Re-thinking Professional Development

CC courtesy of flickr photo contributed by nervivo.

CC courtesy of flickr photo contributed by nervivo.

I have typed this post up a few times and every time it seems too long, too academic and too boring. With that said, I do want to reflect a bit on my last two years of graduate work and share some of my work (for those interested). I have found myself consistently drawn to the topic of professional development, a term I find to be negative and rooted in believing that teachers need to be fixed. I prefer the term professional learning, but that is another post.

What I have become to believe is that professional learning today, strips teachers of their professional autonomy and agency, that improvements in the name of action research and Professional Learning Communities are steps in the right direction, but continue to view schools and school systems as hierarchal linear systems that do not consider the unique context in which teachers and schools work. Attached I have shared a paper that I wrote (some have asked that I share) that builds on these ideas, really the literature review and findings are probably the key places to look. Below is also the abstract to give you an idea of things.


For too long teachers have had little say in the direction and means of their own professional learning. In fact, the term professional learning is often substituted with the term professional development and based on a deficit model. Traditional professional learning opportunities often times do not account for context, prior knowledge & understanding or allow the teacher to deviate from the group. By acknowledging school districts as complex adaptive systems rather than linear systems, I will argue that when proscriptive rather than prescriptive conditions are established, teachers and schools are empowered to make context specific decisions and that patterns will emerge in order to inform whole system directions. Any move towards a model of professional learning based on the principles of complexity however, need to be well supported by leadership. Leaders in this model will be required to have a strong understanding of the necessary conditions that allow for self-organization and emergence to occur. This paper is designed to provoke discussion amongst, teachers, school based and school district leaders while also providing tangible steps that could be taken to realize this model for professional learning.

Keywords: complexity, professional learning, complex adaptive systems, leadership

Complexity and Professional Learning


2 thoughts on “Re-thinking Professional Development

  1. Matt, unfortunately your frustrations are common place in virtually all large institutions. Flattening the organizational structure is maddeningly difficult. Those at the top of the hierarchy don’t want to strip themselves of any power. On the contrary – most strive for more.

    I ran across an article about the problems the Minneapolis School Board is having and think it’ll shed some light on what is probably the norm. “Why the Minneapolis school board is in disarray”

    I wish you luck though.

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