The Learning Accelerator Blog/Good Professional Development Focuses on Problems of Practice

professional development

Good Professional Development Focuses on Problems of Practice

by Stephen Pham on June 17 2019

High-quality, effective professional learning can be hard to find. Too often, educators experience learning that is not personalized, engaging, or relevant. Professional development that is designed to be one-size-fits-all does not take into account the different needs and skill levels in the room, making sessions feel more about compliance than actual learning. Accountability structures still focus on hours and seat time, leading to sit-and-get sessions that are not focused on application nor actual change in practice. And most professional development sessions are designed around larger initiatives and broad topics, not the specific, real teaching and learning challenges that educators are continually working through. As a result, educators are unable to build their skills as quickly as they need to, and they are often left feeling unsupported and unsuccessful.

In order to effectively develop educators into master teachers, we need to improve how we design and deliver professional development. One way to make adult learning significantly more effective is to design the learning around specific problems of practice. Below are three reasons why this approach can support educators in improving their practice.

1. Investment: Educators will rally around specific, solvable problems.

Framing professional learning around a problem of practice ensures educators understand the “why,” building investment in the work. Teachers will understand the need and feel compelled to shift their practice to solve the challenge. Additionally, focusing on a specific, solvable problem of practice makes the learning and task of improving practice feel feasible rather than overwhelming. It feels much more doable to improve specific skills around questioning in guided reading than to get better at all of guided reading.

2. Relevancy: Practitioners can select challenges that are timely and pertinent to them.

A key factor to effective learning is choice. When any learner has the ability and autonomy to own their learning based on their own needs, they not only feel empowered but they also are able to focus their learning on relevant challenges. Designing professional learning based on problems of practice allows learning to happen based on need and interest – educators can select an activity that feels relevant and pertinent, or coaches can recommend activities based on the needs that they see.

3. Modularity: Bite-sized topics allows for personalized professional learning.

Designing professional learning around specific challenges also breaks up the broader domains of teaching and learning into more granular components, making personalization easier. By breaking up learning into competencies and discrete skills, professional learning designers can create more customized experiences and paths for educators based on individual needs.

Interested in exploring what this looks like in action? Check out a past hands-on webinar from The Learning Accelerator and 2Revolutions where we explored key case studies and tools for grounding professional learning in educator problems of practice. You can find the webinar recording here and slides here. Send any questions you may have to

About the Author

Stephen Pham is an associate partner at The Learning Accelerator, an experienced educator, and a proponent of blended and personalized learning.