Take a moment and reflect on professional development events you have attended, and ask yourself, how many of them were “really” good, meaningful, effective, and relevant to your chosen profession? As educators, we attend several types of training, many of which are mandatory, or are recommended from our superiors. Occasionally, we get lucky and can select a specific training we deem valuable, but those may be few and far between.
Now, ask yourself again: of the professional learning events you've attended, which do you typically find useful and why? It can be a tricky question, but let's unpack a few elements that may aid in answering, and understand how professional development can provide more to its attendees.
Keep your learning relevant to what you do
According to research on the Adult Learning Theory, adults need to see relevance in what they learn. When attending a training, people need to perceive the information they receive is applicable to what they do. Often, attitudes toward learning are different when a training is seemingly irrelevant, yet required by a superior or district official.
According to the article "Best Practice in Professional Development for Sustained Educational Change," adults will "commit to learning when the goals and objectives are considered realistic and important to them. Application in the 'real world' is important and relevant to the adult learner’s personal and professional needs" (Speck 1996). In addition, the journal also reports that adult professionals "need to see that the professional development learning and their day-to-day activities are related and relevant." If what a person is learning in their professional development seminar doesn't apply to their daily application, then they'll likely deem that training null and void, and be less likely to take away any knowledge from it. Researcher Malcolm Knowles recognizes that "adults spend a considerable amount of time and energy exploring what the benefits are of them learning something and cost of them not learning something before they are willing to invest time in learning it" (Knowles 1973). Even if a training is required, it may not be worth the time and effort if it doesn't directly have a positive impact on the learner.
Define the benefit of a training
The question then remains: how do we as department chairs, teacher-leaders, and supervisors get adult educators to "buy in" to a training when their time is so precious? To answer this, the most important thing to consider is personal benefit. This is a key element that facilitators can use to get adult learners to reap benefits from professional development training. When you define the personal benefit, it will fill a void. Educators will be motivated to learn if the training:
- solves or avoids a problem for them
- provides an opportunity to increase their status
- leads to professional or personal growth
In order to get the educator to commit the time and effort, we must convince them what they will learn is personally relevant. Presenting information in a clear, concise fashion is critical, so educators can understand the benefit of what is being offered.
Connect the dots for your learners
In the past, I have trained teachers about something beneficial to them, but they didn’t latch on. Why not? While the information I provided was relevant, I failed to make clear the connection between the learning and their day-to-day activities. Adult learners need to see this direct correlation between the information and how it meets their needs, otherwise it will still be deemed irrelevant. Failing to make this connection can be detrimental to your training.
In order to solve this problem with professional development, I propose clearly establishing the purpose and terms of the training up front: how it solves a problem, avoids a problem, or meets another demand of day-to-day activities. If you can’t make this connection, perhaps reconsider if the time and effort required for the training is necessary for your educators. Your learners will get more out of professional development and be willing to invest the necessary energy when you're attentive to their needs as adults, and up front with them about how the training will be benefit them.
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Endorf, Mary, and Marie Mcneff. “The Adult Learner: Five Types.” Adult Learning, vol. 2, no. 7, 1991, pp. 20–25., doi:10.1177/104515959100200708.
Knowles, Malcolm. “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy versus Pedagogy.” Cambridge Adult Education, vol. 24, no. 1, 1973, pp. 72–74., doi:10.1177/074171367302400106.
Leamnson, Robert. “Learning as Biological Brain Change.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, vol. 32, no. 6, 2000, pp. 34–40., doi:10.1080/00091380009601765
Merriam, Sharan B. “Andragony and Self-Directed Learning: Pillars of Adult Learning Theory.” Semantic Scholar, Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, 2001, pdfs.semanticscholar.org/348f/4ec482384d90bafad92e226fa4471ff56539.pdf
Speck, Marsha. “Best Practice in Professional Development for Sustained Educational Change.” ERS Spectrum, vol. 14, no. 2, 1996, pp. 33–41., doi:10.4135/9781446247150.n15.
Pam Gothart is the director of professional learning at Social Studies School Service. She has been in education for 22 years including teaching high school social studies, and spent 12 years as a history director. Pam’s Ed.S. is from Samford University, where she focused her study on professional learning. She is passionate about education and helping teachers to be unique and effective leaders.