What if Professional Development Could Be…Fun!?

As has been oft-discussed on this blog, as well as among communities of teachers since time immemorial, professional development (PD) activities are quite frequently dull, irrelevant, time-consuming, and centered around a single expert delivering one-size-fits-all content to a group of workshop attendees.  This is not an effective approach to adult learning (or any learning, really), and it’s a poor approach to facilitating meaningful professional development. Higher education instructor Melissa Nicolas (2019) offers some particularly painful examples of poor PD from her own experience, which many educators can probably identify with: 

  • A three-hour lecture on active learning. 
  • An hourlong lecture on how ineffective lecturing is 
  • A session on student engagement citing the fact that most people only retain the first 10 minutes and last 10 minutes of any lecture, delivered via a 60-minute lecture.  
  • A town hall meeting that left precisely two minutes for questions. 
  • A workshop that began with, “Everything I am about to share is in X document, so you can just read that.” 

Unfortunately, I would guess that almost all professionals who have engaged in PD, not just teachers, can recall examples of their own underwhelming, ineffective, and passive PD experiences.  While instructors at all levels are asked to promote and prioritize social-emotional learning for their students, it is less common for schools to simultaneously invest in fostering a dynamic, supportive staff environment that cultivates the social and emotional competence and capacity of their teachers (CASEL, 2022). 

Imagine a world where professionals are actually excited to participate in PD activities.  Imagine a world where instructors feel like PD truly supports their cultural and social-emotional learning needs while simultaneously helping them do their jobs better… 


I daresay it’s possible.  Thus, in this investigation I’d like to take a moment to explore the lighter side of PD and highlight a few great ideas for making PD fun (that’s right…fun) and engaging for educators in all contexts. 

For starters, if a PD initiative is going to be meaningful to the participants, they must have the opportunity to interact with one another and collaborate on authentic, relevant, problem-based activities (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  This means that formal presentations (i.e. lectures) should occupy the smallest portion of time in a PD workshop, and student-centered activities should occupy the largest.  If this is the starting place for any kind of PD initiative, there’s no need for a workshop coordinator to feel like they need to prepare anything flashy to ‘wow’ their attendees and trick them into thinking they’re having fun; prioritizing time for engagement and collaboration is the first and most important step.  From there, the rest might be icing on the cake.   

You’d like some recipe ideas for the icing, you say?  Well allow me to share a few tips and tools which promote collaborative, active learning for adults which could potentially ‘ice’ your PD ‘cake’ beautifully. 

Introduction/Icebreaker Activities 

All good lesson plans have an initial entry point—a hook—that helps students engage with prior learning, share background knowledge, establish social presence, and generally get curious about the content.  Adult learning is no different. Why not try incorporating some of these ideas from Ditch That Texbook (2019) to kick off your next PD gathering? 

  1. Digital Escape Rooms – Digital escape rooms get participants collaborating immediately over a shared problem/objective in a fun way.  The escape room theme can be tied into the learning objectives for the PD, or it can be a stand-alone activity which serves as an example of something to try with students. Here is a link to some free digital escape rooms to offer some initial inspiration. 
  1. Use Flipgrid for Short Intro Videos – either some or all PD event attendees can be tapped to create short intro videos which help them introduce themselves to their colleagues. Videos can be shared to the whole group or in small groups.  Fun prompts for what to share about (e.g. a hobby or a fun fact) can help colleagues connect with each other in new ways and engage on a social-emotional level. 
  1. Use a Google Jamboard, Kahoot, Quizizz, Gimkit, Quizlet, etc. – have participants immediately engaging in a session with a starter quiz, poll, or brainstorm board based on an opening question or theme.  This helps activate prior knowledge, but it also serves as an opportunity for instructors to engage with a tool they may want to use in their classrooms. 


Custom-made Jeopardy games have been used as learning activities in K-12 classrooms for decades, and I’m here to say that they still hold up. When I was a 5th grade classroom teacher (not all that long ago), Jeopardy review day was a hallowed day…even for kids who had never seen an episode of the actual gameshow.  Likewise, I still remember playing Jeopardy when I was a student in my 6th grade social studies classroom many years ago (and our whole class loved it).  This is the power of gamification as a tool for learning.  Of course, kids aren’t the only ones who enjoy games. 

“…adults love to be playful, take risks, and experiment with new ideas just as much as children do.”

(Schmidt, 2015)

So why not gamify PD for adult learners? 

Carl Hooker (2015) offers an example of PD gamification through Interactive Learning Challenges (ILCs).  At its core, an ILC “…starts with the concepts of collaborative problem-solving and interactive creativity and adds an element of competition to learning.” An ILC can take place over the course of several days or in one hour, and it can be done with a relatively small group of people or a very large group of several hundred.  The challenges themselves can take many different forms, but Hooker (2015) describes one particularly successful activity, a scavenger hunt, which he facilitated in place of of a keynote address during a PD event.  In this ILC, the goal was to help a large group of educators better leverage iPad and App use in their classrooms.  He created a custom scavenger hunt activity in which educators worked in groups to complete challenges related to the learning objective.  “I had the entire group line up and self-identify who was the most or least tech-savvy. After that, I paired and grouped the staff to ensure that each team of four included at least one ‘high tech’ person. The way I designed the challenges, every team member had to…participate in the creation of the final product, regardless of tech skills” (Hooker, 2015).  

After the activity, participants noted that they loved being engaged with the actual tools they were meant to be using, they valued learning from/with their peers, they felt empowered to try new things in a safe, collaborative space (especially those who identified as least tech-savvy), and…drumroll please…they had fun! 


