How can coaches apply adult learning theories to develop impactful professional development and engage adult learners?
In my previous blog post, I focused my research on how coaches can use technology to design, implement, and evaluate effective professional development. Through this research, I learned the powerful impact technology can have on organizations, teachers, and students in designing PD with intention and evaluating it critically. For module two, I wanted to explore adult learning theories and better understand how coaches can apply these theories to develop impactful professional development. The first step in my research was developing a deeper understanding of adult learning frameworks or theories. I began by exploring four of the most common adult learning theories, and then I continued my research to find strategies coaches can implement to develop impactful professional development that meets the needs of these different learning theories. When researching my inquiry question for this module, my research is continuing to focus on ISTE Coaching Standard 5: Professional learning Facilitator, and more specifically, its first indicator.
ISTE Standard 5: Professional Learning Facilitator
a. Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional, and learning needs.
Common Adult Learning Theories
The first adult learning theory I came across in my research, and arguably the most well-known, is andragogy. Malcolm Knowles developed andragogy theory in 1968 to define the differences between youth learners and adult learners (Gutierrez, 2018). Andragogy theory is focused on the idea that adult learners are self-directed, demonstrate a desire to learn relevant information, and want to have a voice in the development of their learning experiences. Andragogy theory also highlights that adult learners have a wealth of knowledge and experience which guides them in their learning, and when shared, adds immense value to the learning experience of others. Karla Gutierrez (2018) emphasizes the importance of this aspect of andragogy by stating that, “As an instructional designer, you should tap into their well of experiences to help them make connections, perceive relevance, and derive inspiration” (n.p.). In reading through the assumptions Knowles developed about adult learners in his theory, I think two of the ideas that stand out to me are that adults seek learning experiences that are task-oriented and timely (Lane, 2019). Too often professional development is designed without opportunities for teachers to put learning to practice and engage in the experience in meaningful ways. Learning coaches should leverage collaboration when designing PD, providing participants training that allows opportunities to problem-solve and collaborate about developed solutions.
Another common adult learning theory is self-directed learning, which was developed by Allen Tough in 1971. Like andragogy, self-directed learning identifies that adult learners are self-motivated and take initiative in seeking out others who are able to provide support for them. Self-directed learning centers on choice and agency, providing control to the learner to guide their experience. The TEAL (Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy) Center (2011) expands on self-directed learning by saying that, “It can involve the learner in isolated activities, such as researching information on the Internet; it also can involve the learner in communication with experts and peers, as in a traditional classroom” (p.2). In thinking about self-directed learning in relation to professional development, I believe this type of learning provides immense value in agency through choice. When developing professional learning that is self-directed, it is beneficial to have a facilitator available to guide participants. While researching and learning more about self-directed learning, I immediately thought about my own experience in the using the QUEST Model for the DEL program at SPU to explore my inquiry questions. The QUEST Model has provided me with the opportunity to have choice over my learning, incorporate my learning into my daily practice, and seek out resources that connect to my learning goals.
Developed by Jack Mezirow in 1978, transformational learning theory focuses on the concept that learning is most impactful when it is transformative and learners face a “disorienting dilemma” that disrupts their perspective or view (Valamis, n.d.). As TEAL (2011) explains, “For this to happen, individuals engaging in reflective discourse need to challenge each others’ assumptions and encourage group members to consider various perspectives” (p. 2). Embedded in this learning theory is the need for critical thinking and reflective practice. Participants engaging in this learning theory are required to think critically about their practice, beliefs, and experiences. As a result of this examination, learners apply self-awareness, develop new perspectives, and create a revised plan of action for carrying out their newly acquired knowledge. While this learning theory can certainly provide profound learning experiences for individuals, it’s also important for learning coaches to recognize the criticisms and challenges with this learning theory. In developing professional development focused on transformational learning, coaches must be mindful of the impact of requiring learners to experience a “disorienting dilemma.” As I think about the potential impacts of this learning theory, I am reminded of the work of Elena Aguilar (Coaching for Equity) and Brene Brown (Dare to Lead) and the importance of recognizing the perspectives, experiences, and traumas that individuals carry. Additionally, in continuously working to center equity in my coaching, I also think about the importance of recognizing the position, privilege, and implicit bias that I bring when stepping into coaching conversations as a white male. With this learning and ideas in mind, it is important for coaches to think intentionally about the use and impact of this learning theory. Valamis (n.d.) adds that, “This type of learning will not always be relevant within an organization, and has been criticized at valuing rationality over emotion, relationships and culture, as well as being blind to context” (n.d.). Additionally, coaches must recognize that before implementing this type of professional learning, it is essential that a culture of trust and vulnerability are established.
