If we consider education as one’s accumulation of learning, then we should understand that learning will be never-ending — hence the term “lifelong learner.” Educators need to understand that what they teach, how they teach, and their teaching tools will change over time. At one point in history, the standard curriculum that everyone learned was limited and changed very slowly. Since then, there have been many changes in what we learn, as well as in how we learn it.
Technology has had the greatest effect on the rapid pace and form of changes that affect learning. Over time, rapidly changing technology effects a proportionately rapid change in learning, and the tools and methods of learning are evolving faster than ever before. If educators are to maintain relevance in this ever-changing environment, they need to evolve as well. We can’t expect that our kids, 21st-century learners, will maximize their learning based on their teachers’ 20th-century education. Lifelong learning should be the mindset of teacher and student alike. This is why continuing professional development has become a moral imperative for all educators.
Educating the Educators
As educators, we often hear about methodologies or philosophies that are the next “magic bullet” to fix the American education system. There’s no such fix, because there’s no single problem hampering the education system. There are, however, many things preventing the education system from providing our children’s education in ways that we would like to see. If there were a single improvement, it might be more effectively educating the teachers who educate our kids.
Despite the accreditation standards for colleges and universities with teacher preparation programs, the education of prospective teachers varies greatly. If we compared first-year teachers across the country, we’d see vast differences in what constitutes the bedrock of their professional education. Some schools seek to level the playing field with mentorship programs, although successful outcomes will vary based on a given district’s available resources.
According to numerous polls over decades, teachers are for the most part dissatisfied with professional development offered by their districts. A common objection is the practice of grouping all teachers, regardless of subject areas, into a one-size-fits-all approach to PD. Teachers are also unhappy that PD sessions are limited to just a few days during the year with little follow-up or ongoing support. While not every district in the country operates this way, the problem is clearly widespread. Support of PD requires leadership, vision, effort, and money to be successful.
Pedagogy vs. Andragogy
As a starting point for successful professional development, we should rethink our approach to the target audience. While the teachers or consultants leading PD sessions are often trained educators, they’ve been trained in the methods of pedagogy. Pedagogy — the way children learn — is what we teach educators to understand and master. However, teaching PD workshops and courses is not pedagogy, but rather andragogy — the way adults learn. There are many differences between these methodologies. Unlike children, adults have clear goals in mind. Adults have life experience that may be pertinent to the subject they’re learning. They demand respect. When they learn something today, they want to use it tomorrow. They look for relevance and reason in applying their PD to their work. These are some of the considerations that we should make in teaching adults (and it wouldn’t hurt to apply some of this to our high school students as they approach adulthood). The greatest difference in adult learning is that adults learn best through collaboration and discussion rather than direct instruction and lecture. The almighty PowerPoint is far less effective than we have believed.
All in all, this represents a different approach to PD than what we’ve experienced in the past, and it will take a dedicated commitment of vision and resources to be successful.
The best way — indeed, the only way — to create consistently effective professional development for educators is by approaching it with a growth mindset. We all have the capacity for continuous learning. We won’t reach a point where we stop absorbing, understanding, and using new ideas. As we continue to reflect on what we already know and believe, we should remain aware that change opens us to new ways and ideas that we haven’t yet considered. Change asks us to leave our comfort zone and venture into the unproven and unknown. And while this may invite some degree of failure, we have to understand that failure is a big part of learning. What you do with failure will determine your success. As educators, this may be the most important lesson that we can teach our students.