Other ILC examples might include gameshow-style formats (Family Feud, Amazing Race, trivia, etc), or perhaps a STEM-style design challenge in which participants work in groups to build or create a final product given a clear goal and building constraints (Ditch That Textbook, 2019).  These are, once again, activities which educators may choose to replicate or adapt for their own classroom environments.  

Also, offering prizes never hurts… 


Finally, another option for creating an engaging PD experience is trying an EdCamp format. An EdCamp is an informal, peer-led, collaborative workshop (held either face-to-face or virtually) where educators gather to share stories, experiences, lesson plans, resources, and new ideas with each other, often around a shared theme or learning objective (Schmidt, 2015). EdCamps are usually grassroots “non-conferences” in that there typically isn’t any kind of registration fee, vendors, or keynote speakers; they’re open to everyone, they’re often hosted locally, and sessions are usually led by volunteers (also workshop attendees) who are homegrown experts in their particular fields of interest (Schmidt, 2015).  In other words, at an EdCamp, everyone has something to share, and everyone has something to learn.   

EdCamps are a way for educators to take ownership in their own learning and simultaneously participate in something immediately relevant to their professional needs/interests.  EdCamps honor the rich reservoir of background experiences and professional expertise that all adult learners bring to the table, which is key to effective adult learning.  EdCamps help support and expand professional learning networks/communities and provide ‘playful’ learning environments where adult learners can take risks and experiment with new tools and ideas (Schmidt, 2015). No two EdCamps look alike, and there are endless possibilities for how to structure or format an EdCamp, making them particularly accessible, affordable, and customizable options for PD initiatives, no matter what the theme or learning objective(s) might be. 


In short, in order to make PD ‘fun’ and engaging, coordinators should look to prioritize time for participant interaction, collaboration on problem-based activities, and opportunities to establish social presence.  There are a variety of ways to do this, and introducing games or an EdCamp format are just a couple of options.  No artificial gimmicks needed in order for PD to be fun, just an opportunity for professionals to learn from and with each other in a space that encourages exploration and experimentation….and did I mention that prizes never hurt? 


CASEL Guide to Schoolwide SEL (2022, March 1). Strengthen Adult SEL. CASEL. https://schoolguide.casel.org/focus-area-2/overview/ 

Ditch That Textbook (2019, August 16). 12 Engaging Activities to Rock Your Back-to-School PD. Ditch That Textbook. https://ditchthattextbook.com/12-engaging-activities-to-rock-your-back-to-school-pd/ 

Hooker, C. (2015, February 10). It’s Time to Make Learning Fun Again, Even for Adults. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/make-learning-fun-for-adults-carl-hooker 

Nicolas, M. (2019, November 19). Workshops that Work. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/11/19/how-academe-should-improve-its-professional-development-workshops-opinion 

Schmidt, P. (2015, March 20). Promoting Playful Learning Through Teacher Networks. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/changemakers-playful-learning-teacher-networks-philipp-schmidt 

Teräs, H., & Kartoğlu, Ü. (2017). A grounded theory of professional learning in an authentic online professional development program. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i7.2923 

Meaningful Feedback in Online Professional Development

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Just as online teaching and learning became a necessity for K-12 and postsecondary students during the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did online professional learning activities for educators at all levels.  Not only have professional development (PD) activities primarily been held in virtual spaces over the last two years (both synchronously and asynchronously), but often the learning goals themselves have orbited around the use of educational technology in service of the immediate improvement of online teaching and learning experiences. 

Of course, even prior to COVID-19, many professional learning and development enterprises took place online in order to meet the needs of busy educators. Asynchronous, “on demand” courses and workshops are commonly used for PD so that instructors may access materials whenever, and however frequently, they want.  Additionally, online PD allows instructors to access valuable resources they might not otherwise have access to, both locally and globally. In a case study performed by Gaumer Erickson, Noonan, and McCall (2012), special education teachers in a rural district were able to collaborate with educators and experts in a non-rural district via an online PD enterprise.  Participating teachers felt that the modality was an asset to their learning since they were given resources and feedback from experts the district might not otherwise be able to provide due to geography or lack of funding (Elliott, 2017).

As mentioned by participants in this case study, one of the key contributors to a successful professional learning experience is the opportunity to receive meaningful feedback.  Feedback and participant interaction is part of an active professional learning experience wherein an adult learner is implementing their learning in an authentic, problem-based activity (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  Feedback may come from a coach or instructor or from peers (or both), but regardless of the source, getting professional feedback is necessary in order to support learning implementation and critical reflection.  Feedback can feel like an automatic and organic part of the learning process in face-to-face settings.  For example, if an educator is being observed by a coach or mentor in their classroom, they would expect feedback to be shared directly following the observation.  Similarly, if a peer group is working on a project together in a shared space or workshop, they will naturally give instant formative feedback, usually verbally, to each other as they collaborate. 

What about with online PD?  For context, the operational definition I’m using for online PD is any Internet-based form of learning or professional growth that an educator is engaged in (Elliott, 2017). How might feedback for professional development look similar or different in an online learning context?  To what extent might feedback look different in an asynchronous environment? If PD is going to increasingly be situated in online environments, what tools are available to help assist in delivering meaningful feedback?

