April 5, 2012
Professional Development: What's the Point?
What is the point of professional development? This is not just a cynical question. I think it is, perhaps, one of the most important questions a school can ask at any level or at any point. Let me explain and fill in with some context.
I have been working in the area of professional development / professional learning, or as I like to refer to it, adult learning, for the last ten years. It is an important and active area of school life at this moment in time because we are having to rethink and redesign school to match a changed and continually changing world. In order to shift the thinking and the programs in school, additional learning is always involved in order to create new ways of doing school.
Too often, however, professional development is an add-on or an after-thought that is not fully integrated and leveraged in service of the strategic objectives of the school. Schools have to show proof of continual development of the learning practices, so they do something like bring in a speaker or engage in a program to increase technology skills or some other sort of training. Learning becomes more of an isolated community event than an integral agent of change and growth.
Furthermore, it is worse because much of professional learning that we organize for ourselves is one size fits all. To be efficient in our use of time, emotional capital, money, space etc. we get the whole faculty together and present a topic. We forget completely about the different strategic objective and journeys of the divisions and departments. We forget completely about the wide spectrum of interested and needs that our people populate. And, we forget completely about our people as individual learners with different learning styles, interests, and preferences. And, some schools forget that learning should be the catalyst and engine for a well-derived and well-communicated outcome and strategic direction. Our teachers are no different than our students in that they really want to know: why am I learning this? am I ever really going to use this again?
I recently completely two separate projects that I have reminded me of some common missteps in planning and offering professional development. One project included auditing a school's professional development philosophy and its previous three years of implementation. The other project was facilitating a dream session that started with the strategic direction of the school and worked backwards to sketch out what the connected, aligned, and flexible learning would look like if all their dreams were to come true.
What I learned, or remembered, from these two projects was these:
1) Interesting topics aside, faculty needs a sense of why learn this? why bother? why me, given what and who I teach?
2) How is this learning connected to the strategic direction of the school? What is the strategic direction of the school?
3) Making the learning active and engagement and outcome oriented is preferred. Faculty prefer to work on projects, discussions, initiative as a way to learn.
The end result of poorly designed professional learning is that there is an overall lack of fully committing to the learning because there is no hard reason or learning goal to attach to, feel connected to and responsible for. Better is to start by creating a shared understanding of the strategic direction of the school and draw connections to the overall direction of the school so therefore, each classroom must reflect the direction how? by when? The learning that can support that shift is the means by which the how is not only discovered but implemented.