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.



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

Living in Liminality

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor & Professional Development Coordinator and Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring


During this pandemic-inflicted year (or more), all of us have experienced a range of experiences, emotions, interactions, hopes, and fears as we’ve thought about our work—our practice as professionals and as members of the university community. Time itself has become an uncertain and radically more subjective space, with the markers of days and weeks and signposts of events blurring, with some recognizable features but with more uncertainty and searching for stable milestones in our work and in our personal lives. Commentary on this uncertainty appears often in major media outlets, in blog posts, and in articles and books. We are living in an unmoored space, seeing each other across virtual meetings in Zoom rectangles, through phone calls, in emails, and occasionally in person, but the reality of teleworking for many of us has lessened connection and also presented opportunities for reflection on the uncertainties enveloping us.   We are living, in effect, in a “liminal space.”

I am pointing to the idea of “liminality” here to raise some important issues about our work with our students and faculty. I first learned about this notion of “liminality” while co-chairing an ACRL Task Force, the one that created the Framework for Information Literacy, the generative and often controversial document that continues to cause interest, some disagreement, and productive discussions among teaching librarians. The theory behind the Framework, Threshold Concepts theory, posits that students or novices must learn the foundational and often counterintuitive ideas in any discipline by traversing a “liminal” space with uncertain markers and guideposts, with many questions, with unsettling ideas, that may upend students’ comfortable, unquestioned, and previously naïve conceptions about the discipline. The student must live with uncertainty for an extended period, the theory goes, in order to emerge with greater understanding of that field, its ways of thinking, the way its scholars and experts talk and write, their habits and signaling and the accepted norms of professional communication within the field. Only in moving through that emotionally challenging and difficult space of liminality can the student emerge as an expert, or at least more expert-like in habits of mind, and in understanding the big ideas of the discipline that organize the mental universe of the field. The student may oscillate between more expert-like thinking and revert to earlier naïve notions while in the liminal space, and that traversing through the fog of uncertainty is necessary for the pain of learning to occur.

I well recall, during one of the rich conversations in our ACRL Task Force, that one of the early adopters of Threshold Concepts theory in our profession observed that “threshold concepts themselves are a threshold concept for our profession.” She remarked on the collective “liminal space” that teaching librarians were living through in even considering this theory and adapting it to their teaching practices. Questions abounded during those years during virtual open hearings and at ALA conferences, and at other events, about our teaching role: how can these very complex ideas possibly be taught in our one-shot instruction sessions, which are our bread-and-butter approach to instruction?  How can we possibly assess learning outcomes for these messy, complicated ideas?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on the specifics of teaching databases and style guides and the immediately useful information students need for assignments given by faculty? How can our limited opportunities for teaching possibly reach for programmatic development if we tie ourselves to a theory developed outside the library profession, that many faculty hadn’t even heard of? These questions, among many others, challenged me and others, but we grappled with them, and understood that we were in our own liminal space in effecting change at scale across the profession. We made changes in multiple versions of the Framework through listening, responding, respecting a wide range of perspective offered by colleagues, while keeping our core principles about the emerging Framework before us. It was, as we often say, a learning experience.

I reflect now on the liminal space we’ve been traveling as a profession since the idea for the Framework first emerged from our Task Force’s discussion eight years ago, and see greater understanding of shifts in our teaching role because the Framework has provoked so much discussion, debate, and reflection. Some institutions have adopted it readily and have created structured curricula, partnering with Writing Programs, based on its elements of threshold concepts, knowledge practices, and dispositions. Others have taken parts of the Framework and created assignments or specific courses based on its elements. Some have adhered to an older—and in my view, outdated– set of Information Literacy Standards created over twenty years ago, which do not address the information challenges of this time. Among these are the authority/expertise problem, the reproducibility and data fraud problem in many science and social science fields, the misinformation/trust problem in media environments, the ideology/truth claim problem occasioned by Critical Theory in some humanities, the algorithmic mysteries of search engines and social media, and a general attention problem because of the bursts of information coming at us in our professional and personal lives. Sense-making as professionals about our teaching role as librarians is more challenging than ever in these times.

