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REL Pacific

Distinguishing Professional Learning from Professional Development

REL Pacific
Lisa Scherff
January 4, 2018

Eighteen billion dollars is spent annually across the United States on teacher professional development, but how much of that time results in changes to teaching or student outcomes?

As a classroom teacher for more than a decade, I spent hundreds of hours in professional development sessions, most of which did not transform my teaching practices. Representative examples include a 20-minute after school training on “philosophical chairs” in another teacher's classroom, and a mandatory 120-hour online ESL training, which used decades-old resources and referred to a no-longer-in-use graduation exam. These experiences echo what a growing body of evidence asserts: conventional professional development methods, like the ones I and many other career educators are familiar with, are not only costly, but also don't always create long-term changes to teaching and learning. So what's more effective? Professional learning experiences like the one I had for teaching AP classes: a week-long intensive summer session, working with other teachers using real classroom materials, and more training and discussion during the academic year as follow up.

There is a useful distinction between traditional “professional development” and professional learning, which is intended to result in system-wide changes in student outcomes. Professional development, which “happens to” teachers, is often associated with one-time workshops, seminars, or lectures, and is typically a one-size-fits all approach. In contrast, professional learning, when designed well, is typically interactive, sustained, and customized to teachers' needs. It encourages teachers to take responsibility for their own learning and to practice what they are learning in their own teaching contexts.

Effective professional learning not only has the potential to improve both teaching and student outcomes, but can also be effective in recruiting and retaining teachers. According to research, high-quality professional learning:

  • is tied to specific content and standards;
  • incorporates active learning;
  • is job-embedded;
  • is collaborative;
  • provides models;
  • includes coaching;
  • is sustained and continuous; and
  • is aligned with school goals, standards and assessments, and other professional learning activities (Archibald, Coggshall, Croft, & Goe, 2011; Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017; Labone, & Long, 2016).

To involve teachers in high-quality professional learning, leaders must also consider teacher agency, which is the power for teachers to act decisively and positively to better ensure their own professional growth (Calvert, 2016). In other words, teachers must decide to improve their practice before systemic change can happen through professional development activities. Learning Forward and NCTAF suggest seven steps leaders can take to improve teacher agency in professional learning.

chart of partnerships in jurisdictions

Source: Calvert, L. (2016, p. 6).

Throughout the 2017–2022 contract cycle, REL Pacific will be traveling frequently within the region to share information on professional learning with our Partnerships and other stakeholders. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or requests for resources. What do you want to know about professional learning? Email us at and we'll do our best to help you find the answers.