Professional Learning

5 Adult Learning Principles to Help Design Better Professional Development

Professional development is too often designed using pedagogy that works well for children. Adult learning theory can help design better PD for teachers, centering agency and genuine collaboration.

April 4, 2023
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How many professional development (PD) trainings have you sat through, only to realize in the first couple of minutes that it was going to be a complete waste of time? I often feel this way after PD, and for a long time I couldn’t understand why. I love to learn new things and find ways to improve my classroom, but I would sit through trainings feeling at a loss. After many years, I realized that it was because the administrators delivering PD often start as teachers, taught to educate children—not adults. The information isn’t usually the thing that makes us feel like PD is a waste of time, but rather how the information is organized and delivered. Adult learning theories bridge this disconnect and provide ways of educating adults effectively. 

principles of Adult Learning Theory

Self-directed learning: Adults have fully developed interests and methods through which they like to learn or obtain new information. Training in which the individual is allowed to explore a topic on their own time, and with their own methods, results in better information retention and application. Typical professional development in education settings is often delivered in a “sit and get” or a lecture-type format. 

Administrators can implement self-directed learning in their professional development in a variety of ways. For example, maybe there is a specific focus or theme for the school year (Resilience, Community, Competency-Based Learning, etc.). Administrators then allow teachers to research these topics on their own and have specific times throughout the year during PD when they can share the information they learned and discuss their varying perspectives. By allowing adults to explore, you give them the ability to learn how this information is relevant to their continued improvement as a teacher. 

Building on experience: Adult learners want learning opportunities that build upon their experiences as a teacher. Often this means they do not want to sit through professional development that is presented as if it is completely new information. The point of training for teachers is to give different perspectives, methods, or approaches to classroom teaching that will improve their craft. Adult learning opportunities are best received by learners if they acknowledge the teacher’s prior experiences and knowledge and then build an understanding of the new material. 

Administrators can be successful with this foundational principle by having moments within a professional development that have teachers reflect upon a specific element of their classroom experience and then introduce a closely related topic after. This reflection acknowledges the teacher’s expertise in the classroom setting and then provides an anchor for the new information to be received. 

Taking responsibility for learning: Adult lives revolve around meeting responsibilities both at work and at home. It makes sense, then, that adults want a sense of responsibility in what they learn and how they learn it. Adult learners should be allowed more freedom in all aspects of their continuing education.

To truly give a sense of responsibility and ownership in learning new information, the training should allow learners choice as much as possible. Learners should have a choice of what information they will learn and how they will learn it. By doing this, we show adult learners that their choices will help them to better their craft in the classroom. 

Administrators who want to implement a sense of responsibility in their professional development can do this by offering choices. I worked in a school once that was very driven by technology. They were constantly looking for new and innovative practices for the classroom and wanted teachers to do the same. They encouraged this with a giant Bingo board for technology professional development; all of  the squares were different ways to incorporate more instructional technology in the classroom. It was a huge hit and got teachers excited about winning a prize.     

Problem-focused: Adult learners are more driven by problem-focused learning opportunities. Educators especially thrive in these types of scenario-based training environments because they elicit the educators’ input to fix something, and there is always room for improvement and changes in processes in this career. 

Administrators can include problem-focused training opportunities through scenario-based activities. For example, maybe you are conducting walk-throughs and notice a trend of teachers not bringing their lessons to a full close. As an administrator, you feel that this is a missed opportunity for teachers to check for understanding of their students.

During the training, strategically place teachers in groups so that those who do this really well are in each group. Then, have them read through scenarios that you have observed in classrooms. Have the groups work through how they could improve the lesson. Bring the conversation back to lesson closures so that all teachers understand the focus of the lesson.

Intrinsically motivating: Adults do not do well with ultimatums or high-stakes learning environments. If this is the only way that teachers are receiving professional development, then it will be very difficult to have successful learning opportunities. 

Administrators should look at a variety of professional development types to deliver to their faculty. Maybe one week it is time for sharing self-discovery topics, and then the next is a boring rollout of the new curriculum from the district. Or once a month you have an hour of an “unconference” where teachers can choose what topic to sit down for and have discussion-based learning opportunities with their peers.

By delivering this variety, you give teachers a better chance of finding something that motivates them to learn. Or, if anything, you are providing them with a learning modality that will spark their intrinsic need to participate and engage in a learning environment. 

Administrators have the duty to empower teachers to be lifelong learners. During PD, administrators should remember that they are no longer teachers in the classroom, but educators to adults who have different learning needs to closely engage with content and obtain new information.

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