Professional development or professional learning?

May 18, 2023
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Back when I was a teacher in the nineties, I attended staff development on a regular basis. When I became an instructional coach, we called it professional development. Today, the term professional learning is widely used. Despite the evolution of the name, the definition remained the same: training and support to increase the capabilities of educators and staff. Or so we thought!

Is there more to professional learning than professional development? If so, what is the difference?

If you asked your fellow educators to explain the difference between professional learning and professional development, you might get a few confused faces. “Aren’t they the same?” they might ask. Ellen Moir of EdSource describes the difference as moving away from “single-shot, one-size-fits-all” workshops to an integrated system of targeted learning and individualized support that is data-driven and community-based.

Learning Forward’s definition of Professional Learning also reflects activities that are sustained, collaborative, and classroom-focused, even if it uses the terms professional learning and professional development interchangeably. On a side note, Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning, which range from learning communities to leadership to data and outcomes, make a great template for both organizing and evaluating professional learning.

If the distinction between professional development and professional learning is still not clear, let’s look at an example: Your district wants to work on restorative discipline. What approach would it take to accomplish this? On the one professional development hand, your district might bring in an expert to train faculty on a specific use of this practice. However, if your district hosted a group of educators to design an implementation of restorative discipline and provided guidance for their learning, then we are looking at a professional learning approach.

From my understanding, professional learning focuses on student engagement using a variety of training strategies and formats (face-to-face, online, and/or blended learning). The idea is to guide educators toward collaboration, innovation, and facilitation of customized learning for themselves and their students. Professional learning goes beyond professional development in that it nurtures educators to build and maintain their own learning communities and to see the value of data beyond just a measurement of student aptitude.

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