Professional Learning

Keys to Successful Professional Learning

For professional learning to work, it must be relevant, timely, personalized, flexible, multimodal, and socially connected.

June 10, 2022
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Two years into a global pandemic, teachers are exhausted and continue to face significant challenges. While professional learning can provide assistance, many educators also view it as another drain on valuable time. As leaders plan for the upcoming school year, what can they do to efficiently and effectively provide teachers with professional learning opportunities?

Well-designed personalized professional learning opportunities can positively impact learner growth if they’re aligned with five key research-based drivers:

  1. The content is relevant, useful, and timely.
  2. Teachers have agency and autonomy in terms of when, how, and what they choose to engage with.
  3. Courses include time for practice, reflection, and adaptation over substantial periods of time.
  4. Facilitators foster social connection and active learning.
  5. The experience is based on a quality program that enables and supports engagement both online and in person.

Drivers of Quality Professional Learning Opportunities

Relevant, useful, and timely content: Professional development should focus on authentic, relevant content that allows teachers to address the most pressing needs of their learners. Before identifying professional development topics, district leaders should assess the current state of their students in terms of their academic and social needs. By carefully examining data, districts can identify potential areas for professional growth. Combining that information with insights from teachers and staff will further help to prioritize focus.

Teachers value content, curriculum, and tools that they can implement immediately, that address specific needs, and that support their learning as professionals. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, districts need to consider the demographics of their students and teachers. For example, educators who are new to the field might need foundational support, while experienced professionals would benefit from quality learning opportunities to continue their growth as professionals.

Agency and autonomy: Teachers—like students—desire agency and autonomy in terms of when, how, where, and what they choose to learn. When professional development is voluntary and designed to fit into their schedules, teachers often show significantly higher levels of engagement and satisfaction.

In our recent work with Lindsay Unified School District in California, we found that educators preferred asynchronous professional learning options because of the ability to customize the timing of the work. We heard repeatedly that educators were able to participate because they could complete the online learning opportunities when and where they could find time.

Cycles of learning: One-shot, stand-alone professional development workshops don’t create meaningful change or support. Educators benefit from cycles of learning, practice, reflection, and adaptation over substantial periods of time to build mastery. Multiple modalities of content (e.g., books, videos, lectures, online coursework) also provide more opportunities to engage deeply in a topic than a single, one-day meeting. We also heard from educators, however, that each component must be both valuable on its own and thoroughly integrated with the broader curriculum so that it was cohesive and valuable rather than “another thing to do.”

Social connection and active learning: Everyone recognizes that students benefit from active learning and connecting with their peers, and yet when it comes to teacher professional development, that component is often neglected. Teachers need the opportunity to learn alongside their colleagues, so professional learning should incorporate social connections and active learning to deepen understanding.

Teachers deeply value the times when they have an opportunity and a space to problem-solve, plan, and collaborate to address challenges in implementation or ways to adjust content to their students and context. A strategic focus on community-building and active learning is particularly important for online professional learning, which may otherwise feel isolating or lacking in engagement.

Quality, scaffolded program: Professional development needs to be based on a quality program that enables and supports engagement. Technology components should be easily navigable and have an intuitive interface so that they enhance—rather than detract from—the experience. Ideally, professional development would utilize the same platform or tools that teachers use daily in their classrooms. This allows teachers to have a learning environment similar to their students’. Explicit reflection can also surface ideas about how teachers can improve the experience for their students in the future.

Personalized, flexible, and multimodal: The need for professional learning has never been greater as teachers strive to meet the unique needs of their students. Instead of traditional, one-size-fits-all professional learning, however, we found through the literature and our own observations that successful programs are personalized, flexible, and multimodal.

As districts plan for a new year of professional learning, we encourage them to incorporate these quality drivers to best meet the needs of their educators.

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