Teräs & Kartoğlu (2017) approach online professional development (OPD) through a framework called authentic e-learning.  Authentic e-learning has a nine-point framework, the points of which are well supported in PD research and adult learning theories independent of the mode or learning environment (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  The nine points for an authentic e-learning framework they propose are as follows:

1) Authentic context

2) Authentic tasks

3) Access to expert performances and the modeling of processes

4) Promoting multiple roles and perspectives

5) Collaborative construction of knowledge

6) Reflection

7) Articulation of understanding

8) Coaching & scaffolded support at critical times

9) Authentic assessment

Numbers 5, 8, & 9 are bolded on this list because each of these points requires interactions and communication among learners and instructors which will often take the form of meaningful feedback through a virtual medium.  Within this learner-centered framework, technology should not be thought of primarily as a mode of delivering content.  Rather, it should be viewed as a platform for facilitating interactions.  Knowledge may be transferred using technology, but that’s not it’s most important role in e-learning.  When technology is a conduit for a dynamic web of collaborative interactions, authentic e-learning can take place (Teräs & Kartoğlu, 2017).  It’s certainly possible for information to be delivered in an asynchronous format using technology as the medium, but this shouldn’t be conflated with an authentic e-learning experience.  Interaction are key.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to facilitate online interactions for professional development purposes is to create a Community of Practice (COP).  Names for similar groupings that surface in the literature include Professional Learning Community (PLC) or a Community of Inquiry (COI).  Despite any nuanced differences that may exist between the three, COPs, PLCs, and COIs have quite a bit in common.  They are all entities distinct from formal learning and organizational structures, and are particularly valuable for their ability to extend beyond them.  Members gather around shared experiences and/or goals and create their own communication channels and behavioral norms (Liu et al., 2009).  These communities can exist within an organization, or they might consist of professionals across multiple organizations, but they are meant to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and tools and encourage critical discourse in a manner that is beneficial for professional growth for each of its members.  COPs are inherently collaborative, and can often be formed around solving authentic, work-based problems (Liu et al., 2009).  Though coaches, mentors, or experts may participate in COPs, peer interaction and collaboration are at the heart of a COP, and thus feedback is most often sourced from peers.  COPs serve as a promising way to deliver timely, effective, relevant, and individualized support for adult learners while simultaneously decreasing the need for feedback coming solely from “experts.”

Online learning communities can be formed in a variety of different platforms, but regardless of the tech tool or medium, or whether the communities engage synchronously or asynchronously, COPs should have a medium in which they can engage in discussion, peer review, and collaborative problem-solving so that meaningful feedback may take place.  Referencing a prior post in March of 2021 (Global research collaboration and the pandemic: How COVID-19 has accelerated networked learning in higher education), some notable computer-based platforms for collaborative enterprises include:

This list represents nine, powerhouse collaboration platforms, all of which rolled out between 2010 and 2020, and many of which depend heavily on the power and popularity of cloud storage or cloud computing, such that platform users may interact and build upon one another’s contributions in both synchronous and asynchronous ways.

When attempting to collaborate asynchronously, especially where coaching or mentoring is concerned, video review software can be another important tool to consider.  Teacher education programs or instructor professional development initiatives often use video review software to conduct remote classroom observations (though of course, video review may be used in a variety of fields for a variety of purposes).  GoReact is just one example of video review software.  This user-friendly review software offers users the opportunity to:

  • Record and share videos easily using any kind of device, including smart phones
  • Utilize cloud-based video storage so that recording, viewing, and grading can happen asynchronously
  • Integrate video evidence seamlessly within common Learning Management Systems
  • Give and receive time-stamped feedback on submitted video evidence, both written and recorded
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Though I could likely spend a great many more hours discussing possible platforms to use in service of online learning communities, I wish to conclude with this simple, summative takeaway: quality PD requires feedback; therefore, effective PD conducted online must have ample space for interactions to take place among participants.  It really is that simple.


Elliott, J. C. (2017). The evolution from traditional to online professional development: A review. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education33(3), 114-125. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21532974.2017.1305304

Gaumer Erickson, A. S., Noonan, P. M., & McCall, Z. (2012). Effectiveness of online professional development for rural special educators. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 31(1), 22–31.

Liu, W., Carr, R. L., & Strobel, J. (2009). Extending teacher professional development through an online learning community: A case study. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange (JETDE)2(1), https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=jetde

SpeakWorks, Inc. (2021). GoReact. GoReact. https://get.goreact.com/

Teräs, H., & Kartoğlu, Ü. (2017). A grounded theory of professional learning in an authentic online professional development program. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(7).

Did It Work!? A Brief Look at Professional Development Evaluation in Higher Education & Beyond

As I continue to dive deeper into the research related to professional development (PD) and adult learning initiatives within higher education, one aspect of PD I’ve yet to explore is the evaluation of PD.  In other words, how do we determine if a PD enterprise was successful?  Is the learning having an ongoing, meaningful impact in the workplace?  Did it make a difference? 

Image Courtesy of stock.adobe.com

In order to answer these questions, we must step back to think about two things: 1) what do we mean by ‘success’ in relation to PD (in other words, what particular indicators should we pay attention to), and 2) how/when should we gather data related to those indicators? 

As an entry point to this investigation, Guskey (2002) does an excellent job of pointing our attention to key indicators of effective PD and adult learning, as well as possible ways of gathering data related to those indicators.  These indicators (or “levels of evaluation”) are applicable for higher education instructors just as much as they are for K-12 teachers. Accordingly, Five Possible Indicators of PD Effectiveness—as I am referring to them—are summarized below: 

