How to Conceptualize Professional Learning…A Quick Guide

On my first day of teaching 27 years ago, I entered the high school auditorium with 150 other teachers. I was expecting magic! I was pumped up to start my career and learn something new in the first three days before learners walked through the door. As I walked in the auditorium, I noticed something peculiar. The front half of the auditorium, the half closest to the stage, was empty while the very back rows were full of teachers. Hmmm I thought….I wonder why people are sitting in the back? I quickly discovered that my idealistic anticipation of professional development was going to be sorely tested. Although some teachers listened to the onslaught of speakers for the entire day, most teachers were half engaged (at best) and a good proportion were totally disengaged. Education has come a long way since then. Professional learning is no longer “sit and get” but now includes job embedded activities that respect teacher efficacy. To ensure continued growth in a school’s professional learning culture, let’s look at two aspects of professional learning…staff empowerment and impact.

Empowerment is defined as (by Wikipedia) as: measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and in communities in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way, acting on their own authority.

Impact is defined (by me) as: the change you in an organization as a result of the professional learning activity.

Here is a matrix to help conceptualize the relationship between empowerment and impact.

In the lower right quadrant, there is no empowerment and no impact. There are no long-term or short term change in the organization as a result of the professional learning activity. These are the professional learning days that I experienced as a young teacher. In this scenario, schools are conducting professional learning because they are contractually obligated and/or they must do something for compliance purposes. This quadrant is characterized by a “command and control” mindset.

In the lower left quadrant, there is high impact and no empowerment. Trainings that reflect this quadrant will have some sort of short-term gain. Maybe a school district is instituting a new program and everyone must be trained on it. The training will produce results as long as the leadership in the district requires strict compliance to the program. The minute the leadership lets off the gas just a little, the change will disappear because staff have not felt empowered.

In the upper right hand quadrant, there is low impact and high empowerment. These professional learning days can best be summed up by the question, “Now what?”. Staff have been empowered but there is no focus or long-term strategy to guide their efforts. The initial boost of excitement by the staff quickly wears off as they experience little if no follow-up from school leadership. Staff are constantly looking at each other asking themselves, “Now what?”, I have done the things you asked

The upper left quadrant is where schools want professional learning to “live”. Professional learning in this quadrant are characterized by thoughtful, carefully planned training experiences focused on changing the organization. Staff are empowered to act and treated as professionals. Staff has had a say in the long-term goals and vision of the school and they understand they have an important part to play in creating the necessary change to reach the goals.

Of course there is so much more to say about professional learning. My goal in this post was to give you something that would could conceptualize professional learning as you start to plan your professional learning activities for next year. One great resource to learn more about this topic is Learning Forward ( I promise if you visit their web site, you will instantly start creating better professional learning days!

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About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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