Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Professional Development?

flickr CC image via mikecogh

I've been grappling with the concept of professional development. Teachers tend to refer to any workshop, seminar or in-service as professional development, but I'm not sure about this.

Undoubtedly there are many valuable and purposeful workshops, seminars and in-services for teachers across many teaching and learning contexts. Teachers can be trained to do a number of specific things quite efficiently and adequately that enhance their skills as a teacher, but I don't call that professional development. I call it professional training. When we train as professionals, we learn how to do something, not why we do it, what philosophical rationale is behind it or what makes it a pedagogically sound practice. We learn new strategies so we can do our job. There is usefulness in all of this. There are loads of valuable predetermined teaching tools and resources that come with an already established set of instructions; sort of a paint-by-numbers situation. When we learn how to use these we aren't really developing anything, however. To develop as professionals means to engage in a quite different process.

Teachers are experts on learning. It would seem reasonable then, that teachers should be exemplary learners themselves. In order to teach kids how to learn effectively, it makes sense to me that teachers should know how to learn effectively so they can model the attitudes and habits that effective learners need to possess. Here is where I draw the distinction between professional training and professional development. Professional development to me is synonymous with professional learning; learning as a complex and rigorous process that is very different from simply being told how to do something.

No matter how good we think we are, or how much we think we know, reality dictates that there is always something more we can learn. Learning is, to me, an asymptotic process meaning no matter how close we think we are to skill and knowledge saturation, there is always some element we can refine, if only in the most specific and finely detailed ways. There has to be an authenticity to learning; a reason to engage personally in the process. If we think we already know everything we need to know, we cannot extend our learning any further; we would see no purpose in the process. We wouldn't see the need to develop any further. We can't develop as professional learners if we don't have a personal purpose and rationale for improving.

I have done a decent amount of speaking as a professional development consultant and workshop facilitator over the last few years, and nearly every time I run up against two scenarios that I believe are indicative of a lack of understanding of the difference between professional training and professional development, and perhaps more alarmingly, a lack of personal investment in the process of professional learning.

The first is more common than the second. When I book the sessions I do, it's inevitable that I will get a request for use it on Monday strategies that participants can take to their classrooms and put them into useful service as soon as possible. I really worry about this request if in fact what I'm doing is providing professional development. If what I have to say to people in a three hour workshop, or even a full day workshop, makes them comfortable enough to completely change whatever they were already going to do on Monday, what does that say about the efficacy of what they were going to do on Monday? I routinely tell participants that whatever I share with them is intended only to plant a seed so they can go on from that point and further develop their understanding of the topic we're covering. There are many who are not satisfied with this framing. They are looking for the proverbial professional development loot bag. I never have one for them.

The second scenario doesn't usually emerge until after I have collected the evaluations participants are routinely asked to provide following the professional development event. I will read something like, "compelling content, but nothing I didn't already know." This one really bothers me, not because it might be true, but because in no case have I ever perceived this sort of comment coming from anyone who was actively engaged in the workshop, having shared their knowledge in the interest of advancing the collective intelligence of the participant group. It's easy to tell because the pearls of wisdom I would hope a knowledgeable participant would share wouldn't have been shared during the event. I have, as a participant myself, at times felt that I chose the wrong workshop or seminar. When I feel this way I know I am closed to any potential train of thought that would lead me down a new path of inquiry, reflection or discovery. I have to remind myself to keep an open mind and try to see things from a different perspective; to shake up my paradigms so to speak. If I am successful at re-framing my participation in this manner, I will learn something new, (and have every time.)

Traditional forms of professional development and professional training are taking a hit as of late. Advancing technology and the PD platforms that utilize them, (Twitter, blogs, podcasts, unconferences, webcasts, virtual meetings, collaborative web spaces etc.) are undoubtedly great ways to provide professional development and training across any number of teaching and learning contexts. I am an advocate for these methods, but I want to also say that old school style sitting in a room with a group of engaged people interested in authentic dialog and reflection about a shared professional development or training issue can be a very positive and worthwhile experience... just don't in the case of a professional development event ask for the "use it on Monday" panacea strategy, and if you know more than the person coordinating the event, share it willingly and humbly so everyone will benefit.
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