What Professional Learning Do We Need?

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As a leader, you know the importance of professional learning to the success of any initiative. You recognise the value of having professional learning onsite, close to your organisation’s point of practice, so that learning can be targeted to your context. As you look to engage someone to provide onsite professional learning, what should you be asking for? 

The answer lies in where your people are on their journey with your initiative. I believe there are four, broad stages of professional learning with any initiative, the four ‘I’s. Are your people at:

  • The IMMERSING stage: people who are at the very beginning of the initiative, looking to build a basic conceptual framework of how the initiative works.
  • The INTEGRATING stage: people who have grasped the basics, and now need to connect these with the requirements of their practice.
  • The IMPROVING stage: people who have integrated the basics into their work, and now want to fine-tune their practice to meet the needs of their role.
  • The INNOVATING stage: people who want to push the boundaries of the initiative, measure the effects of new ideas and pioneer new approaches in connection with the initiative.

Each stage requires a different approach to professional learning.


Learners at the immersing stage are seeking basic proficiency. Examples might include how to stand up on a surf board, how to operate a new piece of technology, or what the components are of a new literacy initiative. In short, they are seeking training. 

Training involves the teaching of a particular skill. It’s important to differentiate training from telling, as simply telling someone what to do is not effective in building skills. Learners need to explore new skills through a range of approaches that honour them as adult learners. This could include demonstrations, stories, resource guides, guided discovery, feature scavenger hunts and mini challenges and quizzes.  A good trainer will work with you to create customised learning pathways for your people and support participants beyond the event with a range of resources to refer back to.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Training events that are just ‘show, then do’. 
  • One size fits all training
  • Events with too much content, leading to a sense of being overwhelmed

Questions to ask:

  • What strategies will you use to train the staff?
  • How will you cater for different base level skills and speeds of uptake?
  • How will the participants be supported beyond the event?
  • How will this fit with our context?



Learners at the integrating stage are seeking how to apply their new skills to the requirements of their practice. Examples might include how to use new sewing machine techniques to quilt a bedcover, how they might use new technology to meet the curriculum needs of their class, or where reporting and assessment might align with a new numeracy initiative. They are seeking facilitated support to make connections between the new initiative and their current practice. 

Good facilitation, in the form of workshops, provides opportunities to test assumptions, challenge thinking, make connections and apply learning, first in a safe theoretical environment and then to their own practice. These learning events are characterised by active and experiential learning as learners engage in practical tasks that enable connections between the known and the new. A good facilitator will work with you to integrate the new learning with existing initiatives within your organisation so that strong connections can be made to existing practice.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • ‘Packet mix’ workshops that do not consider the context of your organisation
  • ‘Sit and get’ where participants are talked at, rather than being actively involved
  • No time to apply learning through active tasks and challenges

Questions to ask:

  • How will you provide a safe environment in which learners can test their ideas?
  • What opportunities will there be for participants to connect the learning with their own practice and plan for implementation?
  • How will this fit with our current initiatives?


Learners at the improving stage have successfully integrated the basic components of a new initiative into their practice and are now focused on fine-tuning to meet the particular needs of their role. Examples might include how to incorporate new cooking techniques within a family members dietary needs, how to adapt a technology tool for a learning disability, or how to integrate the initiative with a particular pedagogical approach. They are seeking coaching to refine the initiative to meet their particular needs. 

Good coaching, in the form of one-to-one onsite connections, meets the learner at their particular point of need by working with them to unpack challenges, make connections and design new ways to implement their work. A good coach will work with you to support the learner by analysing needs, breaking down challenges, identifying possibilities and then designing and implementing a chosen solution. 

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • ‘Just do it my way and you’ll be good’ mindsets
  • Support only models with no accountability for progress
  • One off coaching sessions

Questions to ask:

  • What might a coaching session look like?
  • How will you measure and document growth?
  • How will you support the needs of the individual whilst aligning with the direction of the initiative?
  • How will this fit with our organisational beliefs?


Learners at the innovating stage are well versed in the initiative and have successfully fine-tuned the requirements to meet the needs of their work. They are now focused on how they might improve the initiative further. Examples might include adapting the design of a garden bed to get a higher yield of vegetables, adjusting an instructional approach to improve student results in Science or redesigning digital educational content to improve student understanding in History. They are seeking a critical friend to support them in their action research projects. 

A critical friend provides not only encouragement and support, but also timely and candid feedback. High quality critical friends will work with you to keep the big picture in mind, to ask provocative questions, challenge assumptions and seek evidence. They will demand accountability and give constructive critique in order to maximise learning for not just the participant, but also the wider organisation.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Criticism that is not constructive
  • Professional agendas that may unduly influence the project
  • Bringing in a critical friend too late in the process

Questions to ask:

  • What might a critical friend session look like?
  • How will you balance support and pressure?
  • How will you support participants to create solutions that benefit the wider organisation?

Each of these stages are important to the long-term success of a new initiative. High quality professional learning consultants will often provide a combination of these services when they work with you. For example, a full day learning event may begin with immersion through training, then move to integration through facilitation once basic skills have been mastered. Similarly, a professional learning provider working one-on-one with a number of people in your organisation may switch between being a critical friend for those in the innovating stage, to being a coach to others in the improving stage, across the course of a single day engagement.

When considering professional learning for your team, take the time to reflect on where they are on the journey of an initiative. Are they at the immersing, integrating, improving or innovating stage? Understanding where they are ensures you can provide them with professional learning that meets their needs.

I encourage you to have high expectations of your professional learning provider, ask questions to ascertain their approach and make your needs clear, to ensure that your people get the professional learning they need right now.