Words Matter | Professional Development

Professional Development.

e-Learning Concept. Computer KeyboardAn event where teachers gather and learn about some aspect of education.

Typically, schools offer professional development days and most have professional development programs.  Some schools even have specialized professional development events like “Technology Tuesdays” and my all-time personal favorite, the “Lunch and Learn.”  Professional development is also referred to as “staff development” which I think is somehow different.  Sometimes, you even hear that schools will offer training, but that should be reserved for your golden retriever puppy.

The hottest thing in “professional development” now is social media, specifically Twitter.  Many believe the most valuable “professional development” can be found on Twitter, and of course, that’s mostly nonsense.  But that’s for another post.

It’s occurred to me that words like classroom, school, and even instruction, are words that are rarely challenged for their meaning.  For educators, they’re just givens, they’re absolutes even, and we seldom think deeply about what they really mean when we use them in our conversations and work.  We can add “professional development” to the mix.  And I’m just as guilty as the next.

So, let’s talk about “professional development.”  Let’s begin with the intent.

Simply stated, I think all of us would agree that the intent of “professional development” is to learn.

So, shouldn’t we just call it learning?  (a question my colleague Ryan Bretag asks all the time).  Why do we label learning as something else?

Why do you have to separate your learning into professional and something else?  It’s all just learning, right?  And why would you ever call it “development”?

So, here’s an important question for you, the educator reading this.

Are you a learner?

Since you’re reading this, my guess is that you probably are proactive about learning about your craft.  But how would you answer that question across the range of educators (teacher and administrators, everybody) in your institution?

Is the typical teacher a learner?  What about the typical administrator?  Are both groups in charge of their own learning?  And, do they learn together?

And I’m not talking about learning about their kids, about their performance and their strengths and weaknesses.  Most do that.

I’m talking about identifying a passion or area of interest in education, and really digging in, a deep dive if you will.  Becoming well-educated on the topic.  On your own or with someone else or with a group, and without waiting for an institution to offer you the time, the permission, and worse, payment for your time to learn. 

If you are a learner, and I asked you to prove it, what metrics would you use?  What would you tell me about your learning, and what you’ve learned, that’s interesting, compelling, and epic?  My guess is that you would describe something that didn’t occur in “professional development.”

Here’s the problem with “professional development” and why it probably is not the most interesting, compelling or epic experience.

Professional development carries baggage, and lot’s of it.  For teachers, it’s seen as more institutional control and time-wasting on topics of little interest and meaning to them.  And for the institution, and one even with the best intentions and programs, it’s about low attendance and interest on the parts of teachers, complaints about time, and little carry-over to the classroom.  Mix in vendors and consultants offering to change all this by providing their version of “professional development,” and you’ve got a real mess on your hands and a legacy system of questionable value.

Right now, I have more questions than answers regarding educators and their own learning.   I wonder about the mix of formal learning opportunites, and a schools need to provide them as education moves forward through an era of technology-induced hyperconnectivity and opportunity, balanced against the need for informal learning (or do we not need formal and informal designations, since it’s all- ah, learning.) I do recognize that their are times when all educators in a particular school or district must learn something together.  And I understand, and have communicated here, that personal, passion-based learning is something of high value.  I think a lot of this makes sense within a context that I will describe in an upcoming post- the learning of a colleague as he prepares for a new media class, and how he learned what he needed to learn – without professional development.  Finally, I’ll have some thoughts about Twitter and other social media and their role in learning.

My friend David Warlick used to begin his presentations with a story about something he learned last night, about anything really – an elegant touch to set the stage for his audience to let them know that he was a learner, and that continual learning was important to him.

As educators, we don’t do enough of that in schools.  In our classrooms, in our meetings, we don’t communicate much about our own learning.  We need to do that.  Why not start a new year off by describing to your kids at the beginning of each class what you learned yesterday or last night.  If you are an admin, start of your meetings with talking about learning.  Model it, live it, make it visible.  Do this, and you’ll take some significant steps towards developing a learning culture…and that’s the real prize.

So, add “professional development” to the long list of the things that need to be changed in education.  I’d also challenge you to deeply think about your own learning, how and when and why you do it, how you share it, and how it makes you, and your colleagues better at what you do- and how it makes the learning experience for your kids better.

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