No matter the age at which it occurs, human learning is based on a common set of principles. While adults have more life experience to draw on than younger learners and are often clearer about what they want to learn and why it is important, the means by which the learning occurs is remarkably similar. Consequently, it is important that the learning methods used in professional development mirror as closely as possible the methods teachers are expected to use with their students.
It is essential that staff development assist educators in moving beyond comprehension of the surface features of a new idea or innovation to a fuller and more complete understanding of its purposes, critical attributes, meaning, and connection to other approaches. To improve student achievement, adult learning under most circumstances must promote deep understanding of a topic and provide many opportunities for teachers and administrators to practice new skills with feedback on their performance until those skills become automatic and habitual. Such deeper understanding typically requires a number of opportunities to interact with the idea or procedure through active learning processes that promote reflection such as discussion and dialogue, writing, demonstrations, practice with feedback, and group problem solving.
Because people have different learning styles and strengths, professional development must include opportunities to see, hear, and do various actions in relation to the content. It is also important that educators are able to learn alone and with others and, whenever possible, have choices among learning activities.
Another important dimension of adult engagement in change processes is the feelings that such change often evokes in individuals. Even under the best of circumstances, pressure for change, no matter what its source, may produce feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger. Such feelings are most effectively addressed through skillful listening and problem solving within a respectful and trusting school culture. It is helpful for educational leaders to appreciate that, to some degree, such feelings are natural and an inevitable part of the change process. Such appreciation is aided when leaders have a deep understanding of the change literature, particularly the Concerns-Based Adoption Model, and are able to apply its insights when planning and implementing new practices in schools.
A third dimension of change is the life stage of individuals engaged in the change process. While recognition of life stage differences would not alter expectations for performance, it may affect an individual's availability and interest in additional work responsibilities during different phases of his or her life. Recognition of life stage differences may also help staff development leaders in tapping educators' strengths and talents, such as asking skillful veteran teachers to serve as mentors or coaches for their peers.
Electronic forms of learning may prove particularly helpful in providing alternatives that respond to differences in learning styles and availability due to life stage issues. Staff development content may be accessed via the Internet or other forms of distance technology that will enable learning throughout the day in various settings using media that appeals to different learning preferences.
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