Rethinking Professional Learning to Promote Real Changes in Practice

  • Posted on: 19 October 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Consider the time and money that has been spent on professional development for those within your organization. Have these investments resulted in tangible, consistent and sustainable improvements in your school system? Unfortunately, our traditional approach to professional development is does not bring about organizational learning. Most educational leaders, perhaps assuming there is no other viable option, unconsciously accept and perpetuate an ineffective approach to professional development. A constructive alternative is to rethink professional learning as a way to leverage organizational change. Depart from the 'traditional' path, and use methods that can get your school system where it needs to be.

First, what is meant by 'traditional professional development'?  In short, the term refers to speakers or presentations that are usually 'one shot deals' and don't take into account the research on professional learning. Such presentations would be better described as 'keynotes' than professional learning.  At best, such presentations are interesting and informative. At worst, they are an exercise in square filling. Regardless of the quality of these traditional offerings, they do not promote and strengthen new learning across an organization. 

Next, what can we do differently to get better results from professional learning activities?  In summary: prioritize, use research-based methods, re-conceptualize professional learning as just one part of managing a process of complex change, and plan for sustainability from the start.


In the field of education today, perhaps more than ever, there is a constant stream of new demands and requirements placed on our professionals.  This, combined with the barrage of information that is available at our fingertips, can make educators feel like their heads are swimming. The quest to do 'everything' can result in schools that are stretched so thin that teachers have difficulty focusing on what is important.  Rather than creating a culture of continuous improvement, frenzied educators work to keep their heads above water.  This is counterproductive to meaningful school reform. In this context, leadership is needed to determine what is most important in terms of systemic change. 

Leaders must be mindful and selective about school improvement. Have you heard the old adage, 'slow down to speed up'?  Well, that kind of thinking is highly applicable to reform-oriented professional learning.  In terms of leading change, decide what is most important in your school system or department. Priorities must be determined based on a range of factors in the unique context of the organization.  What changes will have the most impact of student learning or other student outcomes?  What change might significantly strengthen your organization's ability to serve students?  

Once you have determined your priority, turn your attention to planning ways to make the targeted change a reality in your school system.

Re-conceptualize Professional Learning as One Part of an Effective Change Process.

The truth is that professional development alone will not change practices across an organization. Although some professionals may easily 'catch on' and implement some of the things they learn, individual learning does not equate to organizational learning.  In order to establish, nurture and solidify changes across a school system, we must understand that professional learning is only one part of a successful change process. Knoster's (1991) Model for Managing Complex Change does an excellent job of illustrating what is needed to effectively manage within organizations. 

According to Knoster, there are five major steps that are needed to successfully support complex change: vision, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. If all of these steps are competently carried out, targeted change can be realized.  However, many leaders are unaware of (or overlook) the importance of all five steps. What happens when certain steps are skipped? 

  • Without an action plan, there are false starts
  • Without resources, there is frustration
  • Without incentives, there is resistance
  • Without skills, there is anxiety
  • Without vision, there is confusion

We typically think of professional learning as a way to give employees the skills they need to carry out targeted changes.  However, skills alone are not sufficient to promote real changes within your organization. The nexus between leadership and professional development cannot be emphasized enough in relation to school reform. Leaders must be actively involved in the change process in order for success to be realized. Leadership and professional learning cannot be disassociated when it comes to organizational improvement.

Use Research-Based Methods. 

Teachers are continually asked and expected to use research-based methods, but how often are proven methods incorporated into professional development programs? It is important for leaders to 'walk the talk' and ensure that high-quality professional learning is provided for their constituents. So, what does the research tell us about professional development? Three significant themes emerge in the literature.

First, professional learning must be job-embedded.  This means that it must focus on important skills that are relevant and useful in relation to one's professional responsibilities.  We all know what happens to things that we 'learn' in a training or workshop when we don't have the opportunity to apply them in our professional lives.  In short, the skills or knowledge don't stick. Teachers must be engaged in learning activities that are directly related to their jobs so that they can see how to apply the skills as they learn them.

Second, professional learning must be collaborative. People are social, and they need to engage and talk with others to construct collective meaning. This means that they need to learn together to acquire new skills that they can apply as a team. This builds shared meaning and a group perspective that reinforces the fact that everyone is working together to change their practices.  Remember, individual learning is not the goal. Organizational learning is what is needed for meaningful change to be realized in a school system.

Thirdly, professional learning must be sustained. Organizational learning is a process that takes place over time. Professional adults must still be treated as the learners that they are. Simply telling them what they should do is not enough to change practices across a school system. New learning must be revisited and reinforced over time if it is to take permanent root, and learners must be supported until they have solidified and refined the skills that they are expected to competently apply. 

Plan for Sustainability from the Start.  

Vision, skills (high quality professional learning opportunities), incentives, resources and a well-executed action plan will improve practices within a school system, but one more consideration is profoundly essential: sustainability.  No matter what a phenomenal job is done managing complex change, and providing high quality professional learning as part of the change process, the gains made can erode away over time without a plan to sustain them. Make a lasting difference your goal, by ensuring that practices and protocols are documented and placed in an accessible repository. Incorporate new expectations or protocols into manuals, evaluation systems, and induction training materials as appropriate. Provide periodic follow-up activities related to the established practices that help educators understand that they are still important and 'on the radar' of the school system. As necessary, educate other stakeholders regarding the practices in order to ensure that they become permanently ingrained into the culture of the school. 

Use the aforementioned strategies to help your organization improve, and stop allocating time and money to professional development activities that don't prompt meaningful, long-term changes that will help your school system serve students better. It's a matter of rethinking professional learning to promote real changes in practice


Tina H. McCoy, Ed.D. is the Executive Director of McCoy Educational Consulting, LLC. Read more about Tina in our 'About Us' section.