Indicator What’s measured? How will data be gathered? 
Participants’ Reactions Did participants enjoy the learning experience? Did they trust the expertise of those teaching/leading? Is the learning target perceived as relevant/useful? Was the delivery format appropriate/comfortable? Exit Questionnaire, informal narrative feedback from attendees 
Participants’ Learning Did participants acquire new knowledge/skills? Did the learning experience meet objectives? Was the learning relevant to current needs? Participant reflections, portfolios constructed during the learning experience, demonstrations, simulations, etc. 
Organization Support/Change Was the support for the learning public and overt? Were the necessary resources for implementation provided? Were successes recognized/shared? Was the larger organization impacted? Structured interviews with participants, follow-up meetings or check-ins related to the PD, administrative records, increased access to needed resources for implementation 
Participants’ Use of New Knowledge/Skills Did participants effectively apply the new knowledge/skills? Is the impact ongoing? Were participants’ beliefs changed as a result of the PD? Surveys, instructor reflections, classroom observations, professional portfolios 
Student Learning Outcomes What was the impact on student academic performance? Are students more confident and/or independent as learners? Did it influence students’ well-being? Either qualitative (e.g. student interviews, teacher observations) or quantitative (e.g. assignments/assessments) improvements in student output/performance, behaviors, or attitudes 
Table adapted from Figure 1.1,”Five Levels of Professional Development Evaluation” in Guskey (2002) 

It is important to note that these indicators often work on different timelines and will be utilized at different stages in PD evaluation, but they should also be considered in concert with one another as much as possible (Guskey, 2002).  For example, data about participants’ reactions to PD can be collected immediately and is an easy first step towards evaluating the effectiveness of PD, but participants’ initial reactions as reflected in an exit survey, for example, certainly won’t paint the whole picture.  Student learning outcomes are another indicator to consider, but this indicator will not be able to be measured right away and will require time and follow-up well beyond the initial PD activity or workshop. Furthermore, it can be harmful to place too much evaluative emphasis on any single indicator. If student learning outcomes are the primary measure taken into consideration, this puts unfair pressure on the “performance” aspect of learning (e.g. assessments) and ignores other vital evidence such as changed attitudes or beliefs on the part of the teacher or the role of context and applicability in the learning: 

“…local action research projects, led by practitioners in collaboration with community members and framed around issues of authentic social concern, are emerging as a useful framework for supporting authentic professional learning.”

(Webster-Wright, 2009, p.727)

In most instances, PD evaluation may consist entirely of exit surveys or participant reflections shortly after they complete a workshop or learning activity, and very little follow-up (e.g. classroom observations, release time for collaboration using learned skills) occurs into the future (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007).  This does nothing to ensure that professional learning is truly being integrated in a way that has meaningful, ongoing impact.  In fact, in their 2011 study dedicated to evaluating faculty professional development programs in higher education, Ebert-May et al. (2011) found that 89% of faculty who participated in a student-centered learning workshop self-reported making changes to their lecture-based teaching practices.  When considered by itself, this feedback might lead some to conclude that the PD initiative was, in fact, effective.  However, when these same instructors were observed in action in the months (and years!) following their professional learning workshop, 75% of faculty attendees had in fact made no perceptible changes to their teacher-centered, lecture-based teaching approach, demonstrating “…a clear disconnect between faculty’s perceptions of their teaching and their actual practices” (Ebert-May et al., 2011).  Participants’ initial reactions and self-evaluations can’t be considered in isolation.  Organizational support, evidence of changed practice, and impact on student learning (both from an academic and ‘well-being’ perspective) must be considered as well.  Consequently, we might reasonably conclude that one-off PD workshops with little to no follow-up beyond initial training will hardly ever be “effective.” 

It is also worth mentioning here that the need for PD specifically in relation to technology integration has been on the rise over the last two decades, and this need has accelerated even more during the pandemic.  In recent years the federal government has invested in a number of initiatives meant to ensure that schools—especially K-12 institutions—keep pace with technology developments (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007). These initiatives include training the next generation of teachers to use technology in their classrooms and retraining the current teacher workforce in the use of tech-based instructional tactics (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007). With technology integration so often in the forefront of PD initiatives, it begs the question: should tech-centered PD be evaluated differently than other PD enterprises? 

I would argue no. In a comprehensive and systematic literature review of how technology use in education has been evaluated in the 21st century, Lai & Bower (2019) found that the evaluation of learning technology use tends to focus on eight themes or criteria:  

  1. Learning outcomes: academic performance, cognitive load, skill development 
  1. Affective Elements: motivation, enjoyment, attitudes, beliefs, self-efficacy 
  1. Behaviors: participation, interaction, collaboration, self-reflection 
  1. Design: course quality, course structure, course content 
  1. Technology Elements: accessibility, usefulness, ease of adoption 
  1. Pedagogy: teaching quality/credibility, feedback 
  1. Presence: social presence, community 
  1. Institutional Environment: policy, organizational support, resource provision, learning environment 

It seems to me that these eight foci could all easily find their way into the adapted table of indicators I’ve provided above. Perhaps the only nuance to this list is an “extra” focus on the functionality, accessibility, and usefulness of technology tools as they apply to both the learning process and learning objectives. Otherwise, it seems to me that Lai & Bower’s (2019) evaluative themes align quite well with the five indicators of PD effectiveness adapted from Guskey (2002), such that the five indicators might be used to frame PD evaluation in all kinds of settings, including the tech-heavy professional learning occurring in the wake of COVID-19. 


Ebert-May, D., Derting, T. L., Hodder, J., Momsen, J. L., Long, T. M., & Jardeleza, S. E. (2011). What we say is not what we do: Effective evaluation of faculty professional development programs. BioScience, 61(7), 550-558. https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/61/7/550/266257?login=true 

Guskey, T. R. (2002). Does it make a difference? Evaluating professional development. Educational leadership, 59(6), 45. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=edp_facpub 

Lai, J.W.M. & Bower, M. (2019). How is the use of technology in education evaluated? A systematic review. Computers in Education 133, 27-42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.01.010 

Lawless, K. A., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2007). Professional development in integrating technology into teaching and learning: Knowns, unknowns, and ways to pursue better questions and answers.  Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 575-614.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0034654307309921 

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 702-739.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0034654308330970 

Best practices in professional development: What educational institutions might have to learn from the business sector

Though it’s generally acknowledged that education theory and practice inform adult learning and professional development activities in all kinds of domains, the connection between education research/best practices and teaching/learning as it occurs in corporate environments is perhaps less explored.  For the purposes of this investigation, I’m interested in finding exemplars of professional learning design and implementation that are taking place outside of K-12 schools and higher education institutions.  How are best practices in education being applied in corporate environments in innovative ways? Conversely, are there novel approaches to professional development (PD) and adult learning activities being used in corporate America that school systems may want to adopt for themselves? 