However, the liminal space we continue to traverse together offers opportunities for learning together. I have learned, through conversations and discussions with colleagues here and elsewhere, that our teaching role, whether based on the Framework or not, needs to be reimagined. We will need to navigate a difficult space of teaching in more traditional ways, face-to-face, in single instruction sessions, while planning for, and reaching toward, larger and deeper partnerships that build larger communities of practice for pedagogical innovation. We need architectures for deeper learning, multiple pathways that produce integrative learning, across longer trajectories of learning, in order to effect deeper educational change. The lesson from liminality here, for our profession, is that the uncertainty created by myriad disconnected one-shot sessions that don’t build toward something larger, leaves us in instructional limbo, in a service provider role, that of the occasional lecturer or guest presenter. Such a role matters, but what can be imagined based on it matters more: that of educational partner—in designing assignments and curricula, in joining communities of practice related to teaching development such as those sponsored by the Drake Institute at Ohio State, or in joining groups sponsored by academic departments reorganizing General Education courses, or in creating new ones founded on partnerships. The educational partnership role is vital for our continued success.

Another lesson learned from the liminal space opened up by the Framework is that the technocratic perfectionism of lesson plans and learning outcomes clearly specified, based on the previous Information Literacy Standards (or any other set of Standards), do not achieve the deepest learning possible, and don’t support the wide variability among students. We have learned much about assessment in our profession in the past decade, with proliferating presentations and articles about it, but learning outcomes that eliminate the spontaneous, the charged luminous moment in the classroom, the too-carefully managed activity, often remove the possibility for learning. Our students need to learn the vagaries and uncertainties of the research process, and too often our presentations and lessons are too “packaged” to give them that reality—the challenges of living with liminality themselves in working with disciplinary ideas in concert with information literacy concepts. A good example is teaching how to formulate a research question that is “researchable”: this is the reality that scholars and researchers grapple with all the time, but their expertise allows them to move quickly to another line of investigation, a reframed question, a new population, another perspective.   Students need to be taught in depth that “Research is Inquiry” (one of the Framework’s big ideas), and to modify questions and develop better ones as they work through dead ends and uncertain lines of investigation. Only the extended experience of liminality disciplines their minds and their habits to develop better questions worthy of inquiry. That extended experience of productive liminality can only be provided by thematic connections provided by the Framework, or other uber-concepts, across time, as students grapple with those ideas together and with faculty working with them—not necessarily always as unquestioned experts, but as co-learners.

Another lesson from liminality in working on the Framework, and in reconsidering our teaching role in working with disciplinary faculty, is that faculty themselves are often the most neglected learners on campus (Rossing and Lavitt). Surely this is a counterintuitive “threshold concept” in itself! After all, faculty are highly educated, are experts in their field, have published extensively, conducted multi-year scholarly projects, have presented at conferences, and have sustained professional conversations with colleagues worldwide about the leading-edge questions in their fields. However, most faculty learn about teaching, if at all, episodically, and they are neglected learners in the sense that they often teach in solitude and may lack the time and commitment to make their expertise and knowledge more accessible to students and to a wider public.    Professional learning programs offered through Centers for Teaching and Learning on many campuses, and through the Drake Institute at Ohio State, provide opportunities and venues to create community and collective learning to make that knowledge come alive for more students, with more diverse students, and to a wider community, and enliven interdisciplinary conversations that create a more vibrant intellectual climate. How can librarians become part of those interdisciplinary conversations? We need to learn, more deeply than before, how scholarly conversations and influence work, how faculty are incentivized, and learn the language of complexity within disciplines, but also across them. Our teaching role in communities of practice, in research partnerships such as those offered by the Office of Research at Ohio State, and in many “small significant conversations” on campus (Roxa and Martensson), can coalesce to help us, with our partners, move through our collective liminal space toward a reinvigorated community—beyond this pandemic time, but more importantly, toward a revitalized time of real community where all contribute and make learning more sustained and vibrant for all who teach and learn together.

Sources for further reading

Rossing, Jonathan P., and Melissa A. Lavitt. “The Neglected Learner: A Call to Support Integrative Learning for Faculty.” Liberal Education 102, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 1–10.

Roxå, Torgny, and Katarina Mårtensson. “Significant Conversations and Significant Networks—Exploring the Backstage of the Teaching Arena.” Studies in Higher Education 34, no. 5 (2009): 547–59.