Professional Learning is Messy

Professional Learning is Messy

Many people say learning is messy. But is professional learning messy?

There seems to be an ongoing search by districts and teachers for the best kind of professional learning. That’s a bit like searching for the best kind of food. I appreciate the need to provide better learning opportunities but like food, there is a wide range of learning that is essential or preferred depending on the learning and the learner.

When it comes to student learning, we often hear, “hands-on” or active learning is the best. If we’re talking about professional learning, it’s similar but now we might hear about job-embedded learning as being a preferred or optimal type. Job-embedded learning is associated with results. Results are important but they aren’t the only outcomes we should be seeking in our learning. Or at least, we shouldn’t ignore that many kinds of learning occurs before results might ever be considered.

This recent quote from Will Richardson about learning makes me think:

if learning is measured by a desire to learn more, to continue learning, then the focus is on creating the conditions for that to happen

Those conditions are created in a variety of ways and indeed the new role of the educator is to design these environments. For our teachers, that desire usually doesn’t begin with a job embedded experience. Job-embedded learning is about implementing specific strategies or pedagogies. Often the job embedded approach is often a top down mandate and even when it’s not, without the desire for the teacher to learn more, the learning is in question. When I think about my own learning, I’ve experienced a plethora of events, moments and conditions that have fueled my desire to learn more. Most of my significant learning has been as a result of connecting with smart people and their passion and expertise, It’s made me want to learn more. Books, articles, conversations and lectures have all been means by which I’ve been influenced and challenged. Often times afterward, I reflect, practice and act on the ideas of these smart people. When it comes to events it’s often lectures at conferences when I get a chance to spend time just listening. The act of listening remains one of the best ways we learn, particularly when dealing with complex, engaging ideas. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to talk with them, ask questions. But more than likely, if the ideas are provocative enough, I’ll need time to reflect and revisit the ideas and then begin to implement them. The idea of job embedded is likely not the first thing to consider and yet, I don’t think there’s a recipe or order that must be followed. With all the emphasis lately on creation over consumption, I worry that we’ve forgetton how important and necessary it is just to listen to others.

Obviously as someone who frequently speaks to audiences, I would hope that what I do helps to create conditions for people to want to take action and learn more. But the truth is, I’m doing the least amount of learning. This seems to go against some folks who suggest that the person doing the talking is doing the learning. I am doing some learning, but the bulk of my learning was done before I stood up in front of an audience. That’s why I love listening to smart people. They’ve done the work, they’ve done the learning and now they’re sharing it with me.

The reality is learning is messy. Professional learning is messy too. It’s not a sequential journey. It’s a hodge podge of ideas, conversations, time to work alone, time to work together, insights from colleagues and outside voices with perspectives we’ve never before considered. Most learning is like that. Many districts and teachers hate that notion. As districts and teachers consider professional learning, I hope they get more comfortable with this messiness. I hope they’ll search out smart people to learn from and with and I hope they’ll find opportunties to embed practices and then keep going back for more ideas not because they have to but because they have a desire to grow and learn more.

This shouldn’t be seen as a lesser form of learning. And yet it seems that we’ve devalued this form but using disdain when referencing it. “Sit and git” or lecture-based learning is generally seen as the lowest form of learning. While this can’t be the only kind of learning, it remains essential for growth. Listening need not be passive. It’s only passive if the content or the delivery is boring. But good listeners can overcome some of that to glean ideas and concepts that challenge and inspire.

We need all kind of opportunities. All learning is messy. We need to recognize and create times to be quiet and times to speak, times to act and times to sit still. What smart people do you listen to, to increase your desire to learn more? How do you and your leadership create conditions and opportunities for you to listen?

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfightcc

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Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, specializing in the use of technology in the classroom. He lectures for the University of Regina and is the Community Manager of the Canadian DEN or Discovery Educators Network. Read more at