For starters, it may be helpful to first draw attention to some of the ways PD activities have been found lacking within education circles.  Drawing from content in my July 2021 post, Professional Development & Technology in Higher Education: What’s Working?, I’ll once again highlight the 2014 report put together by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) working on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  For this report, BCG surveyed over 1,300 stakeholders in education (teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, etc.) on topics related to PD (BCG, 2014).  Research suggested that teachers at all levels were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the majority of PD offerings made available to them.  Reasons cited included: 

  1. A disconnect between classroom observations by administrators and meaningful coaching interactions 
  1. A lack of trust or authority from those leading the PD initiatives 
  1. PD presented as an exercise in compliance instead of a meaningful opportunity for growth 
  1. Lack of opportunity for collaboration with peers  
  1. Lack of choice 
  1. Lack of relevance to immediate needs 

Suggestions for future practice included a decreased dependence on external vendors for PD workshops and increased attention to teacher-driven needs and collaboration time, as well as considerations for leveraging technology to boost collaboration and streamline workloads (BCG, 2014).  So where might we find examples of these suggestions being put into practice? Let us take a moment to see what the business sector has to offer. 

Image Source https://medium.com

One particular company “walking the walk” in PD is creative media powerhouse, Pixar.  Many will know Pixar as the studio behind the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story (1995), as well as the slew of creative, narratively diverse, visually stunning, and commercially successful animated films it has released in the decades since (Catmull, 2008).  Yet the secret to Pixar’s success, at least according to Pixar executive Ed Catmull, isn’t just having good ideas.  Rather, it’s a commitment to hiring good people and investing in a dynamic, creative, collaborative professional community, supported by meaningful and ongoing professional development.  Pixar has three operating principles which help shape its professional growth and community building (Catmull, 2008): 

  1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone 
  • Prioritize professional relationships built on trust 
  • Don’t get too invested in a hierarchical system, especially as it pertains to lines of communication and problem-solving 
  • Make it easy for people to collaborate across departments 
  1. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas 
  • Regularly share works in progress 
  • Create opportunities for peer review and feedback 
  • Consider collaboration as an essential part of problem-solving and professional growth 
  1. Stay close to innovations happening in the academic community 
  • Encourage attendance to professional conferences, publishing, and sharing work with others as is appropriate to individuals in their particular fields; this stands in contrast to bringing in outside vendors to deliver PD workshops to the whole company in a “one size fits all” approach. 
  • Pixar University: Pixar offers a collection of in-house, online PD courses responsible for training and cross-training people as they develop in their careers.  It also offers an array of optional classes that give people from different disciplines the opportunity to expand their knowledge base and personal growth, while also appreciating the expertise and contributions of others within the organization. 

If we look at the BCG findings and suggestions for future practice, Pixar seems to be doing several things “right.”  They’re providing much of their PD in-house and reducing dependence on external vendors or workshops, they’re cultivating practical avenues for collaboration and peer review, and they’re leveraging technology to provide opportunities for needs- and interest-based training through Pixar University.  They’re also investing in the company culture at large by widening avenues of vertical and horizontal communication and building trust in their workplace community. 

Regardless of the context, whether it be in a school or business environment, creating pathways towards authentic problem solving and practical application are key to effective PD endeavors. Effective adult learning offers opportunities for growth and development within the student’s context, adding value to their life and work, and ultimately giving them new skills, independence, or autonomy (Merriam, 2017).  Adult learners are often interested in “learning how to learn”—in becoming skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles in order to apply that learning in novel situations in their daily lives (Brookfield, 1995).  Consequently, adult learning should often be more problem-centered than subject-centered with a clear “so what” factor in any given learning experience (Merriam, 2017). In other words, pure knowledge transmission is not the substance of effective adult learning (or really any learning for that matter). 

This does not mean that structured courses have no place in PD. Rather, excellent examples can be found where corporations partner with higher education institutions (HEIs) to anchor structured learning experiences within real work-based problems. 

One example of this approach is described by Collis and Margaryan (2004) in relation to the Shell EP corporation, an organization primarily concerned with finding and producing oil and gas.  In this case study, Shell EP (tasked with the professional learning, growth, and ongoing training of over 30,000 employees scattered across 45 countries), began a research partnership with University of Twente, the aims of which were “…to develop, share, and apply state-of-the-art knowledge and experience relating to new forms of learning in the organization, supported by technology” (Collis & Margaryan, 2004).  Using a web-based platform for blended learning developed by the University of Twente, petroleum engineers, petrophysicists, geologists and other technical professionals from various operating units of Shell EP were brought together to collaborate on a specific problem-based PD initiative (Collis & Margaryan, 2004).  In this specific setting, the problem they tackled as part of their PD was a Health Risk Assessment (HRA), a complex task involving the assessment of possible risks to employees and/or the environment where drilling or the handling of delicate chemicals was required. HRA development was previously addressed through a knowledge transfer course model that required no collaboration among colleagues or practical applications. 

