Skip to main content

Join the Community

or Close


The Next Evolution in Professional Development: Timeless Learning

One time, when Dan Brown was talking to my teacher preparation class, he likened teaching to distance running. He said that the school year was like a marathon. I am currently training for my first half-marathon and I can see why he said that, but I would phrase it differently. The school year is like training for a marathon. For me, the race is not the thing that motivates me. The test score is not what motivates me. The training/teaching is the thing that makes doing this race worthwhile. I hope I can finish this race, but if I don’t, I will know I have prepared for it. The thing about training for this type of race, just like teaching, every time I go out I am not guaranteed satisfaction or even progress. Some days that training is not the best experience. I have been injured, I have learned my limits, I have had to do it even when I didn’t feel like I could.

This is why I have taken to participating in online support through Map My Run and Facebook. These two simple tools help me to share my experiences, get insight into better, funner, more effective ways to train, and connects me with peers who are also working to improve their health. This sort of community based approach to increased health outcomes is research based as an effective way to raise participation in healthy activities by individuals and groups. It struck me that this community connected approach was very similar to the effect of my participation in my Virtual Learning Communities (VLC) of practice as well. My VLC has had a major effect on why I can go into school every day and do my best, even if it turns out poorly on a particular day, my VLC is there to challenge me, reward me, and comfort me when the going gets tough. However, that is not the only powerful effect of VLCs. VLCs will also lead the way in the next evolution of professional development (PD).

I have been struggling recently as I have maxed out my line of inquiry for professional development in my school system. I have done every early childhood centered training available, most 2-3 times. I still want to keep learning though. This is why I turn to my VLC. I have learned more from my colleagues online than any school provided training in the past 5 years. The benefits of VLC’s are two fold in that they are learning/knowledge, which is what PD is considered in my school system, but also community which is what I really need to keep running this race year after year.

Part of my struggle has to do with how we, or at least administrators seem to think of professional development as a means to the finished teacher. When I have PD _______ I will know _______ and hence not need that PD again. The problem is that teaching doesn’t work that way, at least not for me. Neither does running a long race. The problem is I “know” pretty much everything I need to know to be effective. If being effective were the point I would be set. But that isn’t the point for me. I want to be excellent and that doesn’t just take knowledge, it takes practice and community. Even champions have to train, and they often train with a team.

As it stands there is a problem. The most effective form of professional development for me, as a practicing accomplished teacher, is not considered PD at all. The largest obstacle to transforming how we look at professional development is the idea of seat time. Seat time was a concept developed and supported by the Carnegie Foundation when our country began to standardize education through the comprehensive high schools of the 1950s. Essentially, credits represented time spent in classrooms learning certain subjects.

Time = Learning

This is why students need certain numbers of credits to graduate and also why students have begun to accelerate their course work to get a jump on higher education through participation in dual-enrollment and AP classes in high school. The problem is, although this strategy has worked for a long time, because of the internet and advances in performance assessment, it no longer seems to represent learning either in or out of school. In recognition of this, the forward thinking folks Carnegie Corporation of New York have invested in exploring the impact of Micro-Credentialing on teaching and teacher leadership.

What Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality and Karen Cator of Digital Promise are suggesting in their recent paper is revolutionary and simple. When it comes to PD in teaching and teacher leadership:

Competence = Learning

Teachers know this already from our teaching. Some kids get it the first time, some need several times, and some need to focus on another area of development before progressing towards a goal. They also know  that choice is one of the most motivating factors in learning. Although this seems an easy win for educators and policy makers there is bound to be push back because, it is not what we have always done.

Please explore the Digital Promise website and share the video below with school administrators to spread the word that learning is timeless and that VLCs can support learning through community participation in Micro-Credential coursework.


Justin Minkel commented on May 9, 2016 at 10:08pm:

Ceiling and sky

John, I love both pieces of this point--the need for colleagues and the desire to go beyond competence to excellence.

We have many systems in the U.S. to help new teachers become competent, and we have some to help struggling teachers become competent. I see fewer systems to help experienced, skilled teachers continue to take their teaching to the next level, and the level beyond that, over the course of decades.

I like models like TAP (Teacher Advancement Program), even though they weight test scores too heavily sometimes, that differentiate roles (with pay associated for those roles) in a tiered system from novice to career to mentor to master. It makes a lot more sense to me than "performance pay," and addresses both the calcified career ladder and the need for teacher leadership to be formalized in ways that make sense.

At a more individual/personal level, it helps me to be in touch with thinkers/teachers like you for whom "effective" or even "damn good" will never be the end goal. In some ways, I perceive myself as being less effective now than I did 10 or 15 years ago when I was a newer teacher, because while I continue to become better at this work, I'm also more aware of the gap between the kind of teacher I am and the possibilities for the kind of teacher I could become. 

In my first year, just getting the kids to do what I said was a triumph. A few years later, having them do well on standardized assessments was a triumph. Now I'm more focused on helping them become happier, better people, and someday being able to live the lives they dream for themselves. That ceiling keeps rising toward the sky.


Michel Lee commented on May 13, 2016 at 7:36am:

Modern ways of learning

According to last research the number of data grows in geometric progression. More information equals more knowledge. Students now are more intelligent than were their parents and grandparents. So called "indigo children", that were phenomena ten years ago, now are average children. Of course them don't have any supernatural features, they are just learn more in less period of time and are able to self-education. Many educational resources online like helps students to manage with urgent assignments in time. Teachers use different kinds of case studies, interactive tools and new methodics in the classroom. All of these factors leads to the understanding of importance of continue or lifelong learning in almost every sphere of modern life.

Subscribe to Blogs by John Holland

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive the latest news and events through email!

Sign Up