What is Professional Learning?

read-3048651_1920As a long-time educator I have participated (voluntarily and involuntarily) in a variety of professional development (PD). Not one to wait passively for something to “happen” to me, I seek opportunities to learn. Beyond attending graduate school, I’ve participated in online PD, attended EdCamps (which is a BIG deal for someone who is an introvert), and read plenty of books both on content and pedagogy.

Until I enrolled in the course Research on Effective Professional Development (at Johns Hopkins University), I didn’t really think too much about the difference between professional development versus professional learning. In fact, I used to get irked when people tried to split hairs around semantics. However, I’ve come to learn that if you don’t clearly define what you mean, then it’s entirely plausible that your intentions and efforts may be misunderstood.

So why the difference in terminology?

Well, for one thing, the term professional development has gotten a bum rap. I mean, how many of us have sat through a workshop where the presenter(s):

  • Read off their slides?
  • Treated attendees like children (talk to your elbow partners, anyone?)?
  • Promoted their latest book?
  • Clearly had no idea what actually goes on in the classroom?
  • Shared the work of others as if it was their own idea?
  • Talked about a topic in which you had no interest?

And then we shut-down. I mean arms-crossed, doodling on your paper, checking your iPhone, going to the bathroom every five minutes kind of shut-down. In this case, PD is being done to the teachers who are passive recipients of information. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when being a passive recipient is warranted and sometimes even welcomed. You know what I mean if you’ve ever been engrossed in a TED Talk or keynote presentation.

However, it’s beyond frustrating as a classroom teacher to be told that I need to make my classroom a place for active learning…to differentiate the learning process for my students…that learning should be student-centered…when I’m being forced to sit through a PD that I clearly do not need or want. This is a clear case of do what I say not what I do from the Powers-that-Be. (It’s also obvious that the PD providers have no idea about adult learning theory, but I digress.)

So what is professional learning? And why should we care?

According to Learning Forward (2011), professional learning occurs when “educators tak[e] an active role in their continuous improvmeent” with an emphais on the active part of learning (p. 13). In other words, PD is what happens to you, whereas professional learning is what good educators do. 

Professional learning is where educators actively pursue opportunities for professional growth, not just for themselves, but for their students. It entails taking a backwards approach to design beginning with what do we want our students to learn? Where are the gaps? And from there, we come together to discuss, collaborate, explore, and, yes, even analyze data, to determine what do we need as educators to best support our students? What skills do we need to learn or hone? What content do we need to learn better? Where are the gaps in our pedagogical appoaches to learning?

Teachers do not have all of the answers. And those who are claiming as such are selling snake oil. We all have areas that need improvement or refinement. But I tell you what, improvement is not going to become a reality if teachers are not empowered in their learning and that can only happen if we move away from traditional notions of PD and embrace the idea of professional learning.


Learning Forward. (2011). Standards for professional learning. Oxford, OH: Author.


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