In its redesigned format, the HRA assessment was authentically performed as part of the PD course, meaning a potential health hazard was collaboratively identified by a team of coworkers, and a plan to minimize or eliminate the hazard was presented to supervisors. Some of the benefits of this approach included:  

  1. Leveraging technology to mitigate the need for employees to travel or step out of the workplace into a classroom  
  1. Building communication and collaboration skills among coworkers, even from differing fields/departments 
  1. Creating a meaningful final product which could have an immediate impact on workplace strategy, while also being saved in an employee’s personal portfolio as evidence of professional growth (Collis & Margaryan, 2004). 
Image Source: https://www.aihr.com/blog/collaboration-in-the-workplace/

Tech giant Microsoft offers us another example.  Using a similar model to the one listed above, Microsoft partners with online learning platforms like edX to provide curated professional learning experiences for their employees. In this approach, edX and participating HEIs design the courses and host the self-paced, computer-based learning experiences (including assessments and rubrics, content delivery, course completion, etc.), while Microsoft provides the specialists and integrated expert knowledge which make the course most relevant to the company’s context and industry norms.  Additionally, access to the courses are approved through Microsoft managers such that there is accountability and incentive for employees wanting to expand their professional portfolio. It’s perhaps the best of both worlds when it comes to utilizing the strengths of an external learning designer while still paying particular attention to the needs and interests of the learners within a particular company/context. 

Finally, and by way of concluding these thoughts, I’d like to offer a few final examples/approaches to PD coming out of the business world. Ripplematch, a company that matches early career individuals with prospective job opportunities, interviews, and internships, recently released a curated list of companies which (according to their estimations) offer exceptional professional development programs for their employees (Ripplematch Team, 2021).  In reviewing this list of 27 companies and their various PD enterprises, several themes emerge which reinforce the examples already discussed in this post, as well as the previously noted gaps in PD often found in education. Below you will find my own “Top 10” checklist for PD enterprises, a summary inspired by these examples from the business world: 

  1. PD learning opportunities must be customizable to make sense for individual needs/contexts 
  1. PD activities ought to be curated in-house as much as possible 
  1. PD should help open channels of communication and collaboration between colleagues both horizontally across departments, and vertically between employees, supervisors, and senior leadership. 
  1. PD should help employees better leverage technology in their work environment 
  1. PD opportunities should make space for leadership development 
  1. PD should not be considered extra work on top of established work expectations; PD activities should be embedded into existing work hours and/or should be embedded within appropriate release time 
  1. PD should offer opportunities for collaboration where learners work with each other to accomplish a shared goal 
  1. PD should be problem-based and should produce final products/solutions that are authentically useful to the workplace 
  1. PD should be accessible (often utilizing online platforms) and offered continuously 
  1. PD should allow opportunities to learn from—and be mentored or coached by—experts in the field. 

It’s my opinion that, at the end of the day, PD activities in the business world and in education share the same end in mind: to help adult learners identify goals and learn new skills to help them succeed in their work. And though it’s tempting to assume that the field of education is the ultimate authority on all things teaching and learning, it’s okay to acknowledge that, at least where PD is concerned, schools are usually falling short in their delivery. Consequently, it shouldn’t be taboo to look for exemplars of adult learning practice in other fields; there’s much inspiration and innovation to be found. 


Boston Consulting Group (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  https://usprogram.gatesfoundation.org/news-and-insights/usp-resource-center/resources/teachers-know-best-teachers-views-on-professional-development 

Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult Learning: An Overview. In A. Tuinjman (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Education. Pergamon Press. 

Collis, B. & Margaryan, A. (2004). Applying activity theory to computer-supported collaborative learning and work-based activities in corporate settings. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(4), 38-52. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02504717.pdf 

Catmull, E. (September, 2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review.  https://hbr.org/2008/09/how-pixar-fosters-collective-creativity 

Merriam, S. (2017). Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (83-96). Routledge.  

Ripplematch Team (May 9, 2021). 27 companies that offer exceptional professional development programs for entry-level employees.  Ripplematch. https://ripplematch.com/journal/article/companies-that-offer-exceptional-professional-development-programs-for-entry-level-employees-f53abebf/ 

The Role of Reflection in Professional Learning & Development

Image Source: https://www.newrow.com/7-adult-learning-principles-every-online-educator-should-know/

When considering the role of an instructional coach or any kind of professional learning facilitator, it’s important to note how their roles are both similar and dissimilar to that of a typical classroom teacher.  Both are educators hoping to assist students in reaching learning goals.  A notable difference, however, is the fact that instructional designers/coaches work almost exclusively with experienced adult learners who are already professionals in their fields.  In what ways, then, should professional learning be structured to meet the specific cultural and social-emotional needs of adult learners? Furthermore, what role can reflection have in helping to evaluate the impact of a professional learning enterprise with adult learners? 

More than any other student population, adult learners enter a classroom environment with a rich reservoir of experience, knowledge, skills, etc. to pull from in their learning.  Effective adult education, then, will take each student’s context into account as an active influence in the learning process. This may include considerations for digital literacy levels1, norms and standards in their specific professional fields, and the knowledge gained from previous years of practice in their discipline.  

Adult learning also ought to be student-directed and immediately relevant to meaning-making in the student’s world (Merriam, 2017).  Self- or student-directed learning focuses on the process by which adults take control of their own learning, and it incorporates how adults set their own learning goals, locate appropriate resources, decide on which learning methods to use, and evaluate their progress (Brookfield, 1995).  

Effective adult learning offers opportunities for growth and development within the student’s context, adding value to their life and work, and ultimately giving them new skills, independence, or autonomy (especially in Western cultures) (Merriam, 2017).  Adult learners are often interested in “learning how to learn”—in becoming skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles in order to apply that learning in novel situations in their daily lives (Brookfield, 1995).  Consequently, adult learning is often more problem-centered than subject-centered, and many adult learners will be keen to know the “so what” factor in any given learning experience (Merriam, 2017). 

