Designing Transformative Professional Learning Experiences

Business team drawing a new complex project

Whether you are an educator, leader, parent, teacher, student, what type of professional learning do you want?

Out in the field, we hear that people want professional learning that is _________ (fill in the blank).

  • Personalized
  • Differentiated
  • Engaging
  • Creative
  • Enlightening
  • Inquiry-based
  • Practical
  • Inspiring
  • Applicable
  • Online
  • In person
  • Timely and innovative
  • Transformative
  • Fun?!

We know professional learning should model the deeper learning experiences we seek to create in schools and for our students (see Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning which includes research about how professional learning can be transformative for teachers and EdLeaders and should model the experiences we wish to create, nurture and support in students).

As Jason Lange of Bloomboard wrote in New Study Reveals Trends in Professional Learning, a study has found that professional learning should be integrated, immersive, design-led, market-led and open.

Breaking this down a bit more, professional learning:

  • is connected to other aspects of the school or organizational culture
  • is blended with educators using BYOD or tech to learn
  • is focus on deeper learning experiences (that is, it should be embedded and in depth and connected to deeper goals and outcomes)
  • is scaleable
  • stimulates dialogue and conversation for truly lasting transformative experience for the learner.

So, what do transformative professional development experiences look like?

They are personalized and customized.

This means each individual (or a group) is working on their own goals related to their own personalized learning plan.

They follow, model and teach a process someone could use in the classroom.

Bottom line: Professional development should be led the way we should be teaching. If it’s not, then it’s problematic.

They are blended.

Professional learning should be BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and tech should be incorporated. We use it all the time and students do too. I once led a professional development session at a conference where two people in my workshop created an iMovie about our session topic over lunch. They came back and showed their movie to the rest of the group. This was all done from their phones. They then had a tangible product to show their staff at an upcoming staff meeting at their school. Win, win!

They are competency-based.

This means there is a clear map of competencies,  multiple ways to learn and multiple ways to demonstrate competence.

competency framework

They allow for time to create, share and reflect.

The act of creating connects the head, hands and heart which is a powerful way to learn. All professional learning really should follow the motto: Learn Something, Feel Something, Do Something. Sharing our work with others is important and powerful. Finally, as a species- we are hard-wired for reflection as a way to augment our learning. I’d argue that reflection is a critical path towards deeper learning. A 2015 study from Harvard Business Journal says that “results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning…In fact, these beneficial effects seem to be lasting. Why do reflection efforts generate an improvement in problem-solving capacity? We propose that the link between learning-by-thinking and greater performance is explained by self-efficacy, or a personal evaluation of one’s capabilities to organize and execute courses of action to attain designated goals.”

How do we do all this in professional learning?

Well, it turns out that might not be the best question. One of my favorite books on the subject of professional learning and transformation is The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters by Peter Block.

Some example “how” questions that limit us in our professional learning capacities:

  • How will we do this?
  • How long will this take?
  • How much will it cost?

Block argues that people keep asking “how?” as a defense against living their life. In the book, Block encourages us not ask the “how” questions as a crutch and limitation and instead encourages us to act on what we value. A “how” question can be replaced by questions such as:

  • What can we create together?
  • What do we value and believe to be true?
  • What kind of effort are we willing to expend based on our values and beliefs?

Block wants workplaces (schools, organizations and businesses) based on positive values and elements of choice that include mentoring, investing in relationships and realizing that individuals prosper when the whole community is prospering. Asking the “bigger picture” questions takes us out of the limiting “how” questions and into the bigger “what if” questions that allow us to design projects with meaning and act and improve on our work with a strong sense of integrity.

This is the kind of professional learning I want to design and lead and the type of professional learning I seek for my own personal and professional development.

We want to hear from you! If you have a resource or meaningful PD experience, leave a comment below.

Getting Smart offers strategic consulting, creative content and professional learning opportunities for your organization. If interested in comprehensive learner experience services, please contact Bonnie Lathram or tweet her @BeLathram.

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Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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Justin Talmadge

Good stuff, Bonnie. Teacher PD has been on my mind a lot lately, particularly in my role as an Instructional Technology Specialist, where I lead PD sessions on a regular basis. It seems we know what needs to be done to make it better ( see this Gates Foundation research but I am finding it hard to the put the theory into practice due in large part to the already demanding nature of the profession; I don't want to burden them any more than they already are (TPEP, SBAC, CCSS, etc.) Lastly, I am very intrigued by the work that Digital Promise is doing in the area of Micro-Credentials ( and feel like that is the future of teacher certification and professional growth.


Bonnie Lathram

Hey Justin. I love this. Thanks especially for linking to additional resources for our readers. Also, we are very intrigued by the work of Digital Promise as well. In fact, on Monday- look for our post about micro-credentialing and digital badges originally written by Chelsea Waite from DP and Julie Keane from VIF education. Thanks for sharing resources. I could not agree more that the profession is demanding. The approach of acting on what matters and creating cool work together (as opposed to in silos or attempting to always answer the How questions rather than the Why questions) is at least part of the innovation. I love Peter Block's book The Answer to How is Yes for that reason. Thanks again for your insights!

Z. Sharon Glantz

I call myself a content entrepreneur and fill the gap between techies and educators who may not always understand each other's goals. TRAINING OF THOUGHT: CRITICAL THINKING FOR WRITING is an evolving digital textbook/software for higher education that demonstrates how an entire curriculum can be shaped to seamlessly include interactivity and content for visual learners. The content focuses on developing creative and critical thinking skills to enhance writing through exercises, fun quizzes, simple games and other interactive activities. I'm seeking educators to experiment with this simple .pdf. The future of edtech is slowly evolving -- in the meantime, content entrepreneurs such as myself are looking at how to effectively structure content that supports visual learning, narrative learning, professional learning and other learning concepts that work.


Bonnie Lathram

Thanks for sharing your resource with us. We appreciate the work you are doing in the field. At GS, we look to create content and design knowledge in ways that add value to all types of conversations and learning. Thanks for what you are doing to add to the work also. Keep in touch, and keep reading GS for more creative content and knowledge design.


Bonnie, thank you for sharing such an informative view on professional development. I too find this to be one of the most important aspects of growth (professionally) when it comes to progressing in ones career. Many times we're so caught up in the "how's" and business aspects of the profession that we lose sight of taking care of ourselves individually. Our focus becomes more self-centered that we collaborate less. I too look for organizations that promote personal development and provide opportunities to challenge not only the individual, but the "community" as a unit. Thank you for your insight.


Bonnie Lathram

Hi there! Thank you so much for this. It's such a good point about the importance of collaboration. I feel like I need to re-learn that what we can create together is infinitely more powerful than what we create alone. Thanks for your response too. At GS, we are constantly thinking about how to illuminate the path forward with as many voices as possible. Thanks for your insights!

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