Reconsidering Professional Learning

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor and Professional Development Coordinator at The Ohio State University Libraries, Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring

 

“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future, while the learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer

 

In the midst of the myriad of specialized seminars, webcasts, webinars, short courses, institutes, and other venues and formats for advanced, continual learning, it is, almost certainly, an unusual circumstance to write about professional learning as a separate topic. The overwhelming abundance—especially in this pandemic-inflected and teleworking year—of face-to-face events—conferences, workshops, and institutes—have converted to virtual formats and occasionally gained traction with their intended audiences. Despite the shift to online or hybrid formats, the hyper specialization within our library profession continues: the opportunities advertised on listservs, websites, twitter feeds, and in organizational forums abound for continued learning in archival work, intellectual access and description, data visualization, geospatial projects, digital scholarship projects, information literacy and virtual instruction, and reference and research support. Leadership training offers appear regularly as well, in addition to engagements of various types on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. The offerings are legion.

How to engage in sense-making as professionals, among this welter of opportunities? Do we construct tracks or thematic threads among these opportunities? How do we make the best choices among them? Can we learn from them in an ideal way that benefits ourselves, and also our organization? Do these professional development opportunities create real value, or are they just “check boxes” to note on an annual report or a resume? Can they be organized collectively to augment organizational learning? These are questions many are reflecting on across higher education, as we ponder our current pandemic work lives, and consider possibilities for returning to whatever “normal” looks like in the future.

These questions are compelling ones, but I am stepping back from them here to offer a broader view of professional learning in our organization, and more generally, in the library profession. I take for inspiration some readings of several key texts outside the library field altogether, because I have found our own LIS literature offers only rare examples of what we need to think about collectively about this ever-more-important topic. In doing so, I relate this particular topic of “professional learning” to the separate but related one of “organizational learning.” I also relate here some highlights from conversations with colleagues, who have informed my own thinking in this arena.

At the outset, I want to point out an important distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” For many years, the former term was used, to convey a continuing focus on gaining competencies, knowledge, skills, and awareness of new trends, technologies, and areas of practice, through a series of discrete “updates”: one-off events designed to offer the professional continuing education credits (CEUs), certifications, or other external signs of completion of a particular series of events signifying new knowledge or skills gained. This “professional development” model is familiar across all professions, and certainly in the library field we’ve used the term frequently and have sought to incentivize colleagues to participate in it. However, over time, a newer term “professional learning” has begun to supplant the previous one. The reasons are complex, but underpinning it are theories of adult learning and ideas about professional growth spanning a career, through developing the self individually but also in community with others. The shift from “development” to “learning” also suggests a change from a deficit model—where the individual lacks expertise or is deficient in some way—to an empowerment model—where the individual brings pre-existing knowledge to a new learning opportunity and engages in more complex learning and self-development with others. Learning in community and building shared knowledge together is now the new aspiration. Cohorts, learning communities, reading circles, communities of practice, and other learning-focused groups honor the expertise and knowledge of each group member amplifying that expertise and knowledge communally, building new understandings and opening up new questions for the group to investigate together.

The shift from “professional development” to “professional learning” is more than a semantic one: it signifies the important principle of “self-authorship,” drawn from adult learning theory (Kegan & Lahey; Baxter-Magolda). Individual professionals create their own meanings and are responsible for their own identity formation over time, whether working with a mentor, with colleagues in a cohort, through attending formal training, or through multiple work-placed based conversations and informal learning opportunities as part of their daily practice. It is the learning, and continuous learning that matters, not the externally mandated “development” requirement for CEUs, certifications, or other formal requirements. Professionals control their own destiny, not through pure autonomy, but through their own choices over time that inform their practice and their professional growth with others. They reconstruct their mental universes in concert with colleagues and continue to ask questions about what they don’t know and need to learn to become better in their professional lives.

In our library field, we are very adept at providing multiple learning opportunities through conferences, webinars, institutes, and workshops, but we don’t provide often enough those opportunities for self-reflection and a visioning of self-authoring according to the theory of Kegan and Lahey. However, we also do not amplify grassroots knowledge and practice sufficiently (though the recently developed Library Collective conference is an exception), and we don’t provide enough interdisciplinary professional learning opportunities. Too often, we remain locked within functional silos that impede real learning across our organizations and across our profession. We need to take note of other models developed by Student Life organizations (like communities of practice focused on a particular aspect of student life) and by Centers for Teaching and Learning where professional learning communities—sometimes called faculty learning communities—are a well-known venue for faculty learning and interdisciplinary conversations about teaching improvement.

Ann Webster-Wright investigated professional learning across professions in depth and found that the most effective professional learning is not accomplished through externally imposed “add on” events or through didactic workshops or lectures. Instead, based on interviews with professionals in a variety of fields, she found that authentic professional learning occurs through both informal and formal learning opportunities, and is situated, contextual, social, and sustained over time. Real professional learning occurs through a seamless blend of conversation, questioning, training, mentorship, reading, listening within the context of the work environment, though formal training opportunities may augment those ongoing learning opportunities that are “moment to moment” and ongoing. Webster-Wright’s investigations suggest that asking about the lived experiences of professionals—what works best for them, where have they learned most deeply in the past—should inform ongoing plans for professional learning. Such an approach calls for commitment around genuinely engaging learning where individuals or cohorts themselves are empowered to investigate and learn together—as opposed to compliance mandates for training.

Webster-Wright provides several approaches to professional learning focused on authentic learning. She suggests that one specific method for professional learning is “action research,” which amplifies both individual and collective learning, and involves a kind of practical investigation into one’s practice, one’s work, based on a gap, a hypothesis, some informal data collection, an inquiry into an improvement process, or a change in practice. She places this kind of activity within a larger array of “professional practice knowledge.” This is a repertoire of personal traits, ethical codes, technical skills, situational and propositional knowledge, and professional judgment that develops within the context of professional growth. Beyond the individual, “professional knowledge landscapes” convey the organic complexity of the fields of activity that can be integrative based on interests of individuals that also amplify strategic goals of the organization. Such profession-wide landscapes are important for managers and leaders to ponder, to understand, and to cultivate for the greater good.

What are the implications for this perspective on professional learning (as individuals) for organizational learning? How can the “professional knowledge landscapes” described in Webster-Wright’s research be turned into specific programs for organizational learning? The second part of this post (forthcoming in May) will present some options for change based on other scholarship and thinking beyond libraries, and further afield from higher education itself.

 

Sources

Baxter Magolda, M. B.. Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2001.

Baxter Magolda, M.B.  Authoring your life: Developing an internal voice to navigate life’s challenges. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.   An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization.   Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2016.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.   Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2009.

Webster-Wright, Ann.   “Reframing Professional Development Through

Understanding Authentic Professional Learning,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 79, no. 2 (June 2009), pp. 702-739.  DOI: 10.3102/0034654308330970

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