Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lifelong Professional Learning is Essential

What does it really mean to call oneself a "professional"? For me, there's an implication that a professional is working in a field that is knowledge intensive and requires regular ongoing practice to become and remain highly accomplished and valuable to their clients.

Wikipedia’s entry for Professional includes:

  1. Expert and specialized knowledge in field which one is practicing professionally
  2. Excellent manual/practical and literary skills in relation to profession

In our rapidly changing world, professionals should expect to be regularly honing and upgrading their skills and knowledge so as to remain relevant and current in their chosen field.  Notice the reference to “practicing professionally”.  To practice involves the iStock_000001448823XSmallindividual or professional in this context, taking some action on their part “to improve, to learn, to solve problems, to enhance or refine skills, to maintain skills”.  Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers claims that “researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours”.  He also says that “[p]ractice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good”.  Who then, is responsible for a professional's ongoing learning, for improving and maintaining one’s professional practice?  I believe that individual professionals need to shift their learning into a higher gear to survive!

As technology continues to invade all aspects of our personal and professional lives, the answer to that question has to be "us" as in each of us being responsible for our own learning. How can we expect our employers to be responsible for this? Sure, employers should invest in training of their people but when someone says "I don't know how to do that" is training necessarily the right answer? Or, should a professional be expected to take charge of their learning and proactively keep their knowledge current, improve their skills, and develop new skills all in the name of being the best they can be for their clients?  Shouldn’t professionals be fearless learners?

I was in session three of a series this week with about 30 teachers continuing our learning about cooperative learning strategies. These sessions, both our time and any related costs, are paid for by our employer and for teachers by their union. However, if each individual did not invest substantially more time learning, both as job embedded and on their personal time, they could not possibly gain the benefits these strategies provide. As the facilitator reminded us, it takes 10 years or 10000 hours to become an expert at something. We won't accomplish that through a few workshops, it takes hard work and an ongoing time commitment. The teachers involved in this series who will benefit most are those who invest the time to make the strategies part of their professional practice.  I’ve been practicing these new strategies with my own staff – it takes a lot of time to become comfortable with new skills and you have to embrace the possibility of failure.  By the way, anyone who believes teaching is a simple profession should spend some time with teachers learning about good pedagogy and watch them as practitioners.  I used to naively believe that teaching was a fairly straightforward profession.  Learning along side and observing teachers has been an eye opener for me with respect to the complexity of the teaching profession!

It worries me when I hear about teachers who struggle to turn on a laptop computer or with basic concepts and uses of computers and digital tools and services. Sure, tablets like the iPad make "computing" simpler and more learnable but they don't replace a laptop, certainly not for an information worker like a teacher. I read recently a blog post written by a teacher, advocating that we are becoming 3:1, 3 devices (laptop, tablet, smartphone) per person. I would tend to agree, for information workers as each device has it's What have I done!?own strengths with some overlap. Professionals such as teachers need to become more comfortable learning new tools and adapting their practice along the way.  Being able to easily move amongst a laptop, tablet, and smartphone is becoming an essential skill for professionals.  Teachers need to take responsibility for investing time to learn the new tools viewed as valuable for them and their students.  Professionals must be willing to adapt their way of working as new tools and options materialize.

Chris Wejr through his recent post about teacher training talks about these expectations for new entrants to the teaching profession.  Supporting my argument here, he states that “we should have an expectation that teachers should be able to use technology not as a separate course but as a way in which students learn” and more importantly, “[t]echnology should not be something that stops in teacher training programs”.  I completely agree and add that this must be a lifelong expectation.  Technology is completely changing our world.  Charles Leadbetter stated recently during a conference session that “you don't learn to swim standing on the side of the pool”.  Teachers need to “get into the pool” with their students and continuously try, learn, fail, and succeed with new tools and options that support learning and teaching.

My employer and those I serve (teachers, students, principals, my staff, managers, executives, Board members) expect me, a professional, to be continuously immersed in learning and improving my knowledge and skills.  My relevance and value to them and to our mission as an organization, would be fleeting if it were not for my iStock_000005304585XSmallcontinuous learning.  I accomplish this through having a mind that is open to learning, being self-directed, curious, and willing to try and fail, until I get it.  This I believe is a key mindset for any professional.  Your expertise and value, learned during your “training” as a professional has a very limited shelf life in a world of rapid technology driven change.  Your value to your clients, to your students, depends on you having a lifelong self-directed, own-your-learning, orientation to professional learning!