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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Presentation Principles: Crowdsourcing Audience Feedback

Presentation Principle: Capitalize on the collective wisdom in the room.

Presentations aren’t just about the presenter and there are many reasons to maintain humility as a presenter. Certainly, it will endear you to the audience. Positioning yourself as a co-learner with your audience members, and not the only “expert” in the room opens up the possibility of having your presentations serve as learning experiences upon which you can build to advance your practice.

I first taught my course – Audience Engagement Strategies for Potent Presentations – as a pre-conference professional development course  at Evaluation 2015, the annual conference of the American Evaluation Association. This course became one of my favorite presentations ever.

Two interactive strategies during the course allowed participants to interact with each other, and also supplied me with important feedback.

(more…)

Presentation Principles: Two simple strategies for audience engagement and all YOU have to do is ask questions!

Presentation Principle: Keeping an audience engaged throughout the presentation is one key to success.

Do you want to read about two super easy audience engagement strategies you can immediately incorporate into your presentation practice? OK then, here we go!

I’ve written about audience engagement strategies many times (see here, here, and here)…but the two strategies I’ll share today are even easier than most and require no special equipment or materials. All you need to do is remember to use them.  (more…)

Presentation Principles: The Audience Engagement Strategy Book

Presentation Principle: Audience engagement through interactive strategies is key to a successful presentation.

discussion icon - audience engaement strategiesA presentation is a precious opportunity – Seth Godin

In summer 2014, I had the opportunity to write the Audience Engagement Strategy Book for the American Evaluation Association’s Potent Presentations (p2i) Initiative (available for free download on the p2i website). I’d written about audience engagement strategies before (see here and here), but this time wanted to share specific interactive strategies that come with sets of directions and steps, and that can be customized to fit a presenter’s specific context.  (more…)

Presentation Principles: Right-sizing the Room to Maximize Audience Engagement

Presentation Principle:

The right setting can impact how your audience experiences a presentation.

It’s the Goldilocks conundrum: You’re scheduled for a conference presentation (i.e., a non-ticketed event were people do not pre-register) and you get to the room, only to discover that the room is too small or too big for your anticipated audience size… definitely not just right(more…)

Presentation Principles: Foundations of Effective Presentations

There are multiple pathways to great presentations.

Some presenters are fortunate enough to be naturally possessed of  stage presence, charisma, or a je ne sais quois that keeps their audience hanging on their every word. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t use PowerPoint slides.* Steve Jobs never asked his audience to turn and talk to an elbow partner. The rest of us, though, are just not there. We’re presenting to the board, our colleagues, university students, fellow conference-goers, or some other audience who may or may not know us or be familiar with our work. “Star quality” is not something we can rely on for a successful presentation.  (more…)

Presentation Principles: A Q&A on the Q&A

You’re ready for the big day. You have your best content all set to go, well-designed visuals, and a plan for successful delivery including how to engage your audience. You’ve practiced in the mirror, on your family, and on your pets, and they have all given you the go-ahead for your presentation. The night before, however, you wake up at 3:17am in a cold sweat thinking, “How will I handle the Q&A?”  (more…)

Seven Simple Strategies to Engage Any Audience

I love PowerPoint! I especially love well-designed slides, and I have fun putting into practice what I’ve learned about slide design.

Once you have visually appealing slides that encourage your audience to focus attention on you and support your content…AND you have appropriate  content that is important, interesting, or imperative to your audience, how will you deliver it in an engaging way?  (more…)

#Eval13: #omgmqp, ESM, DataViz, Program Design, Blogging, and the Great Big Nerd Project

Here it is, less than a week after returning home from Evaluation 2013, and I’ve already used what I’ve learned in all three workplace settings. I’ve also enjoyed reading other bloggers’ conference highlights (see below for links) as they in a sense, let me peer vicariously into sessions I didn’t attend, or they enhance my own experience by offering a different perspective on sessions I did attend.

