Our formal professional learning schedule kicks into effect this coming Wednesday. Putting it together was a challenge in part because of the structure I’ve put into place but mostly because I want it to be effective. Thus, the question “What makes professional learning effective?” has been front and centre, and made me consider precisely what it was that I valued in professional learning. I assess professional learning against three criteria:
These are the three things I look for in professional learning. Does it challenge me? Does it motivate me? Does it connect me? If the answer to each of these three questions is “yes”, then the professional learning context I find myself in is a winner. I find some professional learning situations can be little more than an explanation of a process or a procedure. Rather than something suited to a professional learning environment, they are better suited to the realm of the Monday recess staff meeting. If a professional learning session is challenging, I believe the individual participating in that session will be more likely to take something away, to benefit from the spending time in professional learning. “Challenging” does not mean that the professional learning has to be ridiculously difficult. On the contrary, what I mean by “challenging” is that it makes you reconsider what you already do or know. Professional learning should challenge your practice, the way you teach. It should cause you to question what you do and how you do it.
Professional learning should also be motivating. Before, during and after a professional learning session, I believe I should feel motivated as a teacher. I should be motivated to implement what I learn, or to change my approach to something, or to pursue further training and development. I should feel affirmed that what I am doing in the classroom is of value and that I have something to offer my colleagues. If professional learning is “motivating” then it will open up the practitioner to changing or enhancing what they do in the classroom. There is a certain “buy-in” that takes place. There could be any number of reasons for the professional learning to be motivating: relevance, resonance with teaching philosophy or subject interest, challenging, affirming to name a few.
Living in an interconnected world, professional learning for teachers needs to be something that encourages connections between teachers. It should connect people with one another – face-to-face or virtually. It is foolish to see professional learning as something that happens in isolation. This might have been the case ten or fifteen years ago but the rise of the iDevice (whatever that happens to be) allowing you to jack into the interweb at any time in any place has set a different set of expectations regarding the interactivity of the professional learning process. We expect that the connections we make face-to-face in the professional learning classroom will lead to, or be replicated in, connections in the online space. How many times have we quickly added people we have just met at a conference to our “following” list on Twitter? Plenty of times, I would hazard as an answer. Today, being connected with other teachers, usually via technology, is, in my opinion, one of the criteria that people use to evaluate whether or not a professional learning experience was worthwhile.
Building on the notion of connectivity is, perhaps, a fourth dimension to professional learning: ongoing. So, I have been at a conference, I have heard you speak and I think that what you have to say is worth following up. You offer your Twitter ID at the end of your presentation, which I dutifully add to my account. I also add a couple of names that you mentioned during the course of your presentation, educational leaders or thinkers that have much to say on where education is going at the moment. What I have just outlined is the enhancement of an ongoing, informal network of learning. I say ‘enhancement’ rather than ‘creation’ because the implication of this scenario is that I already have a Twitter followers/following list. It is described as ongoing because the information feed from Twitter operates 24×7. It is informal because there is no particular structure around it in the same was a university course or a specific conference or seminar.
The issue of professional learning being informal is a fifth consideration. Formal learning opportunities for teachers are important. This is not only because of the credibility formal qualifications bring to what we do but it is also important to pursue what might be labelled as “hard study”. This links into the notion of “challenging”, to a degree (no pun intended). By “hard study”, I refer to something that is academically rigorous, compels us to conform to particular conventions or expectations and to engage in academic discourse on the academy’s terms. Conversely, “soft study” is something that is far more informal, not as demanding on time or energy or brainspace and is not evidential in the same way as conventional, more formal, academic discourse expects. Both formality and informality have their place in professional learning and one is not better or more important that the other. If professional learning is informal, that is not a bad thing at all. It means that teachers are given the opportunity to learn on their own terms, in a manner and at a time of their choosing. The ownership is completely their own. It can be just as effective as formal learning: how many times have we spent time in a pub or a beer garden talking to colleagues over a beverage or two about what we do, the challenges we face and how we intend to fix the world? How many times have we experienced “great thinking” in a pub, after a few drinks with colleagues? Again, plenty of times, I would hazard as an answer! Professional learning cannot just be informal however. There is a time and place for formality and my fear with the free flow of information is that there is a tendency to believe there is little or no need for what a formal approach to professional learning can bring to one’s practice. I suspect, however, that particular argument will have to appear in a blog post in the future!
To wrap it up, then, initially I identified three key characteristics for professional learning. These were born out of my own personal reflections on what I valued in the professional learning experiences I have had. Challenging. Motivating. Connecting. There were several other traits that emerged – the notion of ongoing professional development and the question of informality over formality. In practical terms, then, five key questions come about:
- Is my professional learning challenging?
- Is my professional learning motivating?
- Is my professional learning connecting me with others?
- Is my professional learning ongoing?
- Is my professional learning something that happens both informally and formally?
While there could be other questions one might pose, as a starting point, a “yes” to all of these, I suspect, will mean the professional learning experience is effective.