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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

September 14, 2014

Teaching & Education

Professional development vs. professional learning.

Edited and republished November 2017.

Empty classroom

For current teachers and those working to become teachers, continuous professional development is needed to continue to grow and improve. However, many believe the idea of professional development is somewhat outdated, which is why many school districts are implementing a system of professional learning instead. Though it might seem like a mere shift in language, the ideas behind these teaching strategies for educators is very different.

This switch from professional development to professional learning is part of a broader educational focus on creating fully blended classrooms where students learn from traditional teaching strategies, and from educators introducing technology into learning. Professional learning gives educators the opportunity to better prepare for these tech-savvy classrooms, and mirrors active learning methods that also benefit students. For those working toward an online teaching degree or teaching certification, here are the differences between professional development and professional learning. 

Student zoning out

Continual professional development.

Professional development in many school districts often takes the form of seminars, lectures or workshops that are supposed to help educators continue to grow in their careers. These teaching programs are sometimes unhelpful, as the structure is generally very passive, making it easy for teachers to get bored during the lecture, the same way student can. Moreover, professional development traditionally has been focused on providing educators with information, whether it’s theories regarding pedagogical practices or updates in subject matter. This can be unhelpful as well, as teachers need to learn actively about educator technology, get details on how to handle specific classroom scenarios, and participate in hands-on learning for new teaching methods. Traditional challenges of professional development often include funding or time constraints, but the biggest reason this terminology is falling out of style is due to the inactive nature of current professional development courses.


People sharing instant photos

Professional learning.

Professional learning embodies many of the same ideas and goals of professional development. However, this terminology emphasizes a modernized version that encourages interactive learning strategies rather than rote development techniques. For educators that already use the Internet on a day-to-day basis, this idea makes perfect sense. The Internet has made collaboration possible among educators on a global level, and therefore, teachers can interact across borders to better improve the education of their students. These professional learning communities found online have drastically shifted and changed the way teachers learn and improve.

Educator technology is perhaps the biggest shift of professional learning. While professional development highlights the need for educators to grow individually, professional learning retools this idea so that teachers are learning how to better serve their students. Professional learning communities are not just found online; they may consist of small groups of teachers might get together and collaborate to discuss effective teaching strategies for mutual students, work with technology that is utilized in their classrooms, or share areas of expertise. The emphasis is thereby taken off of educators and refocused onto students. 

A major principle of professional learning communities within the same school or area is grouping educators with overlapping responsibilities. If a group of high school teachers all work with the same students throughout the course of a school day, collaborative efforts provide them with the opportunity to build joint lesson plans, create projects that crossover various subjects, or use the same multimedia tools. For example, if a history teacher and English teacher have the same students, and the history teacher has students submit papers using Google Classroom, the English teacher can make use of this system as well so that students have the same experience across multiple classrooms. This not only puts educators on the same page, but also makes it easier for students to submit homework.

What should future teachers expect?

For those who are studying to become a teacher or taking online education courses, the question is still, “what should I expect?” Overall, professional learning holds teachers to a higher standard and encourages them to take responsibility for their own development. It also gives teachers a chance to exchange expertise to better their learning community. More communicative schools lead the way to positive outcomes for teachers and students.

This allows teachers of all backgrounds to utilize their particular skills to benefit their peers. For example, teachers who have earned their degree online may be more adept at using online submission systems and can help teach their colleagues. The future holds teachers working together regularly to help each other improve, and ultimately benefit their students.

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