Jack Mezirow, professor of adult education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a foundational researcher in andragogy, argues that adult learning should be transformative in nature; it should help adults reassess the structures and assumptions that frame their thinking so that they may, “…think critically for themselves rather than take assumptions supporting a point of view for granted” (Sutherland & Crowther, 2006). Adult learning must provide ample opportunities for critical reflection, for space and time to determine how a student’s learning is actively impacting their worldview and/or their way of being in the world.    

Let us pause here in order to focus more time on this essential component of learning theory: critical reflection.  A gap can exist between learning a skill and implementing a skill, and that gap usually has something to do with a learner’s individual values or beliefs.  A teacher, for example, may learn how to implement a teaching strategy (e.g. annotated reading) during a PD workshop, but this doesn’t mean he/she will necessarily implement the strategy in the classroom unless he/she has come to believe that it is impactful, worthwhile, and compatible with prior knowledge and experience, at least on some level (Marvel, 2018).  So how are belief systems shifted in PD enterprises such that adult learners might be more inclined to accept novel ideas into their worldview and professional practice? 

Critical reflection can help bridge that gap.  Critical reflection or metacognition—the process of thinking about one’s thinking—allows adult learners the time and space to “wrestle” with a new concept in order to, as Sutherland & Crowder (2006) suggest, think critically for themselves and avoid taking assumptions supporting a certain concept for granted. Reflection also creates space to situate learning in the big picture of work-based goals and the lifetime of learning that serves as the backdrop for any newly-acquired concept or skill.  It is not a coach’s responsibility to enforce reflection as some kind of assessment activity.  Instead, a coach may think of themselves as a guide, helping to create space and structures that allow adult learners to engage in reflection in the first place. Helyer (2015) offers some practical suggestions for what reflection guidance-in-practice might look like, and in my opinion, these are excellent reflective exercises to use at the beginning of a professional learning enterprise: 

  1. Have the learner thoughtfully reflect on a past experience wherein he/she experienced significant learning; what did that look like and feel like?  What was the outcome? 
  1. Remind learners that professional activities and the learning process are intertwined, not separate entities; we learn in the midst of action, reflection just helps us make sense of it before, during, and after. 
  1. Have learners reflect not only on their current focus of study but more generally along their life path; have them consider where they are currently situated in terms of career, personal development, and learning. 
  1. Encourage students to acknowledge what they are already good at, and to think critically about where they might have room for improvement; being self-aware is a key component to reflection. 

There are many ways to promote reflective exercises.  They can be thought, spoken, or written; they can look like mindfulness exercises, journals, or comprehensive reports; they may be oriented towards the individual, pairs, or groups; they may happen before, during, or after an active learning experience take place; they may be linear or cyclical in nature…the list goes on.  But no matter the form, all reflective exercises are worthwhile endeavors that help students make sense of their learning and situate their development properly within their life circumstances. Of course, even while acknowledging that reflection can take many different shapes2, it can certainly be helpful to have some kind of structure to act as a guide, especially where coaching is concerned.  Consequently, as a final thought in this blog post, I’ll leave you with one possible framework for reflection adapted from the work of Bain et al. (2002) by the University of Edinburgh for their “Reflection Toolkit:” The 5R framework for reflection.  This framework helps moves lerners through the key stages of reflecting—usually when reflecting back—with helpful prompt questions to ask along the way: 

Image Source: https://www.ed.ac.uk/reflection/reflectors-toolkit/reflecting-on-experience/5r-framework
  • Reporting of the context of the experience: 
  • What happened? 
  • What are the key aspects of this situation? 
  • Who was involved? 
  • What did I do? 
  • Responding to the experience (observations, feelings, thoughts, etc.) 
  • How did what happened make me feel? 
  • What did I think? 
  • What made me think and feel this way? 
  • Relating the experience to knowledge and skills you already have 
  • Have I seen this before? 
  • What was similar/different then? 
  • Do I have skills and knowledge to deal with this? 
  • Reasoning about the significant factors/theory to explain the experience 
  • What is the most important aspect of this situation and why? 
  • Is there any theoretical literature that can help me make sense of the situation? 
  • How do different perspectives (for example personal, as a student or professional) affect the way I understand the situation? 
  • How would someone who is knowledgeable about these types of situations respond? 
  • Reconstructing your practice by planning future actions for a similar experience 
  • How would I need to do this differently in the future? 
  • What might work and why? 
  • Are there different options? 
  • Are my ideas supported by theory? 
  • Can I make changes to benefit others? 
  • What might happen if…? 

1 Check out the blog post, “Coaching digital immigrants: Considerations for digital equity and inclusion” by higher education instructor Joey Freeman to explore this topic further 

2 Additional practical suggestions for metacognitive exercises may be explored here: https://resources.depaul.edu/teaching-commons/teaching-guides/learning-activities/Pages/activities-for-metacognition.aspx 


Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult Learning: An Overview. In A. Tuinjman (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Education. Pergamon Press. 

Bain, J.D., Ballantyne, R., Mills, C. & Lester, N.C. (2002). Reflecting on practice: Student teachers’ perspectives. Post Pressed. 

Helyer, R. (2015). Learning through reflection: The critical role of reflection in work-based learning (WBL). Journal of Work-Applied Management, 7(1). https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JWAM-10-2015-003/full/html

Marvel, A. (2018, June 7). The place of reflection in PD. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/place-reflection-pd

Merriam, S. (2017). Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (83-96). Routledge.  

Sutherland, P. & Crowther, J. (Eds.) (2006). Lifelong learning: Concepts and contexts. Routledge. 

