A Simple Formula for Planning Your Next Professional Learning Initiative

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June is all about endings and beginnings. Most of my days are spent debriefing professional learning initiatives I’ve facilitated in schools throughout the year or planning new ones beside the administrators and teachers I get to serve each day. I love the clean-slate feel of this kind of work, but it isn’t without its challenges.

It’s easy to slide into design mode rapidly when needs are put on the table, but if I’ve learned anything over the last decade, it’s this: planning successful professional learning initiatives is less about the stuff of staff development and more about the health of the system I’m serving. What follows is a formula distilled from all of that learning, for which I have to credit my friends at Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change. The content of this post is adapted from their thinking and work.

A simple formula for better professional learning


1. The state of your system and the design of your program will make or break your vision.

What is your vision of the learner and learning environment you hope to produce? Define this as clearly as you can, and as you move through the rest of the process, bump every decision you make up against this definition. For instance, if your goal is to produce motivated teachers who are self-directed in their learning, how will your leadership approach need to change? What will it take to truly cultivate a growth mindset? How will your program design need to shift in response to this? When I fail to attend to this type of alignment, all is lost. Rapidly.

2. Consider the system before you design.

I’m an idealist. I know the power of teacher and student designed curriculum, project based learning, and integrating technology in ways that inspire global connections and learning. I’m also a realist who has learned the hard way how to consider the system before the design.

For instance, I can hope that a district will provide me abundant time and resources to design in complete alignment with my ideals. I can also hope that the staff and students I’m working with not only share them, but have abundant energy to pursue them. What happens when this isn’t the case though? What are the unintended consequences of establishing professional learning outcomes that the system isn’t prepared to pursue?

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that I need to do a better job of assessing the strengths and needs and readiness of systems before I even consider program design. These are the elements that I attend to: capacity, commitment, culture, and consequences. I call these elements the four Cs, and future posts will provide clarity around what each means and how I try to assess it.

3. Approach professional learning program design as an iterative process.

Begin by empathizing with those who will be impacted most by the work. Access their voices, assess their needs. The insight you gain must shape your program design and approach. Brainstorm a variety of professional learning outcomes, and craft proposals, not plans. Share them with others, get their feedback, and adjust in response to what you learn.

Once you have a solid prototype in place, know that you must test it. Study the impact of your professional learning initiative on the system. Assess its impact on administrators and other leaders, teachers, and students. Most importantly, consider how this learning and work is influencing your understandings and practice.

This formula grounds me in reality when I need it most. The beginning of any professional learning experience is typically filled with promise. People are excited, and it is easy to take a quick dive into planning. Leading with vision, attending to the strengths and needs of the system I am supporting, and approaching program design as an iterative process is crucial to our initial success. Still, I find that sustaining great learning and work is an incredible challenge.

I hope you’ll join me as I continue unpacking this formula over the next week or so right here at Brilliant or Insane. I’m eager to hear about your own experiences with professional learning program design, and I’d love to talk more about the questions we should be asking education consultants. Push my thinking a bit. I’ll catch up with you in the comments.

Meanwhile, tell your Facebook friends about this, and let’s see what they think.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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