will this interaction build the capacity of the specific audience with whom it is being shared and increase student learning?” If you can’t articulate an answer related to a measure other than compliance with your professional learning or professional development plan, go deeper. Can you not articulate the answer because you need more information or because the training is not a good fit. If it’s not a good fit, don’t force it. If you need more information, get it. Enlist your audience. Are there tweaks to be made to tailor the material more closely to their needs?

The lowest bar is that your audience should not feel that you’ve wasted their time and they should not associate dread with you or your work. Let’s aim higher. Will teacher practice change in positive ways as a result of the professional development? Are your professionals learning?

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