Professional Development - A Better Approach?

I have heard it my entire career.  Professional development stinks.  Professional development is boring.  Professional development may be mandatory, but it’s an unnecessary hoop we have to jump through. 

In this specific case, I’m talking about PD for educators – faculty, staff, administrators, etc.  I generally haven't heard this kind of complaining in other industries, or at least not in nearly as pervasive a fashion as educators complaining about trainers / training.  It seems fair to say that there is some irony regarding educators disdain for being upskilled, trained, or otherwise educated. It also likely suggests something is terribly amiss.

Let’s not assume the dislike for training is hubris, but something else.  (Sure, every sector has those people who don't feel they could learn from someone...anyone else.)  I believe most career educators believe in lifelong learning, after all.  But what else could it be?   There are too many possible answers, but here are a few thoughts:

The first problem might center around whether the event is actually professional development.  Is it professional development to show an instructor how to use a new grading system?  I guess you might label it that way.  But process training really does not feel much like “development” of a professional.  After all, if I leave my institution, the odds of using a specific workflow anywhere else is quite low.  So while it may be necessary training operationally, let’s not confuse it with professional development.

The next problem could be that the session(s) are often facilitated by non-academics.  While educators would likely get a lot out of changing this point of view, there is still a credibility factor that some simply cannot get past.  Adding to the credibility issue is age.  A lot of schools provide PD to tenured or tenure track faculty only (leaving adjuncts without much support - but that's another blog).  That likely means training for people who are well into their careers.  Yet it is not uncommon to find a trainer / developer who is in their 20’s or 30’s.  They may actually be an academic, but without an equal or greater number of years under their belt, whether as an administrator or faculty, some academics dismiss the message.

In a similar vein, it is very interesting to me how often educators feel that the PD experience doesn’t apply as their school, department, teaching style, context, etc., is so unique.  Like the stereotype of millennials, some educators seem to feel that every college and every educator is a snowflake.  In 25 years of talking about this issue with higher ed colleagues, I would guess the most common complaint is that the training really doesn’t apply to them…seemingly regardless of what that training is about.  The “why” of training seems to rarely hit the mark.

Also ironic is that so much professional development follows the model of classroom education.  Namely, people get a lot of lecture, with only small chunks of active learning sprinkled in.  (I've literally attended PD sessions for active learning where the entire experience was a lecture...sigh.)  Trainers know it’s almost impossible to get academic audiences to pre-read (or likely post-read), so everything needs to be done in a massed, time-sensitive way.  This low-engagement methodology leads to boredom and frustration by audience members.  (Also ironic is the lack of willingness by some academic audiences to engage in active learning experiences when asked…)

This is why keynotes, workshops, and seminars are often a sea of open computers, phones, and tablets, as education audiences pass time on social media, answering email, or by watching sports.  The only thing potentially worse than that experience are the conferences attended solely to get out of the office, meaning not attended at all.  A trip happens, yes, but everyone in higher education knows of someone who goes to a conference only to sightsee, relax by the pool, or visit family. 

Is There A Better Way?

We’re going to bank on the idea that Professional Development doesn’t have to stink.  We’re going to try and showcase another way…a better way.  Here's how?

Our first Summer Leadership Academy (July 10-12 in Denver, CO) will employ a number of “different” strategies to employ better connection by administrators, faculty, staff, or even IT professionals within a higher education context.  We will get our audience to do, as we show and tell, before reviewing and asking along the way.  We will not only help people understand the nuances of critical (modern) learning research specific to Interleaving, Spaced Repetition, the Cognitive Science of learning, Varied Instruction, Generative learning, and Desirable Difficulties, but we will practice these methods at the same time. 

We will work on legitimate projects – practical, pragmatic, useful projects – that the participant will be able to take back to their school so as to help effect (meaningful) change.  In fact, we will create project groups of peers and non-peers to work through sticking points and to better work through a change management plan.  And these groups will remain connected long after the event for both support and iteration as the ideas start to take hold at the institution. 

We will leverage the crucial innovation concept of association, whereby we will expose people from their academic context to administrators and practitioners who are outside of the context.  This should result in idea generation around successful tools, resources, and implementations being transferred (also successfully) to an education context. 

In other words, we are going to practice what we preach, consume our own dog food, or any other analogies that fit.  We will build community, we will generate holistic solutions, and we will enjoy ourselves along the way.  Yes, we’ll “grease the engines” with good food, a beautiful setting, and some fun activities.  But in the end, we believe a tremendous amount of development and enrichment will take place for these professionals.  Administrators will learn how to better create models (financial, enrollment, persistence, etc) while also seeing how to better turn adversaries into champions.  Faculty will learn how to better connect student learning to desired outcomes while also seeing how to align professor, department, and executive goals.  IT professionals will learn how to create a better connected, systems-design based infrastructure and front-end, while also turning educators from customers to partners. 

Yes, that’s a lot for 16 hours of content.  I didn’t even mention the power of discovering their own strengths and how to leverage those to make more university allies, friends, and supporters.  But we believe it can be done.  We believe it will be done. 

Oh, and we would love to have you join us.  ICE Institute Summer Leadership Academy – July 10-12, 2018.

Good luck and good learning.