Rethinking Professional Development: Ideas and Examples

19 Aug
In much of professional development, the lecture reigns as the unchallenged king of formats. As firmly as the person at the podium is established in our classrooms, s/he seems even more tenaciously present in workshops and conference sessions.

Why? Maybe because for busy workplace people creating a lecture is easier than thinking about how to engage learners actively. You only have to contend with your own behavior and thoughts, you know what you’ll say in advance, you can rehearse, and it’s over in a fixed time period. And for the attendees, showing up to hear a few ideas from the back row while writing one or two emails is easier, too, than being engaged actively. Easier and safer. Predictable. You can come late, and you can get away easily, too, if it gets uncomfortable. You just slip in and out the back. Which you couldn’t do if people were depending on your input.

Maybe it’s because we think of a workshop as a kind of exchange.  I give you money, and you give me a thing. A fact-package delivered like a cut of beef. Not an opportunity for me to cut the beef. I might actually get mad if I showed up to what I thought was going to an expert handing me pretty information chunks and instead found myself asked to participate in the creation of said information chunks with my peers, who might not even be experts and might produce knowledge I would then have to additionally evaluate, not to mention the energy it would take to negotiate meaning with these new, unpredictable people . . .

Unfortunately for professional development the more we learn about learning, the more we see the best learning involves messy things like doing and talking and sharing and hearing feedback and having assumptions we didn’t know we had challenged and feeling uncomfortable. Yet, if the goal is to help people learn, then professional developers have a kind of moral obligation to start to provide opportunities for alternative kinds of professional development that would aim for active learning. I don’t think the lecture has to go away completely (sometimes it’s ok). I just think it needs to be supplemented by a balanced breakfast of complementary formats.

So what you do if you didn’t lecture? Here are some thoughts:

  • Give increased control to individual learners in order to develop intrinsic motivation, the catnip of learning (though, warning: too much choice leads to choice paralysis);
  • Orient around “inquiry:” designing pathways for people to develop and follow their own questions;
  • Shift the organizers’ role from conveyor of facts to that of facilitator, observer, describer, supporter of the group’s learning;
  • Draw on studio or atelier models of engaged, differentiated learning, allowing people to get support tailored to their level (as happens in the art class as the teacher circulates);
  • Adapt meta-cognitive models and strategies proven effective in classrooms and learning communities (thinking about thinking, “thinking protocols,” cognitive coaching, ways to make conversations fair, structures for giving appropriate feedback);
  • Consider our attendees as dynamic individuals in a process of change and adapt lessons from the people-change literature around surfacing assumptions or beliefs and dealing with fears (as in the Immunity to Change process I cite so often);
  • Rethink what the thing is participants are buying, and reset the buyer’s expectations. If it’s not a fact-package, what is it? Maybe something like an opportunity to engage with lively peers in a safe space, with all sorts of supports and resources not otherwise available to you, where you get access to the greatest minds, where no one is distracted, you’re challenged to be your best, you can finally think things through, etc . . . ;
  • Think of professional development as collective creation of something heretofore not existing rather than communication of something heretofore available only to the experts;
  • Explode the temporal confines of the events; developing more intense pre-work (figuring out who people are and what they care about) and post-work (figuring out how to scaffold the transfer from the experience back to the real world);
  • Explore the motivating power of engaging real and big and complex challenges and think of the workshop as helping people work together to design discrete, actionable projects that test approaches to these challenges.

Nice thoughts, all. But are there any actual models of these ways of rethinking professional development? Yes there are, tons. (Really, there have been models forever if you look in the right places). Here are just a few fairly recent ones, chosen arbitrarily because I happen to have been involved with them, either as a creator or participant (or, in Steve’s case, because I met him at an Immunity to Change workshop):

  • NERCOMP “Learning Academy.” The NorthEast partner of EDUCAUSE is sponsoring a project in which participants develop a question to guide their year-long inquiry into how to improve learning at work, are trained in the basics of the workplace learning research, have help from experts in developing and refining projects to test answers to the question, and are supported by coaches, sponsors, and regular cohort gatherings in the implementation and assessment of their projects.
  • David Lewis’ “Library Construction Kit.” David, the dean of library strategic thinkers, conducts a workshop where, instead of presenting to participants his thoughts on the future of libraries (which he could do, well, and does), he challenges them, with some logistical supports like flavors of institution and research disposition, to actually design and build a library.
  • Project Zero Classroom Institute. The mother of all pedagogy institutes, this week-long immersion combines traditional lectures from keynote speakers with small-group study and the development of individual, inquiry-oriented questions.
  • NERLA / NMC hybrid webinar design. The New Media Consortium and the NorthEast Regional Learning Analytics group are working on a model that is half project-development and half webinar: participants enter with a learning analytics idea, are scaffolded in the development of a project around it, report on their project as part of a webinar, and leave with a plan and lots of feedback.
  • Steve Friedman’s “Cooling Down” model. Steve, a leadership trainer for the Federal Government’s Western Management Development Center, is working on a post-training scaffolding model that aims to catalyze the “transfer” of learning from his training institute to the participant’s workplace: in his program, participants have regular feedback sessions where they share a challenge related to the application of their learning in the workplace and listen (without talking) to a round of associative questions from their peers. The questions stimulate a kind of in-action reflection that prompts people to see patterns in their own behavior blocking their development and make adjustments.
  • Colleen Wheeler / Dave Wedaman NERCOMP 2010 event. Colleen and I led participants at our regional IT conference through a series of “fun” activities to elicit their understanding of learning environments and their sense of how valued a culture of learning was in their workplace. Participants were asked to imagine, conspire, plot their thoughts in a few creatively interactive ways; the speakers recorded, guided, gave feedback.
  • Ropewalk Writer’s Retreat. A classic, week-long poetry-writing workshop, Ropewalk brings aspiring writers together in the artsy Eden of New Harmony, Indiana, and uses a series of formal readings by experts, small group critiques, and opportunities to write in the glory of nature to help people produce together, and be reflective about, poetry and prose. (I throw this model in to represent all the great examples for professional development that are out there in the arts community).
  • THATCamp. A grass-roots coming together of faculty, librarians, graduate students, archivists, and technologists in an “un-conference” and hyper-local format allows participants to tackle problems, share experiences, and develop new projects in the burgeoning field of the digital humanities.

3 Responses to “Rethinking Professional Development: Ideas and Examples”

  1. Yvonne M (@MissCybrarian) August 19, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    “…For busy workplace people creating a lecture is easier than thinking about how to engage learners actively.”
    So true! Great post.


  1. #IOLchat Report: Professional Development for Adjunct Instructors - Online - January 24, 2013

    […] resources available from formally structured sessions to self-directed learning. And according to D. Grainger Wedaman’s post about rethinking the options, “the more we learn about learning, the more we see the […]

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