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Learning Matters: The What, Why and WOW of Effective Professional Development

Learning Matters: The What, Why and WOW of Effective Professional Development

By Debra Christopher, MSM | March 31, 2015
Director, Professional Learning Systems, ETR

Are you a learning specialist? A teacher, trainer or technical assistance provider? In other words, are you charged with teaching people to do something they have never done before? Or do something differently? Or do something better? If so, I hope you will read on.

Understanding the What, Why and WOW of effective professional development is going to help you do better in your work.

What: Define Learning

How do you define learning? Here’s a snazzy definition I really like:

The process of acquiring modifications in existing knowledge, attitudes, skills, behaviors or tendencies through experience and practice. This involves an ongoing process of cerebral pathway building.

Simply put, learning takes place (either intentionally or unintentionally) when an experience and/or practice creates a change. That change can be life-enhancing…or not.

Over the years, our terminology for providing a learning process for adult learners has morphed from “training” to “staff development” to “professional development” (PD). This has been a helpful transition. The term “training” tends to make us think of a one-time event and a one-way street (“Let me tell you what you should know”).

We’ve become more sophisticated in our understanding of the human brain and what it takes to engage and motivate learners. Learning organizations such as ETR have wisely begun to look at research related to adult learning. As a result, we’ve recognized even more clearly that true learning occurs as a process over time, not as a result of a one-time event.

The amount of time needed in the learning process depends on context and the complexity of the content/skills being taught. When the content being shared is simple and concrete, it might lend itself to a keynote or information session—material that could be covered in one or two hours. For example, in that space of time, learners could explore the content and call-to-action in this “What-Why-WOW” column and consider its relevance to their own work.

However, where the learning  process involves more complexity—for example, how to deliver a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum to adolescents—a best-practices process will take place over the course of many hours or  multiple days.

Why: Learning About Learning

This process matters! And our commitment to effective PD is an absolute cornerstone of our philosophy and practice. Why?

Because our work and our mission are about change.

Because we have an obligation to influence the health and well-being of young people by working effectively with the adult learners who touch their lives.

Because when we do our work well, we have the capacity to reduce health risk behaviors in our learners (adults and/or young people) .

Because we can no longer ignore the field’s well-supported portfolio of best practices for professional development. To ignore them would be neither practical nor ethical.

Because we are capable of elevating our PD practices. We can do better. It’s time!

So Now the WOW!

How lucky we are! We have the knowledge and power at our fingertips to influence this type of change. Neuroscience, cognitive science and implementation science are all feeding us new and exciting information that we can gobble up and operationalize in our PD delivery.

We have the tools, templates, techniques and technology we need to elevate learning. Our challenge is to get out of those traditional roles and “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mode. We need to change what we do. We need to stop pretending that short, one-time-only snippets of training do the job. Instead, let’s advocate for the time needed for real learning to take place.

Is it quick? No.

Is it easy? Not at first. But once you get the hang of it, it’s smooth sailing! ETR’s trainers can attest to this. We’ve gone through a rigorous re-evaluation of practices and found ways to change—and elevate—some of the best trainings out there.

Is it popular? Not yet. But it will be.

Is it gratifying? Completely!

Our Call to Action

So here’s my challenge to all of my learning specialist comrades (a.k.a. change agents). Let’s collectively embrace best practice and elevate our professional development by taking action. I suggest the following:

  • Speak up! Advocate for high-quality professional learning practices!
  • When designing your learning processes, use a distributive learning approach. Expect learning to take place over time. Create a number of “touchpoints” for your learners.
  • Advocate for ample time to deliver research-based learning processes. Don’t give in to those who push for “quick and easy.” It’s a dreadful waste of time and resources. It can also mislead learners into believing they’re following best practices and having an impact when they’re not.
  • Learn as much as you can about the human brain. Apply what you learn to your work. Make sure the resources you draw from are reputable sources.
  • Reach out to other learning specialists for support and encouragement. We are in this together.

ETR’s Commitment

ETR has a deeply held belief that true learning matters and that the field’s work should be informed by best practices in science-based learning. Over the coming months our Learning Matters column will focus on a set of research-based design elements which, when used effectively and collectively, set the stage for creating genuine change and true learning.

These research-based design elements include:

  • Clarity of Intent
  • Sufficient Time Allotment
  • Pre-Assessment
  • Pre-Work and/or Homework
  • Learner Assessment of Validity/Content Validity
  • Participant-Centered Learning Environment
  • Cognitive Engagement (this is a big one!)
  • Follow-Up Support

We’ll provide some general guidance on each and, when appropriate, share aligned resources. In addition, we’ll provide guidance on how to operationalize these elements in both in-person and virtual settings. 

Stay tuned! Join in. Let us know what you think. And don’t forget our mantra: Learning Matters!

Debra Christopher, MSM, is Director of Professional Learning Systems at ETR. Contact her with questions and ideas at


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