Professional Learning, Professional Development…what’s in a name?

I will admit that earlier in my career, I looked forward to professional development opportunities as a chance to escape the classroom, spend the day with adults, conversing at a professional level and enjoying a lunch where I could actually sit down and digest my food, and maybe even drink a coffee while it was still hot. While I was teaching in the Early Years, the intense pressure of meeting the needs of 30 little beings was something I loved, but also something that I occasionally needed to run away from. I tended to think of professional development days as semi-holidays. Usually they began a little later, so I could afford a sleep in, and whatever I learnt during the course of the day was a bit of a bonus; what I really took from the day was a chance to refresh and recharge.

For many teachers, the pressures of everyday school life mean that this may still be how they view professional development days. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this. School life operates at an intense pace,  and having an day or two a year where you have the opportunity to have professional discussions, and sit down and enjoy a decent lunch break is in many ways a very necessary part of a teachers’ life.

However, this style of professional development, where the teacher attends a one off event, sits in a large room with other teachers and passively ‘receives’ information should definitely not be the only times and the only ways that learning occurs. Sadly, for many teachers, it is. There is extensive research that finds that this type of professional development, while perhaps enjoyable, does not translate into changed or improved teacher practice that ultimately impacts upon student achievement.

The business of teaching is extremely complex, and learning how to become better at it is, not surprisingly, also multi-faceted. This is why it is so difficult to describe how it happens, and capture what truly ‘works’. There is a LOT of research trying to answer these questions, and across the many papers, there are many terms to describe it. Interestingly, each of these terms carries different meanings and connotes different understandings of the teacher, and their experience of learning.

In the 2008 Mapping of Teacher Professional Learning,  a range of terms in use were identified, including “training and development”, “in-service education”, “professional learning” (PL) and “training and professional development” (TPD), as well as “staff development”, “continuing education” (CE), “continuing professional development” (CPD) and “lifelong learning for teachers”. Other terms such as “in-service teacher training” (INSET) the interesting “independent professional development programs” (IppyDippys)  and the newer “career-long professional learning” (CLPL) can also be found in the literature, even if used less frequently. Adding to this range is the practice of  prefixing various titles with the adjective ‘continuing’,  to indicate that ongoing learning is a necessity in changing times.

As a busy teacher, I gave the name little thought; I called it whatever everyone else did. Mostly that was ‘PD’ (professional development), but sometimes people asked me if I had enjoyed my ‘inservice days’, and as time went on, I began to not only participate in, but run ‘staff development’. Now, after time spent in school administration, teacher librarianship and librarianship, my views of teachers and learning have broadened. I prefer to leave the range of different names behind, and focus on just one: professional learning.

Professional learning acknowledges the wide range of ways teachers grow in their professional knowledge and skills. It re-frames professional development, which implies that teachers are somehow currently inadequate in their current form, and require ‘developing’ by an external superior, and embraces the ongoing nature of how teachers continue to extend and build their practice, as well as grow their identity of themselves as an educator. Professional learning encompasses everything from those much needed conference days where you can take a break and process new ideas, to the vital conversation with a colleague to solve a pressing problem, as well as the constant evaluation, dialogue and comparison teachers undertake  as they share and moderate student work. Importantly, it acknowledges time spent growing online networks with professionals from different contexts, hours searching for creative ways to engage and challenge students, and collegial meetings where curriculum is planned and lessons designed.  Professional learning is something that should happen every day in the life of a teacher, who is actively seeking out increasingly effective ways to provide learning to meet a challenging array of student needs – academic, social, emotional, and physical.

So when the time comes for teachers to total the hours spent on learning for teacher accreditation, I encourage them to not just think about the few days spent away from the classroom, but to consider the myriad of ways they have worked to change and enhance practice. The challenge in many circles is how to ‘prove’ this. Unfortunately for many, the only ‘real’ professional learning that ‘counts’ is that which happens ‘officially’ – but paradigm shifts are needed throughout education, and this is just one more. We know students learn constantly, in many different contexts certainly not limited to school – why do we impose on teachers such restrictive concepts? Take up the professional learning challenge, and leave professional development behind. After all, almost ten years ago Michael Fullan stated:

Professional development as a term and as a strategy has run its course. The future of improvement of the profession itself depends on a radical shift in how we conceive learning and the conditions under which teachers and students work…every teacher has to learn virtually every day. Michael Fullan (2007, p35)

How do you view professional learning? What names do you go by, and has this changed over time? Leave me a comment and let’s discuss – it’s up to all of us to make change happen!

3 thoughts on “Professional Learning, Professional Development…what’s in a name?”

  1. Food for thought Kay. PD has become my pet passion, since I have experienced how much it has benefited me. Professional learning..? Yes, that is a great term. Good suggestion.

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