Education Opinion

Words that Fail Professional Learning

By Learning Forward — March 29, 2013 3 min read
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In the field of professional learning, there are words that hold us back. Language has power. Language is an indicator of a person’s mental models, the theories or assumptions a person holds that drive his or her thoughts, words, and actions. Too many mental models about professional learning are inadequate to promote the changes in beliefs and practices necessary to achieve equity in education for every student. These inadequate mental models emerge in the design and execution of professional learning plans forCommon Core implementation.

Words that appear in the plans often speak to a shallow understanding of the learning process. Delivery and training appear too often in too many plans. These words connote a mental model based on transmission of information: If we deliver the training, then surely teachers will enact the practices expected and all students will learn. Training usually addresses outcomes related to knowledge acquisition and skill development. It fails to incorporate the most important outcomes of learning--attitude, aspiration, and practice. Rarely in training are there opportunities to uncover deep-seated assumptions that interfere with changing practice and prevent aspiring to engage in continuous improvement. When the word trainer is added to training, the false assumption that any one individual is responsible for changing another’s knowledge, attitude, skills, aspiration, and behaviors rings out as loudly as the buzzer signaling a wrong answer in a TV game show.

Another favorite word is activity. Activity connotes a brief, time-bound experience that can be done in a defined period with defined steps and produce results. Learning may begin with an activity that produces an inquiry to learn more, to begin the synaptic processes that generate or construct new learning, and to move a learner to act on the learning, yet it will not end with the activity. Learning occurs over time, through use and reflection, coaching and feedback, refinement and disappointment. Learning is continuous, not time bound. Couple the word activity with professional development and, much like a buzzer that signals the end of a period in a game, the professional development will have a defined stopping point.

Paramount among the favorites is day attached to anything remotely linked to professional learning. Some examples include professional learning community day (PLC day), inservice day, professional development day, staff training day, non- contact day, early release day, late-start day, etc. These phrases, like activity, convey the belief that learning occurs just a few times during the school year during designated days. They might even suggest that learning cannot occur any other time, as if an official might cry foul if an educator were discovered learning on a day not officially designated for learning. This assumption serves as a barrier to fostering professional learning as a routine part of every educator’s workday, just as educators expect of their students. If students or others learned on just a few days of the year without tapping, analyzing, and reflecting on their daily practice as a powerful lever for continuous refinement of practice and deepening of understanding, efforts to educate every student would be significantly compromised.

Unmasking assumptions about professional learning through analysis of language provides opportunities to confront beliefs and practices that serve as barriers to effective professional learning. Learning Forward uses the term professional learning rather than professional development specifically to convey its focus on the learning that occurs when educators collaborate for the purpose of expanding, deepening, and refining their understanding and practices for the end result of improving achievement for every student. When education leaders care more about development rather than learning, they unmask yet another false assumption about professional learning. It places priority on development--the structures, actions, or resources provided to promote professional improvement--rather than on learning that is demonstrated through refinement or change in practice and results for every student. Yes, these resources, actions, and structures are an essential and necessary component of a comprehensive system of professional learning, yet they are insufficient alone to create the significant changes educators are striving to make today to meet their goals of ensuring that every pre-K-12 student is college or career ready at the end of 12th grade.

Joellen Killion
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.