Leveraging Digital Tools for Instruction Outside the Classroom: Community Engagement Project, EDTC 6102

It’s been a wonderful opportunity to invest time and energy into a project which ultimately helps me do my job better.  Though I am not currently a classroom teacher and do not have typical instructional responsibilities in my day to day work, I do constantly convey important information about the WA State teacher certification process to prospective educators, a process which can often feel overwhelming and convoluted to many would-be career changers. I feel confident that I’ve put together a blueprint for a meaningful, engaging informational session which will help students navigate the first steps of the certification process with confidence and clarity, ultimately helping them discern for themselves if becoming a teacher is the right step for them professionally at this time, and if so, how to make that a reality. Not only that, I’ve been able to think creatively about how to leverage digital tools to make the session interactive, student-centered, and practically useful to those who attend.

Lesson Plan for 60 Minute Information Session

This lesson plan is intended for a Group of 10-20 prospective graduate students using a virtual teleconference platform like Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, etc.

Note: some hyperlinks may not be accessible to all due to permissions settings

10 min.
Students will be notified of my intention to record the session and their associated rights (turning off video, etc.).

Introduce Self and Learning Objectives of Info Session:
Objective 1: learn how someone becomes a teacher in WA State and determine personal readiness to begin the process.
Objective 2: learn what program options are available at SPU and which program is best-fit for personal context
Objective 3: learn what steps to take next with an application to a teacher certification program

10 Signs That You Should Become a Teacher, opening reflection video
Interactive Presentation
20 min.
Google Slide Deck
Students will be provided with access to the Google Slide Deck in advance of the information session so that they may conduct research ahead of time or follow along independently, clicking on hyperlinks, etc. in their own browser window. I will also use it to structure the presentation of information in the session.  For those who do not choose to follow along independently, hyperlinks for interactive elements will be provided directly in the session chat.

Within the slide deck, students will be introduced to SPU’s various graduate teacher certification program options.Students will be given the opportunity to stop and reflect on what feels like their best-fit program halfway through, before new information about the application process is introduced.  They will also be given the opportunity to ask clarifying questions at this point via Jamboard.

Students will then be given detailed information about application requirements and due dates, including specific information about the endorsement verification process.  This is also a time where I intend to help students understand and navigate the various information systems which they will have to engage with throughout the certification and application process (online application, standardized tests, etc), and to what extent they’ll be expected to provide personal data in digital spaces.
Formative Assessment 10 min.Prospective students will then have the opportunity to review and test their understanding of the material via a brief, 15-question Kahoot Quiz.  This will also serve as a formative assessment tool for me, the instructor, and may help point out areas that need further clarification. There will be time to pause and address these areas while going through the Kahoot Quiz.
Performance Task 
10 min.
Students will then have the opportunity to curate a personal To Do List outlining their next steps towards an application (and thus, towards becoming a teacher).  This is a performance task that helps students indicate their understanding of the material covered in the information session, but it is also meant to be a practical, relevant takeaway for each attendee.

Students will be able to make a copy of this Google Doc Template which contains a scaffolded “word bank” of application requirements.  Students will be able to copy/paste from the word bank in order to create their own, personalized To Do List, paying special attention to their specific program needs, endorsement requirements, and chronological order (i.e. which items need attention first). I will also provide the Google Doc Template in an alternate format (i.e. Word document) for any students that need it after the session. 
Self-Assessment & Reflection
10+ min.
Shortly after providing students with the Google Doc Link, I will provide a link to the final Sticky Note Q & A w/ Jamboard so that students may ask any needed questions while they construct without interrupting the thought processes of others in the session.  They may also choose to drop questions privately to me in the chat depending on the immediacy of the need and/or group appeal of their question. 

After the allotted 10 minutes passes for list construction, I’ll also offer a final few minutes for students to review their lists and ask final questions that need resolving on the Jamboard, OR live in the video conference, time permitting. The session will be recorded and the recording will be provided to students after the information session via email. This allows students to go back and review as needed.

Throughout this session, students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding through application and self-knowledge.

  • Application: as students create their own, personally curated “To Do List” they will be able to apply their understanding of the session material by creating a useful tool that will guide them moving forward.  This includes discerning which information is most relevant to their particular context.  Students will be able to effectively navigate the various information systems which they will have to engage with throughout the certification and application process, especially in regards to the information they provide during the application process.  This also brings to mind the fact that students will literally apply to a program as part of their next steps towards becoming a teacher.
  • Self-Knowledge: students will be invited to reflect on their motivations to become a teacher, whether now is the time to take steps towards becoming a teacher, as well as what kind of program would be best suited for their needs. There will also be ample time for students to grapple with what they do not know, or what is confusing for them in this process.  The decisions they make moving forward will be rooted in the self-knowledge acquired from this session.

I do believe that the most helpful reflections on this “lesson plan” will come after I’ve had the opportunity to put it into action for the first time in a professional setting, likely in Fall of 2021. That said, One area for potential improvement that I can already identify is the curated “To Do List” platform.  Though I found some potential tools that I was interested in which might be a bit sleeker/less cumbersome than using a Google Doc, the ones I came across were not open access or would require a full account set-up in order to use them. This wouldn’t translate well to the timing and context of this particular lesson, nor the student audience (i.e. prospective students attending an information session, not students enrolled in a class).  Thus, for now, I have the Google Doc format as a bit of a place-holder.  I’m quite open to tweaking this section of my lesson in favor of a better tool later on.

In summary, this particular project was a wonderful exercise in thinking about learning and instruction on a macro level and the many ways they take place outside of a formal classroom environment. Digital tools may be leveraged in a myriad of ways to help us do our jobs better, and this was an opportunity for me to think creatively about how to bring that home in my own context. I look forward to using this session format in the next recruiting cycle!