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Moving from professional development to personalized learning

5 min read


I’m a believer in the following statement:

“Development is something that happens to you; learning is something that you make happen.”

And, if like me, you believe in that statement, then you might wonder if “professional development” is really the best way to frame the learning we want all professionals to engage in.

The way I see it, “personal learning,” or “PL,” is a much better aspirational term or phrase to use. We know that “learning” puts the work in the hands of those directly involved (as opposed to “development,” which often happens whether we want it to or not), and we can only truly learn when we have a personal stake in what is being explored.

One of the steps we’ve taken to disrupt the way learning happens in our region is through the design of a regional curriculum leadership council. While there is nothing particularly new to the idea of school and district councils of leaders, we’ve leveraged the power of individual district thinking to create a core group of curriculum thinkers that can speak and engage in deep learning as an entire region.

Our regional council truly focuses on personalized learning by putting the topics of our learning sessions into the hands of attendees. Members generate a learning session schedule with us every year, and then individually, or in small groups, deliver the learning sessions or engage in protocols around problems of practice. We supplement this work through the inclusion of legislative updates, upcoming workshop information, and need-to-know announcements from the region. It is this collaborative design that makes all the difference.

To make these sessions even more meaningful, we have begun to hold an annual professional development summit in the spring. During this summit, districts share their professional development initiatives for the current year with us and their colleagues, as well as teasing out their foci for the following school year. We discuss commonalities and differences, and use this information to help us take two important steps.

First, we structure the upcoming year’s learning sessions around what districts want to focus on. This gives us the chance to make our meetings as relevant as possible for all council members. In addition, it builds capacity for regional leadership. Between facilitating learning sessions and generating combined professional learning experiences in-district, representatives are able to form deeper relationships with their colleagues, and members from different localities are able to see what is happening in the towns next door.

Second, as an educational resource organization, we’re able to design our regional professional learning opportunities to mirror what our districts need. The worst way to generate and implement professional learning? By creating and offering what nobody is currently invested in.

Our regional council also acts as a startup for curriculum projects within the surrounding counties and the state. As an example, more and more of our districts are exploring their own coding initiatives after playing a role in the Hour of Code the last two years. With so many of our districts wanting to explore coding curricula and design, it makes sense for us to own it as a region. So, we’re convening a subcommittee to look at how our agency, and the region as a whole, can build support for meaningful coding work throughout the Lower Hudson Valley.

“Disruption” and “innovation” should never equal “fad.”

Our council has been in existence for over twenty years. How do we avoid its age impacting its effectiveness? Through constant reflection and continuous improvement. One characteristic that all the leaders on the council share is an uncanny ability to effectively reflect; and that helps the council stay fresh and serve as a necessity, rather than simply a “new thing.”

Disruption and Innovation aren’t new ideas.

Nor do they require totally “new” thinking.

Instead, they require a commitment to constant change, a desire to take regular risks, and a belief in the necessity of putting collaboration before competition.

Our council is founded on these principles, and moving from a “development” stance to a “learning” one requires them to be in the forefront of our minds.


Interested in learning more about how you can create disruption and challenge convention through the design of a regional leadership council? Join us at #ASCD15 on Monday from 8 – 9 a.m. in Room 372A (Session 3161) as we share our successes and what we’ve learned in doing this regional work!

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the director of SCIENCE 21 and currently serves as Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred is an ASCD Emerging Leader and along with writing here, he also blogs at ASCD EDge.

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