Just as teachers design lessons with student needs in mind, facilitators of professional development need to design learning experiences with adult needs in mind. Educators walk into our meetings with years of life experiences that have shaped their beliefs, mindset, and values. Much time and effort have gone into creating systems in classrooms that work for these teachers and their students, so asking a teacher to shift an aspect of their system without keeping their needs in mind can feel insulting or undoable. Teachers are also busy, their minds filled with to-do lists, which can result in a resistance to slowing down and reflecting during meetings.
As facilitators, we can use the following principles of adult learning to help our educators create the mental space to learn, reflect, and shift practices.
3 Principles of Adult Learning
1. Be clear on the why: This is the most important principle of planning for adult learning. Find a way to connect to the reason teachers came to the profession in the first place, whether it be impacting lives, helping students fulfill their potential, guiding students to deeper thinking, or developing our future leaders. If you can’t find that connection, reevaluate the shift you’re asking teachers to make.
Consider starting your meeting by providing participants with time to reflect in writing and share with colleagues. Good opening possibilities include asking each teacher to reflect on a challenge from their day, or to list the traits or skills they want their students to have as adults. Another method would be starting the meeting by discussing an inspirational quote or video clip. Whatever the tactic, the goal is to tap into the reason teachers became educators in the first place, so they have the motivation and energy to consider a shift in their methods.
2. Provide voice and choice: Adult professionals should have a say in the work they do. Think about how you can let go of some control as a facilitator and put your teachers in the driver’s seat. Ask them how they learn best, and then give choices and be responsive, even when those choices go against the plans you’ve made as a facilitator. Do your teachers need more time on an agenda item? Would they rather work in pairs, or shift to applying to their own context sooner than you had planned? The best facilitators know when to give up control. I’ve learned to shelve my ego and create space for the adults in the room to challenge my plans.
Even small bits of relinquished control—like asking teachers to give input on agenda items and the pacing of the session—can make a difference in investment. Ask for input and feedback early and often. Start your meeting by eliciting input, and write a reminder to yourself to ask mid-session what is working and not working for your teachers.
By creating opportunities for teachers to share their thoughts, you are communicating that their input is valued—an important adult need. One new principal I know asks for anonymous feedback after every professional development session and meeting via Google Forms. This constant communication allows for a safe venting of frustration and an opportunity to share thoughts, so there is no festering or buildup of resentment, and voices are heard.
3. Balance new learning with reflection: Adults are motivated to learn when they have an immediate use for the skill or knowledge being taught, when they can try something new in their classroom tomorrow. It’s important, however, to strike the right balance of time spent learning new information and time spent role-playing or explicitly planning for implementation. After your first stage of planning, you might look through your plans to ensure you have:
- A limited number of objectives, all clear and concise.
- A plan to spend about a third of the session on new information and the other two thirds on reflecting or practicing through role-playing, planning, sharing ideas, and discussing with colleagues.
- Time to process at the end.
We acknowledge that our students need time to process, practice, and transfer, but we often need reminders that adults, with their more complex histories and belief systems, need even more time to integrate what they are learning with what they already know. Without time to reflect on a change, adults often will find a way to dismiss a suggestion for change and continue on the path they are already taking.
Protocols and structures for reflection time with colleagues often work best. Consider adapting one of Jennifer Gonzalez’s discussion strategies for adults, or ask your teachers to reflect in writing. I recently watched Meghan Hargrave, an independent literacy consultant, end each of her sessions by asking teachers to write one thing they would try the next day, one they would try in a couple weeks, and one they will try next year.
Whichever method you use, resist the temptation to squeeze in more agenda items. Embrace the quiet sound of pens or the louder sound of lively discussion as you provide participants with adequate time for processing and reflecting.
Dig further into adult needs by checking out Elena Aguliar’s collection of research-based adult learning principles. Keep your adult learners’ needs in mind and you will find yourself with invested, engaged educators.