New Year, New Newsletter: What is Professional Learning?

Happy New Year! Each year, just like many of you, I make… and usually break… the same resolutions, with the exception of one: I learn.

In 2018, I learned how to create and launch my new website. That year, I also learned more about educational equity and culturally responsive education, communication, and leadership. In 2019, I studied negotiation skills, learned more about the science of learning, and added to my Excel, PowerPoint, and data visualization skills. All of this “professional learning” informs my work on various projects and helps improve my professional practice. 

To learn all of this, here’s what I did (along with a few example favorites):

But that’s not all. I also went hiking, rode my bike, ran road races, attended yoga classes, and cooked meals for myself and my family. Wait, what? Was there professional learning to be had from these activities? Let’s return to that notion in a bit…

Why is professional learning important?

Thinking of professional practice as professional learning positions us to think of everything we do as contributing to making us better at what we do. It’s mindset work. What do I mean by that? Mindset work is about attitudes and dispositions and understanding how principles guide our actions. It’s about how and what we learn from successes and failures, and about focusing efforts on incorporating what we learn into how we practice our craft.

What is professional learning?

As a young public school teacher, my professional learning (in those days we called it “in-service” or “staff development”) meant attending workshops on various topics, some directly related to what and who I was teaching, and others seemingly less so. Thankfully, my earliest experiences were positive and influential thanks to skilled presenters and compelling presentations. What I learned from them struck me as reasonable, relevant, and doable. In fact, some* resulted in career-long changes in my teaching practice and approach to students.  

Thus began a career-long fascination with professional learning. 

I once surveyed colleagues for a grad school project asking them to list any activities (including hobbies, sports, volunteer work, etc.) they felt impacted or informed their teaching practice. It was surprising when many of them identified activities not usually associated with professional learning – watching movies, scrapbooking, teaching swim lessons, cooking, and playing sports. They were making connections I wasn’t. They had figured out that the things they did for themselves and for others could also inform their work. 

You’re reading this because we share an interest in some of the same professional topics: learning and teaching, communication and presentations, evaluation, data visualization, survey research, and others. I’ve grappled with finding a thread that ties these seemingly disparate topics together. What I’ve landed on thus far is professional learning.

We read, we listen, and we learn to enhance, refine, or otherwise improve our professional practice, as is done in any field. We’re here because we are dedicated to improving our professional practice. But what if we also considered professional practice itself as a powerful form of professional learning? Let me show you what I mean and share why this is so important.

Evaluation as professional learning

Are you an evaluator? You’re engaging in professional learning all the time. After all, evaluation is conducted for the purpose of learning about programs or policies. As we collect data—from surveys, interviews, focus groups, site visits, observations, record reviews, etc.—we are in a constant state of learning that we then translate (through data analysis, of course) into findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Need info on evaluation? Check out my collection of resources.

Education as professional learning

Are you an educator? As teachers, we’re in a constant state of professional learning not only to keep up with educational innovations or research, but also as we learn each day from our students. Whether we teach kindergarten or college, we learn what our students are capable of, where they struggle to grasp concepts, where they can and can’t apply their understanding, and most importantly, we learn about their interests and special gifts—who they are as people. Effective educators analyze, synthesize, and use all of this learning in practice. And what about lesson planning? Here’s what I know from my ongoing work in classrooms supporting teachers, teaching graduate courses, and giving workshops: Whether I’m helping a science teacher teach combustion, a math teacher teach circumference and perimeter, or I’m getting ready for one of my survey design or audience engagement strategies workshops, I’m cracking open books, journals, or websites to relearn, refresh, or catch up on the latest research to ensure my teaching is thorough and up-to-date. That’s professional learning. In fact, check out the quote on my home page about the intersection of teaching and learning.

Presentations as professional learning

Have you ever given a presentation? Presentations have many purposes—to sell, to persuade, to inform, to educate, etc. —but what they all have in common is learning. As presenters, we work in service to the audience —our learners. Our goal is for them walk away with new learning about the topic. Every presentation is a lesson plan. Whether I’m giving a report to the Board of Education, sharing data with stakeholders, keynoting at a conference, or facilitating a workshop, I approach it the same way as I do a classroom session.  

Survey research as professional learning

Have you ever used a survey for research or to understand something about your colleagues or customers? That’s professional learning, too! From survey questions we learn about our respondents. We learn about their behaviors and attitudes. We learn how programs and policies are operating, how goods and services are being purchased and used, and how people feel about all of these. We use all of this learning for continuous improvement in our organizations, often communicating it to others (through presentations and education) so that they can improve programs, policies, and practices.

Everything is learning, and we are all learners. 

We pursue learning to enhance our professional practice doing the expected, the usual – reading books, blogs, and journal articles, engaging in listserv discussions, or attending conferences. We learn from both mistakes and successes. To form a deeper understanding of what facilitates success and failure, think of professional practice as learning – the acquisition of experiential knowledge arising from the daily scenarios, vignettes, and case studies that comprise our work.

*Discipline with Dignity, for example, taught me to stay calm in the face of challenging behaviors, not to vilify students when they acted out, and to work collaboratively and privately with those who struggled in my classroom.

Many thanks to my friend Chelsea BaileyShea, of Compass Evaluation + Consulting, LLC, for her thoughtful and valuable feedback on an early draft of this article.

New Newsletter!

Sure, you can read this blog here and check back for updates every now and then, but why not just subscribe to my newsletter The Learning Curve? You’ll get a link to any new blogs right in your inbox, along with a bunch of other cool content on a variety of topics! Easy peasy. Click here. 

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