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Professional learning should matter

by Mark Otter, on 1/17/19 10:54 AM


At Participate, we operate from a simple premise: professional learning should matter.

As former educators, instructional designers and education researchers, our team is familiar with the traditional “sit-and-get” models of professional learning that are so common across the field. Our own experience – not to mention all of the research out there – tells us that they are ineffective models and, frankly, we want better for our field.

Learning that is done in service to or to enhance an ongoing career, doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a definitive end. Building competence around new and evolving instructional practices, content areas or assessment options is an ongoing process, and learning needs change as competence develops. Effectively serving the diverse experiences and learning needs of educators simply can’t be done using unidirectional, one-size-fits-all models.

So how do you create effective, dynamic professional learning that matters to educators? Start with the essentials:

Provide flexible learning options that build competence based on interest.
All learners need to start from where they are, which does not necessarily mean the beginning. As long as they demonstrate understanding, adult learners should be able to level up or slow down their learning based on their needs and desire to dig into the concepts being taught. And of course, they should be able choose what they want to explore in service to their careers.

Make learning options relevant.
It’s common knowledge now that a majority of students will go on to work in fields that don’t currently exist and into jobs that we can’t yet fully anticipate. Educators must adapt their instruction to build practical skills and knowledge that will translate successfully into this ambiguous future. Professional learning options must adapt, as well, to focus on skills such as social/emotional intelligence, media and tech literacy, and intercultural competence that will be valuable in emerging professions.

Encourage learners to collaborate with and to learn from one another.
No matter the context, humans learn best and are quicker to find meaning in new concepts through collaboration and interaction with peers. Learning is a social activity that happens formally and informally, even if it’s done for work!

Create space for application and experimentation.
Generally, the most glaring weakness in sit-and-get models is that there are no ways for learners to demonstrate practical application of the concepts taught. All educators know from working with students how demonstration of understanding changes and becomes more creative the more a learner practices. All learners need to play with new concepts in order to effectively incorporate that new knowledge into their lives. 

Capturing all of these essentials into a cohesive professional learning experience that also scales to meet the learning needs of large populations of learners is actually less daunting than it seems. Our partners do it everyday through online Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Technically defined, CoPs are, “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” CoPs support adult learning across many contexts and can be formally convened by large entities (governmental task forces, organizational improvement committees, grade-level PLCs) or informally initiated by individuals (neighborhood associations, book clubs, fan fiction forums). Three things are fundamental to CoPs:

  1. Domain. CoPs cohere around a shared domain of interest or a common purpose.
  2. Community. People pull together around the common purpose and work collaboratively to build knowledge by sharing resources and ideas. Relationships develop within CoPs and members collectively develop expectations for contributing to the community.
  3. Practice. CoPs are intentional, active and continuous. All members do something as a result of being part of a CoP and as members build knowledge, they take on different roles and engage regularly with the community in different capacities.

CoPs facilitate structured and unstructured opportunities for learners to engage. Our online CoPs often include formal, well-designed courses but the facilitated discussions, feedback from mentors and informal interactions with peers taking courses and experimenting with course materials also have significant impact on developing a learner’s understanding.

As advocates for education and educators, we and our partners can also see what is working within the CoPs we support. What courses do educators gravitate toward? What discussion prompts do they find most engaging? What resources are they relying on most when incorporating new learning into instruction. Educator feedback and behavior is the richest source of data available to guide creation of professional learning options that will have real impact in the world.

Communities of Practice are vital to providing effective professional learning. Because professional learning should matter.

Mark Otter is the CEO of Participate. He is a former educator passionate about community-based learning and digital badging. Follow him on Twitter @markjotter.

Click here to dig into the research supporting social learning and Communities of Practice.

Topics:Online learningCommunity engagement


About Participate

Participate combines your favorite parts of social media and online learning to connect community members, grow organizational impact and support scalable learning opportunities, all in one place.

Trusted by school districts, nonprofits and education organizations across the nation, Participate takes existing professional learning initiatives and builds a digital community that provides value for your community members and meaningful impact for your organization.

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