According to the humanistic philosophy perspective, adult learning should be self-directed and transformational, by allowing the learner to critically self-reflect during the learning process (Merriam, 2001). In my experience, far too often I am presented with a lot of information in a PowerPoint on a new initiative, expectation, or process and am immediately asked to switch gears and talk about nuts and bolts during a staff meeting. I am rarely given time to reflect on what I have just learned, or tried to learn.
Effective professional development is “ongoing, embedded within context-specific needs of a particular setting, aligned with reform initiatives, and grounded in a collaborative, inquiry-based approach to learning” (Zepeda, 2012, p.66). When I reflect on the times I have walked away from a professional learning opportunity and thought to myself, “that was actually very relevant and meaningful,” the content was context-specific, aligned with my needs as a teacher, and interactive in the delivery.
My district struggles to provide ongoing learning opportunities or to monitor the effects of the learning. I have yet to receive a follow-up correspondence, or feedback session, on any training I have been to. For example, last fall, the district hired a representative of the Center for Educational Leadership to provide professional development on Writer’s Workshop. The presenter was very engaging and I felt the content was useful and practical. It was a one-day event during the week before school, and never again was Writer’s Workshop mentioned again throughout the year.
Each month, all Safety Net teachers in the Lake Washington School District gather as a professional learning community. These half-day release meetings emphasize collaboration among job-alike peers. We analyze and reflect on district-wide program data, share instructional strategies, and learn from each other how to best serve our population. This style of adult learning is an example of situated cognition, where “the nature of the interactions among learners, the tools they use within these interactions, the activity itself, and the social context in which the activity takes place shape learning” (Hansman, 2001, p. 43)
Another meaningful learning experience for me has been working with mentors. While earning my degree in education and my certification for teaching, I had the opportunity to work with teachers in many different settings. I was able to observe teachers in action, have them observe me during my student teaching, and get meaningful feedback. I could learn by doing. I learned, also, through my relationship with each teacher. During my first two years as a full time teacher, I was a part of the New Teacher Support Program in which I was assigned a mentor. This person came to observe me at least once a month, offer suggestions, help me brainstorm ideas to solve problems, and was a supportive force in a stressful time. Partly why this relationship was so beneficial was that it was non-evaluative. My mentor was not scoring me. She was nonjudgmental and I felt I could trust her. She also had expertise in the area of small group instruction and working with students below standard. I hope to become a new teacher mentor one day. My positive experience in the New Teacher Support Program is partly why I decided to pursue a Masters in Teacher Leadership. In districts that do not have mentorship programs, this should be considered.
Theories of context-based learning posit that when knowledge is viewed as held by every person, every teacher, “adult educators and program planners [can] create or enhance contexts for adult learning that allows learners to share in the design, process, and evaluation of their learning activities” (Hansman, 2001, p.49). My site supports context-based learning by allowing us to do learning walks. I have learned so much from my colleagues in the building. I have had the chance to step into almost every classroom and gain new knowledge—whether it be from a veteran teacher or a first year teacher.
While I have shared various positive experiences of professional learning in my career, my main criticisms with the current practices in my building are the lack of choice in topics and lack of follow up. After reading about adult learning theories and reflecting on my own experiences, my thinking has changed in that I now see the extreme deficit of teacher self-direction in today’s school systems. There is a need for differentiated adult learning opportunities. Every teacher should be empowered to share their knowledge with other professionals.
Hansman, C. (2001). Context-based adult learning. In The new update on adult learning theory (41-49). Jossey-Bass.
Merriam, S.B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. In The new update on adult learning theory (1-11).
Zepeda, S. (2012). Professional development: What works. New York, NY: Routledge.