The final learning theory that I explored in my research was experiential learning, which was developed in the 1970s by David Kolb. As is evident in its title, experiential learning focuses heavily on the importance of experience in the learning process. Figure 1 below from Sh!ft (Gutierrez, 2018) explains the four stages of experiential learning.
Similar to andragogy and self-directed learning theories, when developing PD connected to experiential learning, coaches should provide opportunities for participants to apply their learning. As Valamis (n.d.) explains, “This type of learning works well with learners who are eager to learn and in tasks that require systematic thinking or mechanical skills” (n.p.). With the implementation of this learning theory, it is also essential to provide opportunities for participants to reflect on how they can apply their newly acquired knowledge to their work.
Considerations When Developing PD
Let Teachers Drive their PD
After exploring the aforementioned adult learning theories, I continued my research to further understand how coaches can apply their understanding of these theories when developing PD. One way coaches can develop impactful professional development for adult learners is by letting teachers drive their PD through choice. Providing agency through choice and self-exploration in PD supports a variety of learning styles and lets teachers take initiative in seeking relevant learning. As Jennifer Lane (2019) explains, “By allowing the teacher to guide their own goal creation, strategy selection, and level of support, the coach is able to truly be a facilitator and partner in the coaching process” (n.p.). One way coaches can provide choice for teachers in professional development is by allowing learners to explore and find solutions to meaningful inquiry questions. Providing participants an opportunity to explore questions, seek solutions, reflect on their findings, and apply their learning can be a powerful approach to professional learning. Additionally, in two of my previous blog posts, “Designing, Implementing, and Evaluating Effective Professional Development” and “Let’s Get Personal: Personalizing Professional Development in Remote, Blended, & In-person Learning Environments,” I reference the benefits of self-directed professional development tools like choice boards. Like choice boards, professional development experiences like EdCamps also leverage the ideas of andragogy and self-directed learning theories. The purpose behind this professional learning model is to meet the learning needs of all educators, provide choice, and to encourage the creation of learning experiences with those who have shared interests.
Bring PBL into PD
Research has shown the benefits that come from implementing PBL into our classrooms. The same can be true from taking this approach to learning into consideration when developing impactful professional development. Coaches can effectively address adult learning theories by bringing project-based learning into PD through a role-reversal approach. Christopher Piehler (n.d.) helps to explain role-reversal PD. “With a broad overview of the subject matter and of what all stakeholders hope to take away when the lesson is complete. Once they are familiar with the lesson, teachers are split into groups to work through all parts of the project including an end product, which typically takes 60–90 minutes. During that time, they work through any writing prompts, perform research on devices, and hold discussions just as the students would. At the end of the session, teachers present their project to the large group” (n.p.). I think that this approach to professional development could be an effective and relevant practice for participants. In this type of PD design, it is also important that learning goals are recognizable and achievable for learners. This means starting small with shorter sessions of professional development and making the PD experience recurring. As Digital Learning Promise (2016) explains, “Ultimately, the more learners can practice in authentic situations and apply what they learn immediately, the more likely they are to develop new skills” (p. 3). As with any form of impactful PD, offering opportunities for continuous feedback and reflection will be important for participants to experience growth.
Develop Mentorship & Leverage Expertise
Another consideration coaches should take when creating impactful professional development is the power of developing and leveraging mentorship and expertise. Coaches need to consider the expertise that exists within their school community and leverage opportunities for individuals to share their wealth of knowledge. This could look like mentorship amongst veteran and new teachers, but also teacher-facilitated professional development. According to Valadis (n.d.) “Learning by example is a powerful way of accessing new knowledge, allowing learners to quickly gain information and simultaneously avoiding common mistakes” (n.p.). Some of the most beneficial and relevant PD that I have experienced has been presented by classroom teachers. When designing professional development or bringing in others to run PD, first consider the expertise that exists within their staff. There may be individuals who would love the opportunity to share their knowledge if provided the chance. Additionally, if coaches have not already established mentorship in their school, this is another impactful way to develop PD. Training through mentorship can also add the value of developing relationships, building trust, and strengthening connections across a team and/or school community.
I am continuing to grow in my understanding of adult learning theories, especially as they apply to developing impactful professional development. As coaches, how do you consider the vast learning styles of your staff? What are ways you apply this understanding when designing PD? For those who are participants of PD, what considerations do education leaders need to continue to address when developing impactful PD? Please share your thoughts and experiences, as well as any feedback or questions you have, in the comment section below.
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