This has been a year of learning, and not just for students. Learning was a key contributor to our surviving and thriving as educators. Our need to learn often outpaced the structures and approaches of traditional professional development. We had to flex, adjust, and even create new learning paths and experiences in response to the challenges we faced.
Importantly, what we experienced and the learning that resulted can offer important lessons about how we can engage in and support professional learning in ways that are timely and effective. In fact, these are lessons we need to apply as we plan for and engage in professional learning this summer. Let’s review five of the important lessons that can inform our summer planning and support professional learning experiences.
We learned that to meet the professional learning needs of educators at various stages of their careers and lives and who experience unique, varied schedules and pressures, professional learning needs to be flexible. We need to offer learning opportunities that respond to these needs. Sometimes learning needs to be on-demand. At other times, after school or non-school days may still work. Learning opportunities may be in person, or they may be remote. The key is to have learning opportunities flex in response to learning needs and readiness.
We also learned that professional learning that will translate into practice must be practical. Hearing about a new technique will typically not be as useful as learning practical actions educators can take to apply what they are learning. Also, having multiple action options can allow educators to decide which actions might best fit their circumstances and style. Theory and broad ideas can provide a foundation for action, but educators also need to know where to start and what to expect.
The pandemic also reminded us that effective learning often needs to be short and specific. Learning in smaller chunks can be digested and converted into action faster. Too much content at once can become overwhelming and result in only a small portion being retained and applied. Knowing what to do with one or two new techniques can be more impactful than exposure to many techniques that never find their way into practice.
We learned the power of collaborative learning. Often learning, applying, and reflecting with colleagues can add richness to the experience and lower the risks of trying something new. Further, when others are engaged in learning with us they often have insights from which we can benefit, generate ideas we might never have imagined, and design applications we can adopt or adapt. Learning is fundamentally a social process. Finding ways to learn together can enhance the experience and increase its impact.
Finally, professional learning that makes the greatest impact is connected to what we want to accomplish with our students. Professional learning that meets a current need, addresses an important goal, or shows the way through a difficult challenge can make a much greater impact than learning that might be useful in the future, but addresses no immediate need. Further, professional learning that is driven by purpose is more likely to be applied, improved, and fully integrated into our professional practice.
Clearly, the pandemic has created significant challenges and placed barriers in many aspects of our professional lives and practice over the past year. Yet, it has also taught us many important lessons from which we can draw as we enter the post-pandemic era. Professional learning is one place where pandemic lessons can make a key difference in how we plan, engage, and grow.