Professional Learning: Does it work?

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I have been doing some research lately into Training Evaluation, and quite unexpectedly have become intrigued at how we measure professional development and whether it really works.

A lot of time, money, effort, resources, blood, sweat, and tears goes into PD. We as educators provide and receive PD regularly, but does it change our learning stances? A learning stance could be viewed as our own theory of learning, which impacts how we will continue to develop professionally. These stances cannot help but impact how we choose to change, or not make changes in our own practice.

Sometimes, educators might believe that we have the ‘right’ way, or that ‘we know what works in education’, or ‘we alone understand what the students need’. I do think that these stances can become problematic, in that they can prevent us from learning, growing and evolving with our students. If we are thinking about student learning, in addition to justifying money spent on PD, then we need to think about this uncomfortable area.

Also, in education we may focus more on the design of the Professional Learning, including learning principles, sequencing of training material, and job relevance. However, one area where we may be able to improve includes an increased emphasis on trainee characteristics including ability, skill, motivation and personality factors. In addition to work-environment characteristics including supervisory and peer support. All of which have tremendous impacts on learning, and perhaps this is a reason why schools tend to maintain their ‘culture’ over time. It becomes more of a situation where the learning gets changed to fit in with the culture, versus the culture changing to retain new learning. I think that this embodies a ‘transfer problem’. Can we truly transfer our learning from our professional development, and if so, how would we measure that?

Some interesting information that I have processed include 3 prevailing strategies that can be used used that could prevent us from making substantial changes to learning. (I will need to re-evaluate where I found similar information).

I have re-applied them with my own questions about how we as educators possibly deal with new information.

3 Strategies to avoid Change:

  1. Finding ways to reject the new content we are being presented with
  2. Modifying any new content to make the changes less demanding. This includes modifying the content as close as possible to current practice so that we can say we already teach that way, and
  3. Pinpointing only the content that we can easily implement. This means that we teachers will use elements of the content that we can easily apply to our teaching without changing it fundamentally.

I can’t help but wonder what this all means for education. Myself, I can see #2 and #3 happening quite unconsciously. After all, learning is very hard. Learning new things is uncomfortable. It can be very easy to look at a new professional development opportunity assume that it is already quite similar to what we already do – thereby missing key information that could be important.

I have many questions regarding the 3 strategies as well.

First, are they merely proof of the human condition and how we want to learn in ways that help us to feel comfortable? If we remain comfortable, what are implications of this for our students?

What about our educational institutions? How can our schools actively create cultures where we teachers value this feeling of being uncomfortable with learning? Does this behoove educational institutions to create new organizational cultures? How can leaders work to shake up learning cultures that need to change? Who, or what variables, decides whether a learning culture needs to change anyway?

At what point can we take a step back, feel confident in what we are doing, and give ourselves that pat on the back for working so hard and having a competent learning stance? Can we do that? Should we do that?

How do motivation and prior experience impact whether we will allow ourselves to become uncomfortable with learning? And finally, how do we accurately measure the transfer of learning in the first place? Can our learning stances change?

Finally, if we knew the answers to these questions, would it change the way we provide Professional Development for educators?

Does PD work and how do we know?

Certainly a lot to think about. Much more than what can realistically be discussed in a small blog post.

What are your personal insights on this? 

 

Deborah McCallum

c 2016