Sunday / May 19

Make Personal Professional Learning Successful

Many recent conversations with educators have focused on personal professional learning. It shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s more effective than traditional workshops, which might focus on your concerns, might encourage collaboration and rarely offer follow-up support. By contrast, personal professional learning starts with your needs and interests, which in turn are driven by the changing needs of your students. Voice and choice are important in student learning and yours. What is your purpose?

Personal, but not too personal

Since many of us are still learning what makes personal professional learning effective, let’s explore what makes this form of learning work. Successful personal learning is driven by more than needs and interest. James Hunt summarized the findings of a study on professional learning. Educators, he concluded, need to learn “…continually, collaboratively, and on the job—to address common problems and crucial challenges where they work.” What’s our takeaway? Effective learning is personal, but it can’t be too personal. Collaboration is critical.

The experiences of successful coaches can help us understand what makes collaboration successful. (See L. Foltos, (2013) Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration) Coaches, and their learning partners, insist teacher isolation is the enemy. This conclusion isn’t unique to coaching partners. When I asked Colet Bartow, who supports teacher-librarians across Montana, why personal professional learning was important she immediately insisted, “One thing that keeps us from adopting innovative practices is isolation.” Educators also understand the value of collaboration. Leanne Steed, a school leader from Australia observed, “There are so many variables in teaching it can be a bit overwhelming. Working with peers helps me take on these challenges.”

Collaboration is so important educators have looked for new mechanisms, like “personal learning networks,” to collaborate.  These networks may be among teachers in one school, but social media, like Twitter or Facebook groups, have increasingly facilitated the growth of online networks. Social media can be a powerful learning tool.

In a recent #Mtedchat participants observed their discussions “provide other perspectives on problems you face,” “encourage growth,” and “give you feeling of being supported.” One participant noted, “I feel like I am on an island,” and that Chats created a bridge to collaboration. In 140 characters that is pretty good. The limitations of chats and online groups may make deep and meaningful discussions difficult.

Discussion of tougher issues may require more time. Social media can be a starting point for deeper collaboration. Experienced educators use social media to identify people they want to meet and learn with and from in deeper, more reflective conversations. What makes their collaborations effective?


Educators are quick to observe that successful collaboration rests on trust. Coaches, and their learning partners, tell us trust comes from collaborating with someone:

  • You know and respect;
  • Who shares your commitment to improving teaching and learning;
  • Who believes that collaboration is a valuable for innovation, and;
  • Who you believe wants you to excel.

Continuous learning

Successful coaches agree with Hunt’s conclusion that learning needs to be continuous. The coaching cycle graphic demonstrates learning is an ongoing improvement process. When they work with teachers coaches typically:

  • Assess their peer’s practices and perceived needs;
  • Discuss goals and objectives;
  • Co-plan learning activities;
  • Model or team teach, and;
  • Observe their learning partner and reflect afterwards.

Teachers may be successful on their first attempt at adopting and innovative practice, but many need to go through several cycles of this improvement process before they successfully reach their objectives.


As educators look for coaches to support their learning, they don’t look for an expert to tell them what to do and how to do it. Instead they want a peer they can learn with and from. Draw on their experiences. Look for a peer who uses inquiry and raises questions that help you solve your questions. Inquiry is the key to building your capacity to innovate. Since the goal of collaboration is innovation find a partner who challenges your thinking. Don’t limit your choice to someone who teaches your grade level or subject area. Collaborating with a partner with different perspectives may produce more curiosity and spark innovation.


Choose a partner who will encourage innovation, but also understands change needs to be manageable. You aren’t likely to change your practice overnight. Pushing to make too big a leap to fast may lead you to shut down and revert to the current practices. Working with a partner to honestly assess your goals and current practices is a critical first step. Then define small steps to toward the innovative practice you want to adopt. Coaches tell me that successful small steps lead to more steps toward innovation.

Manageable also has meaning for educators who use social media for learning. To avoid being overwhelmed Colet Bartow counsels educators to:

  • Identify your most important need;
  • Use websites or Twitter feeds from conferences to identify people, Edchats, or groups focused on your topic, and;
  • Start by following one social media stream.

Help other teachers improve

Effective professional learning is a two way street; learn with and from you peers. Start sharing what you are doing with others.

  • Share what you’re learning and doing with peers in your school;
  • Tweet and blog about your experiences;
  • Share your experiences in Tweet Chats or Facebook groups. No more lurking, and;
  • Present at conferences, unconferences, or EdCamps where you can share your experiences and get feedback.

Teachers worry about how they will recover if they make a mistake in front of others, but we need to remember that taking risks is the key to innovation. Learning from failures can produce powerful conversations and meaningful learning. Start sharing your successes and challenges.

What does this mean for me?

Successful personal professional learning means defining your purpose, and identifying learning partners who may be colleagues in your school and those you find on social media. Look for peers with expertise in collaboration, like a skilled coach. You will accelerate your learning.

Written by

Les Foltos is currently the Director of Educational Innovation at Peer-Ed. He is the architect of the Peer Coaching program which trains teacher leaders to help colleagues to integrate technology into 21st Century classroom activities. Microsoft Partners in Learning partnered with Peer-Ed to implement Peer Coaching worldwide, and Foltos leads the team that is working with more than 40 nations that are implementing Peer Coaching. Foltos also has designed and led learning activities at four of Microsoft’s Worldwide Global Forums, and regional education Forums in Asia, Latin America, the U.S. and Canada. Prior to this he served as the Director of Instructional Technology for Seattle Public Schools from 1990 to 2001 where he led the development and implementation of the District’s K-12 Instructional Technology plan. Foltos is a frequent speaker at international and national conferences including a TEDx presentation in 2011 and key note addresses in four countries. Les Foltos earned a Ph.D. in American History and has five years of university teaching experience.

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