When Adult Learning Sticks


I have attended at least 200 days of professional development in my life. How many of those days were consistent with the Ohio Standards for Professional Learning?  Maybe 20%—at best. In those cases, the learning was timely, relevant, embedded, and there was follow-up.  But for the remaining 80%, my professional learning was provided in seminar style where I listened to many good ideas—ideas that I simply was unable to apply to my practice in meaningful, consistent ways.

What went wrong? Well-intended opportunities to develop my practice were provided as singular events that were temporary and disassociated from my own teaching or learning concerns. As Thomas Guskey has observed, professional development sessions are too often provided out-of-context, undifferentiated, and lack sufficient depth to prompt the desired changes. His observation is consistent with many of my own experience. Many times, our adult learning efforts—even some I have delivered myself—tend to go wide but not deep enough. They offer a series of the “best practices du jour” that creates a bandwagon effect but fails to isolate pivotal practices that accelerate student learning and support maintaining those practices over time.

When is teacher learning effective? After reviewing the characteristics of effective professional development, Guskey concluded that there appears to be little agreement among practitioners or experts about the criteria for “effectiveness.” He maintains, however, that the principle criterion of effectiveness in teacher learning should be improved student learning outcomes.

There is an increase in research evidence that teacher professional development is most effective when it:

  • is related to the context in which the teacher teaches;
  • takes place over time rather than being a “one-shot deal”;
  • involves teachers in active, collective participation through teacher learning communities;
  • and, as stated, positively impacts student learning.

Since teachers are now being held accountable for student growth, it stands to reason that it is more important than ever to use strategies that efficiently increase teacher effectiveness. Dylan Wiliam, a leading formative assessment expert, contends that focusing on effective teacher learning and fidelity of implementation can be the most efficient strategy we have for improving student achievement—if we do it right.


FIP Your School has been designed to provide educators with an alternative to traditional “PD” that has the potential to pass the efficient and effective test. Here’s what I mean:

Adult learning should mirror the very hallmarks of FIP: Students learn best when they become an integral part of the learning process. Meaning, they are clear about the learning targets, collect and document evidence of their learning, provide each other with effective feedback, and are able to take ownership of their own learning. This is true for adult learners, too. This is the core idea of FIP Your School—it’s about the development of a “formative learning system” where all stakeholders use the same best practices for learning.

Adult learning requires purpose and autonomy. Online learning modules make the learning of practices associated with the new standards more efficient and accessible. The FIP modules not only lay the foundation for practice but, when they are rolled out effectively, can offer a personalized learning experience for each learner. The best implementation approaches give teachers the autonomy to decide which modules, how, and when they will be completed. What is most important is not if modules have been completed—it is how the learning is translated into practice. From an efficiency perspective, the online modules are free and decrease face-to-face learning time.

Learning is a social enterprise. We can enhance the adult learning experience and actual use of formative instructional practices when we engage teachers in professional learning teams. By using the blended learning tools provided through FIP Your School, teacher teams can stay focused on what they learned, how their learning squares up with existing practice, and how to take the next step—committing to do something new.

Seeing accelerates doing. The FIP in Action modules and the FIP video library are helping teachers see examples of what FIP actually looks like across different content areas. Making the learning more relevant supports adult learning and gives teachers models that they can immediately apply to their own practice. If you haven’t checked out the grade and subject specific FIP in Action modules, I encourage you to take a look at the one best suited to your teaching context. And, more modules will be released between now and summer.

Learning needs to be relevant and meaningful. FIP Your School was designed as a system of support so that teachers could be better prepared to meet the new demands associated with new standards and assessments. The skills depicted across all the FIP modules are practical and aligned with OTES expectations.

As the expectation for classroom teaching and learning changes, our expectations for adult teaching and learning should, too.