Rethinking the Design of Professional Learning

For my second blog post this quarter I am continuing to look at ISTE Coaching standard 5: Professional Learning Facilitator. However instead of focusing on the standard as a whole, I am looking at indicator 5a:

Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs.

My last blog post centered around impactful professional development and how to evaluate the effectiveness of professional development. For this blog post I want to think deeper about how to truly design professional development centered around a needs assessment and frameworks for adult learning. My driving question for this blog post is;

How can using a needs assessment and frameworks for adult learning help facilitators design impactful professional development sessions that are more than just sit and get?

Some additional questions that I have are around how as an educator I might use what I learn from a needs assessment or from learning more about adult learning frameworks in order to design something that’s new and innovative. I also want to think about what PD might look like that’s completely been designed around a needs assessment.

As I began thinking about my question I really decided that I needed to start with understanding more about the different adult learning frameworks. There are several different adult learning frameworks to consider when thinking about professional learning. One framework that many people are familiar with is Andragogy which is a framework that was developed by Malcolm Knowles. This framework really centers around the art of teaching adults and specifically those who are “self-motivated or are within a goal-oriented and structured program, or for teaching how to solve specific problems” (Valamis, n.d.). However as I started reading more about adult learning frameworks one that stood out to me was called self-directed learning. This framework is similar to Knowles’ Andragogy framework, however it focuses more on the learner making the decisions for themselves and directing what they learn. This got me thinking about how this would look in action, what sort of professional development model would this fit with?

Professional development (PD) can look so different depending on how it is structured and planned. As I was thinking about the self-directed framework and all of my past professional development, I realized a couple things.

  1. Some PD really sucks! I’ve attended some PD sessions where it was 3 hours of the facilitator talking at me. There was no place for me to take what they were saying and apply it to my own situation, classroom, or life. There was very little time for reflection and conversation. When there was conversation it was a quick turn and talk with little meaning. This is not what impactful PD should look like!
  2. Some PD is amazing! Along with the bad there is also the good. Some of the PD experiences that I’ve had that I would consider the most impactful are ones that fit in to the self-directed learning framework. These are sessions where I was in control of my own learning. I was able to decide how fast I wanted to learn something, where I wanted to take my own learning, and how I wanted to apply it. The PD gave me voice and choice in my own learning. Some of the examples that come to mind are;

Math Learning labs: these were PD sessions that happened both outside the classroom but also in the classroom. As participants we worked together to design learning and then would go into the classroom to see it in action, coach each other in the moment, and reflect on our learning together.

Digital Playgrounds: a virtual playground where as a participant I was able to determine what technology resource I wanted to learn more about, how to apply it to my classroom and experience, test out new ideas and when I got stuck I could ask the playground supervisor (facilitator) for help.

EdCamps: Similar to a digital playground, participants get to decide what they want to learn about. The thing that I love about this sort of PD is that the participants are the ones who come up with the session ideas. Its like doing a needs assessment at the beginning of the PD and using that to determine what the various sessions will be about. Talk about making the PD relevant and tied to what the participants need.

So what is the purpose of professional development? If the purpose is just for participants to passively sit back and take notes, then blog post done there is nothing more to talk about. However, I think we need to continue to rethink how professional development is designed and implemented. Webster-Wright (2009) argues that we “need to move beyond the current focus on how to best provide PD activities toward understanding more about the fundamental question of how professionals learn” (p. 703-704). So how do we design something that gets at how professionals learn? I believe that is through doing a needs assessment. We should be starting with asking how and what they want and need in professional development instead of assuming we know. Let the learners be the drivers and we can be the drivers ED teacher who is there to help when needed. Learning needs to be real and embedded into what we are doing in order for it to stick. Webster-Wright (2009) also goes on to add that we should be calling professional development, professional learning since that is the point of it, we want professionals to continue their learning. If we continue to call it professional development than we are in essence implying that “professionals are in need of “training” or “developing” through knowledge being “delivered” to them in courses” (p 713). Is this really the message we want to convey?

If we truly want to innovate and design impactful professional learning experiences than we need to continue to involve the professional when design them. How are we embedding the learning and connecting it to their classrooms, experiences, and needs? For me I plan on continuing to learn more about the framework for adult learning. I also am excited to continue to explore how I might embed professional learning into the classroom or work that teachers are already doing. How might I take and utilize the needs of the teachers in order to design something that is just for them? Professional Learning is more than just something done “to” teachers. It should be continuous, engaging, relevant, built around their needs, and done in collaboration. Because as The Aspen Institute (2015) said “For students to become powerful learners, their teachers must engage in powerful learning themselves” (p. 1).

If you have ideas for how to make professional learning innovative and relevant to educators needs, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


10 Adult Learning Theories | What Works Best for You. (n.d.). Valamis. Retrieved February 4, 2021, from

Developing a Professional Learning System for Adults in Service of Student Learning. (2018, February 21). The Aspen Institute.

ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (n.d.). Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing Professional Development Through Understanding Authentic Professional Learning. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 702–739.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Design of Professional Learning

  1. I love your emphasis that teachers should have a say in what and h0w they learn. I agree that my favorite PDs were self-directed. Or at least they allowed me to be an active participant, required some creativity, and gave me time to reflect and think through how to use the training in my classroom right away. Thanks for giving those 3 examples of PD options that give teachers agency. I’ve never participated in a learning lab myself, but it sounds like a very impactful experience and I love how it is job-embedded. Was it difficult for teachers to invite other colleagues into their classrooms to observe? Some of my closest teaching friends have expressed how unnerved they get when others are in their rooms. I’m sure it takes some positive experiences and repetition to get used to. Thanks for sharing!

  2. “Let learners be the drivers…” I love this idea. I’ve also experienced some pretty mundane PD over the years, however for the past two years our school has been dipping it’s toe into the pool of ‘choice’, and what I have learnt in those PD sessions has translated immediately into my classroom practice. I think the type of PD that gives ‘voice and choice’ in learning also elevates the whole group learning experience because everyone is excited to share about how the learning has impacted their teaching.

  3. “Some PD really sucks!…. Some PD is amazing!” YES, YES, YES. I appreciate the honesty with these statements towards the introduction of your post. The three PD models that you mentioned sound fantastic. I have heard of all three but never have had the pleasure of participating in them. The idea of a digital playground is very exciting! I feel this is something that would also be an amazing model for students in our classroom to take ownership of their learning.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and guidance on how to make PD more impactful!

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