The Future of Professional Development

I was asked to write in this month's Leadership+Design newsletter on the question, "what’s the future of professional development?"

I think we should reframe that question, and ask ourselves: what is the future of learning environments? After all, we should respect educators by putting the same thought into their experiences that we put into student learning.

Here’s what happens at schools of the future: learning is relevant and personal to the learner. It’s developed through hands-on, authentic activities that bridge the gap between theory and practice. It’s constructed through dialogue, where each learner can build on the ideas of others.

The future of professional development, similarly, is real-world and learner-centered. But compare those principles to the last professional development event you went to: the norm is death by PowerPoint and rows of interlocking chairs facing a speaker.

While I enjoyed the recent NAIS conference in Baltimore, the best parts are always the chance encounters that happen in convention center hallways and hotel foyers. It’s why I pay too much for drinks in hotel bars after the formal sessions I’m ostensibly there to see.

With that in mind, I offer three principles for future-focused professional development:

Design for chance encounters. When the Gates Foundation designed its new headquarters in downtown Seattle, they built deliberately wide stairwells in the hope that it would allow conversations between team members who run into each other on their way to different silos. This is the “happy hour principle” - one reason the shared spaces at a conference, like lobbies and bars, are the most provocative.

When we designed Traverse at Watershed School, built on this design insight: what if we extended the interstitial times between formal sessions, making chance encounters between other activities a design principle? We scaled our event at a level (no more than 100 attendees) where everyone could have a meaningful connection with other participants they had never met. Salon dinners, happy hours, and yoga sessions alternate with organized, hands-on expeditions. Home groups allow newly formed cohorts to debrief at designated spaces. The result is an experience where people leave with new collaborators.

Honor the law of two feet. One of the best parts of the last NAIS conference was the speed innovation session, where eight schools presented 15 minute mini-sessions on core innovations at their school. Like an unconference or edCamp, participants could see what was happening and go wherever felt most relevant. They could stay for the whole mini session or easily pivot if the topic wasn’t what they expected. This radically de-centered professional development allows for flexibility in the moment - and also allows you to feature the many different kinds of expertise in your community.

We have recently begun using this format in Head’s meetings at the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS), where I serve on the Professional Development Committee. By providing a container for adult learners to go wherever feels most relevant, you can reduce planning time while increasing engagement and satisfaction.

Mind the gap. Here’s what gap between theory and practice looks like in professional development: teachers shaking their head as they exit, telling themselves: we just can’t do that at our school.

Just as the debrief is a regular part of expeditionary learning at Watershed School, great professional development includes time for reflection. This means unpacking the emotional impact of an experience, thinking about how we can transfer ideas to different grade levels and contexts, and creating an action-plan with your team. It’s not enough to encourage people to debrief once they get home: once the plane lands back home, everyone’s inbox explodes and it’s too late.

At Leadership+Design events like the 4D Studio coming this summer, we create time for team cohorts to think through transfer and make a plan they can share with others. As John Dewey is apocryphally reputed to have said, we don’t learn from experience; we learn by reflecting on experience.

Adults deserve to be honored as learners, and the same intentional design that drives our work with students should drive our work with colleagues. Let’s all step away from the slide deck, put educators at the center of the experience, and create the dynamic environments that spark action and learning for our teams.