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8 Approaches From Other Industries for Improving Professional Learning

Eric Celeste
Eric Celeste

How important is professional learning to solving education challenges? A clue can be found in the following fact: A U.S. Department of Education analysis of 49 state equity plans found that improving or expanding professional learning was the most common identified strategy for eliminating equity gaps (U.S. Department of Education Office of State Support, 2015).

This shouldn't be a surprise, as high-quality professional learning and increased growth opportunities for educators are increasingly identified as core strategies in helping overcome everything from teacher shortages to workplace diversity to poor student outcomes.

But it's important to remember that this focus comes in the wake of a longtime workplace emphasis on the benefits of professional learning outside education. In fact, worker training in the U.S. is a $400 billion industry (Carnevale & Smith, 2013).

It only makes sense, then, that those designing high-quality professional learning systems take best practices from other professions. In Looking Outside Education: What School Leaders Can Learn About Professional Learning From Other Industries, a report co-published by Learning Forward and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, we do just that. Taking lessons from the fields of psychology, business, medicine, law enforcement, and the military, Looking Outside Education examines eight approaches to professional learning and growth adaptable by school and district leaders.

A quick overview of the approaches:

Growth mindset: A culture in which the hiring, rewarding, and retention of those who value continuous improvement and learning is apparent. (Example: Hiring for potential rather than experience.)

Deliberately developmental organizations: These are companies that encourage employees "to use weaknesses as opportunities for growth" and to own mistakes -- a concept that dovetails with a growth mindset. One applicable example: One business created an internal documenting system where employees can log mistakes and discuss how to learn from them.

Simulations: The first of two suggestions tied to technology, simulations are used effectively in high-stress fields like medicine and law enforcement to practice responses to critical situations. One education simulation platform originally funded by the U.S Department of Education has proven helpful in improving teacher classroom management and is now used in more than 150 countries.

Video review, reflection, and coaching: Although recording lessons is not new in education, advances in technology have made this approach even more relevant. Video conferencing technology makes it easier for peers or coaches to offer quick feedback and makes scheduling more convenient, given teachers' busy schedules.

Ongoing, role-specific training and support: The Army's leadership development strategy is in part a "career-long synthesis of training, education, and experience" (Odierno, 2015, p. 10). This means that training is not just for the job one has but that one will assume -- a help in overcoming challenges often found when teachers change grade levels or move into teacher leader or administrative roles.

Context-relevant training and support: Again looking to the Army, which constantly modifies its training to reflect the world's shifting geopolitical relationships, so, too, can educators alter support systems to reflect changing social and political realities of their neighborhood, system, state, or country. (Examples: an increasingly wired student body; the increase of majority-minority student populations.)

Mentoring and sponsorship: Education has a long history of mentorship. In this context, the report looks specifically at how the business and finance world has worked to use mentoring and sponsorship to increase its underrepresented populations. (In the case of business, women and minorities; in education, men.)

Employee resource groups: This focuses on affinity groups, most of which began as social organizations, that the report notes "have evolved into groups charged with strategic goals and tasks." (For example: leadership groups for women, Spanish-speakers, or veterans.)

Read the entire report for its in-depth analysis of each approach and the discussion of how they can be incorporated into education environments. Looking Outside Education offers a new perspective on how other professions leverage professional learning and growth opportunities to build capacity. We're eager to learn how school and district leaders apply these lessons in their efforts to increase equitable access for all students.


Carnevale, A.P. & Smith, N. (2013). Workplace basics: The skills employees need and employers want. Human Resource Development International, 16(5), 491-501.

Odierno, R.T. (2015). Leader development and talent management: The Army competitive advantage. Military Review, 95(4), 10. 

U.S. Department of Education Office of State Support. (2015, July 30). All in: Achieving results together. Presentation made at Combined Federal Programs Summer Meeting, Washington, DC.

Eric Celeste ([email protected]) is associate director of publications at Learning Forward.

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