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Promises and Pitfalls of Individually Focused Professional Learning

Joellen Killion image
Joellen Killion

States and districts are deep into the implementation of their educator evaluation systems. The backbone of these programs includes competent, skillful evaluators; high and explicit performance standards; constructive feedback; and individually focused professional learning aligned to individual areas for improvement. Individually focused professional learning holds both potential promises and pitfalls.

Among the promises is the opportunity to personalize learning to address the unique needs of each educator. Well-designed and developed systems provide access to a suite of differentiated professional learning opportunities and support to change practice. The ability to meet this promise depends on a rich educator development system that uses educator, student, and system data to establish individual improvement goals. This system must also identify and make available learning opportunities aligned with all performance standards and indicators, appropriate to all grade levels, disciplines, roles, and school and district contexts within which educators work. Such a system holds the individual educator responsible for his or her own growth, development, and results.

Individually focused professional learning, while addressing individual learning needs, has potential pitfalls. First, it may contribute to less collaboration and greater fragmentation among educators within a school community as each individual focuses on his or her unique improvement goals rather than on a shared set of goals. If individual learners engage in professional learning for multiple, disconnected purposes, learning experiences may lack coherence and the effectiveness of professional learning diminishes.

Second, individually focused professional learning may promote more competitiveness among educators within a school as each vies for the top-quartile scores. A third potential pitfall is pushing educators outside their community for expertise rather than tapping the expertise and contextually appropriate practices that rest within. Shared expertise and increased collaboration promote shared learning and collective responsibility for the success of their colleagues and all students. In addition, collaboration minimizes variance in the quality of teaching and learning across classrooms.

To avoid the potential perils inherent in individually focused professional learning, leaders, both administrators and teachers, must

  • Cultivate strong cultures and systems that support collaborative learning;
  • Demand public declaration of individual goals for growth and development;
  • Coordinate professional learning within teams of learners with like goals;
  • Orchestrate sharing of learning across individuals to improve the practice of all educators; and
  • Hold all members of a team responsible for the successful achievement of individual goals.

Supervisors can also require individual professional learning plans to include collaborative or shared learning with colleagues to expand the effectiveness of the whole rather than just the individual. Professional learning that occurs when educators share their learning, model effective practices, and engage in shared problem solving, creates powerful spillover effects that expand the impact of professional learning.

Individually focused professional learning supports individual growth and development. However, with small adjustments, it can be a powerful force to promote collective learning within communities committed to the success of every educator and every student.

Joellen Killion
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward
@jpkillion

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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