Thursday / May 23

Creating Powerful Professional Learning

Have you ever wondered why even with all the determination in the world professional learning often fails to bring about the changes needed to increase student learning, support student well-being, and increase equity? Have you ever wondered why even though large amounts of money and time have been committed to trying to create effective professional learning it remains difficult to actually bring about large scale and sustainable change? These are the questions that have been the focus of our five-year research project and we have established some exciting and encouraging findings that we hope can help you create powerful professional learning.

As a result of spending hundreds of hours in schools and district offices observing and talking with designers,  facilitators and organisers of professional learning (leaders of professional learning) it has become clear that leaders of professional learning can make a difference which has a positive influence on valued student outcomes by developing adaptive expertise (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986).

What is adaptive expertise and why does it matter?

People (including educators!) have the tendency to want to solve problems fast.  This means educators often jump to quick but inaccurate conclusions and draw on resources and programmes that are near to hand to solve their educational problems. If the challenges  faced in education today were simple challenges we would have already solved them, but they are complex challenges. Complex challenges resist simple solutions, often confounding us with unexpected twists and turns and unanticipated consequences. Educational problems are fundamentally dynamic and consist of interconnected parts – they are full of contingency and interdependence. Complex educational challenges demand complex responses and adaptive expertise.

Adaptive expertise draws deep conceptual knowledge and skills.  When people have adaptive expertise they are curious and questioning, willing to approach problems with fresh eyes, and  are able to respond to unfamiliar and complex problems in new and innovative ways.

Despite the inherent complexity of educational challenges, if you are a leader of professional learning, you can make a difference.  When those who lead professional learning adopt an evaluative inquiry stance, value and use deep conceptual knowledge, are agentic, aware of their own cultural positioning, are metacognitive, and bring a systemic focus in leading professional learning, students in the education systems in which they work have better student outcomes (Le Fevre, Timperley, Twyford & Ell, 2019). These ‘ways of being’ or ‘stances’ towards educational improvement work  are fundamental to the work of professional learning with adaptive expertise.

What can you do to create powerful professional learning?

For years now, practitioners, policymakers,  and researchers have understood a great deal about what makes a good learning environment (see for example Bransford et al., 2000), yet translating this into creating powerful professional learning environments for our educators remains a struggle.  Our research with leaders of professional learning  has drawn together examples of practice, the perspectives of leaders,  and theories of learning and educational change to  identify some key actions leaders can take that can create powerful learning.  The effective leadership of professional learning is key  whether you are designing overall district plans, facilitating professional learning with teachers, or making decisions as a school leader about the PL in your school.  What effective leaders do is closely linked with how they do it, and their practice forms an integrated whole. We have thought about this using the metaphor of a growing tree.

Figure 1. Adaptive expertise. Reprinted from Leading powerful professional learning: Responding to complexity with adaptive expertise (p. 3), by Le Fevre, Timperley, Twyford & Ell, 2019, Thousand Oaks: Corwin

It is easy to make a checklist of useful strategies for leaders of professional learning, but these are usually not enough for improvement. In our research with effective facilitators of professional learning we found that the facilitators’ practice was rooted in a set of fundamental orientations to their work, filtered through a lens of responsiveness and commitment to improvement and equity and then was expressed through particular acts of facilitation. This is what the tree represents: the roots provide the basis for all action, the trunk provides the essential, responsive framework for action and the leaves are the particular actions from which a facilitator can choose in a particular situation. This metaphor emphasises the role of adaptive expertise: drawing on knowledge and skills in particular situations in responsive ways, informed by a stance of agency and inquiry.

What does this mean for our practice as leaders of professional learning? First, we must understand our practice as a whole, seeing who we are and how we approach problems as an integral part of our effectiveness. Second, we must learn to be flexible, adaptive and responsive and see our job as carefully choosing what to do under certain circumstances, rather than implementing a particular course of action regardless of where we are. Third, we can work on our facilitation skills, and perhaps broaden our repertoire of choices, by considering a range of actions that, when deployed with adaptive expertise, are associated with improved outcomes for learners.

When you think of the educational challenges you face in your setting, try thinking of them as complex problems, rather than simple problems for which you just have to find an easy answer. Once you know what you are working with you can choose ways to work that build connection and are respectful of, and responsive to, the complexity of the challenge – ways of working that build your adaptive expertise and the adaptive expertise of those you work with – and improve academic and social outcomes for learners.

Professional learning is often seen as the site for bringing about change in how we do things in schools, yet the focus on professional learning is often on a specific programme or list of ‘how tos’.  What would happen if instead of focusing on trying to identify the ideal programme we focused on developing these research informed  ways of being (roots) and engaged in the actions (leaves) represented in this tree?  In other words what would happen if we focussed on developing adaptive expertise?  For example, if we take one action ‘navigating perceptions of risk’ this means when leaders of professional learning understand that people sometimes respond in ways that may look on the outside to be ‘resistance’, they may in fact be perceiving that the changes and learning required of them present a sense of risk.  They may be concerned that they don’t have the skills to do things differently, or that they won’t have enough time if they change the way they teach, or that there are not sufficient resources to support them, or more significant, that they may ‘fail’.  Understanding that people experience perceptions of risk when engaged in professional learning for improvement is a powerful way of then being able to support them effectively.  This is just one example of an action (leaf), but as you can see from the tree diagram there are several specific actions you can take that will allow you to lead powerful professional learning.


Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azama, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262–272). New York, NY: Freeman.

Le Fevre, D. M., Timperley, H., Twyford, K., & Ell, F. (in press). Leading powerful professional learning: Responding to complexity with adaptive expertise. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Written by

Dr. Deidre Le Fevre is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Graduate Programs in Educational Leadership at the University of Auckland. She began her career as an elementary school teacher in New Zealand and the U.K before completing her PhD (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and moving into research and teaching at Washington State University. On return to New Zealand she has lead large-scale research projects investigating effective leadership and professional learning practices for educational change and improvement. Her research publications focus on practices that support leaders and facilitators improve their interpersonal effectiveness and solve complex problems. She brings knowledge and skills in understanding organizational change, the development of professional capability and effective leadership. She has published Leading Powerful Professional Learning with Corwin.

No comments

leave a comment