Here’s a recap (in a “longform” post, which, I’m told, is an effective blogging strategy) of what resonated most with me: (more…)

Unconventional Wisdom: Putting the WHY Before the WHAT of Presentation Design

There’s really not much good on television anymore. So, I enjoy some down time outside of work and entertain myself by designing slide decks. I just uploaded my second to SlideShare. While it’s all fun, there’s a purpose here too, and for me, it’s to practice what I’ve been learning about data visualization, information design, and presentations. There’s certainly no paucity of engaging, compelling source material available out there.  I’m so excited that just as I finished this project, the newest issue of New Directions for Evaluation (a publication of the American Evaluation Association (AEA)) – a Special Issue on Data Visualization – was released online and features the work of some of my favorite evaluators, data visualization experts, and information designers. You can read all of the abstracts here(more…)

Data Visualization & Information Design: One Learner’s Perspective

I‘ve been reading a lot on these hot topics and, ever the teacher, I know that applying my new learning, and teaching it to others is the best way to deepen my own understanding. With that in mind, I’ve created a slide deck and branched out to another social media outlet – SlideShare – in order to be able to share this content with you!

Once you’ve enjoyed this slide deck (or perhaps before doing so), check out my “before” slide below it. I originally had no intention of sharing this, but happened to stumble upon a PowerPoint presentation I had created for my dissertation defense. Yikes! What a dramatic illustration of what NOT to do on a PowerPoint slide! And I assure you, I presented it to my committee exactly as you see it here, and most likely read aloud what is on the slide (and the many others that complete the “show”). My only defense (pun intended!) is that it was 2007, and much of the information I share with you today was not yet “out there,” and quite frankly, I didn’t know enough to be looking for it!  (more…)

Declare YOUR independence (from bad PowerPoint) today!

It’s Independence Day here in the US and today, I’d like YOU to declare YOUR independence from bad PowerPoint. No more traditional title and content slides. No more endless bulleted lists. No more sentence after sentence slides that push the limits of slide boundaries. No more cheesy clip art “artfully” placed in the bottom right-hand corner of each slide.

Soon after I published “What NOT to Present” after attending a course at the American Evaluation Association Summer Evaluation Institute with evaluator-turned-information designer Stephanie Evergreen, another evaluator, Excel guru Ann Emery posted a link to economist and dataviz specialist John Schwabish’s slideshare: Layering: A Presentation Technique. As soon as I saw these slides, I knew I had to share them too.  (more…)

What NOT to Present

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of teaching and learning at the American Evaluation Association (AEA) Summer Evaluation Institute in Atlanta, GA. I taught a course entitled “It’s Not the Plan, It’s the Planning: Strategies for Evaluation Plans and Planning.” I’ll write about that course another day.

On Sunday June 2, I had the pleasure of taking a full-day pre-institute course from information designer Stephanie Evergreen, called Presenting Data Effectively.

Stephanie is to presentation design what Stacey and Clinton are to fashion (if you’re missing the analogy, click here). She’s the “What NOT to Present” guru. Show up with bad PowerPoint design and she will teach you “the rules.”  (more…)

Can a DataViz novice become a slide snob?

Yes. Yes, I can. Like so many other evaluators (and journalists, presenters, trainers, etc.) I’ve been sucked into the compelling world of Data Visualization and Reporting, Infographics, and the art of presentation. It’s evaluspheric reform at its best. In fact, I can see a new branch growing on Christina Christie and Marvin Alkin’s Evaluation Theory Tree. It’s the REPORTING branch, and it’s just starting to bud. It will certainly feature data visualization leaders and thinkers, and I imagine the first name to appear near the base will be Evergreen (hey, now THAT’S a name that works, given the tree metaphor!).

Stephanie Evergreen’s Potent Presentations Initiative (P2i) has helped launch a new wave of evaluation DataViz & Reporting enthusiasts, and catalyzed my newest learning journey which included giving my first Ignite Presentation at AEA2012. Back in 2010, John Nash mentioned two fabulous books in this aea365 post: Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology, and Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen.  I can assure you, they’re both WELL worth the investment. Susan Kistler (among others) has posted and presented many, many tech tools and resources to fuel the cravings of any data or tech geek (a quick search on aea365 yields over a dozen of her posts on the topic).  (more…)