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Five Damaging Myths of Professional Development
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Five Damaging Myths of Professional Development

Professional development is critical to maintaining a strong workforce, but there are a number of misconceptions about best practices in the field.

Do our common conceptions about professional development match the realities of what adult learners need?

In my work with nonprofits and their boards, I regularly run into several myths about how adults learn and the types of experiences that facilitate professional development that ultimately impacts practice. There are five particular myths seem to be especially pervasive and, at best, impede meaningful professional development. At worst, they can be counterproductive.

Below are the five most common myths that tend to follow professional development.

1. Formal, expert-led training events are most effective.

Whether it recalls our lecture-based school experiences or our trust that experts will bring the answers to life’s problems, this professional development myth may be the most prevalent. While formal, face-to-face events have a place in professional development, there is no evidence they are more effective. They certainly aren’t where most of our learning takes place.  According to the 70:20:10 model, formal events account for as little as 10 percent of our adult learning experiences. Most of the time, we learn via experience (up to 70 percent) and interacting with others (around 20 percent).

Formal events can be efficient, conveying massive amounts of information to large groups of people in a short period of time. But unless that knowledge is connected meaningfully to their real-life learning needs, participants are unlikely to remember, let alone apply, what is shared there.

2. Distance-delivered learning can’t really match face-to-face options.

Some topics lend themselves better to online and other distance-delivered learning experiences than others. But. with the right foundation, technology-supported programs can be as rich for learning as their in-person counterparts.

The community of inquiry model has been a powerful framework for not only structuring my online classes but for conceptualizing what it really takes to create a rich, collegial learning environment in distance-delivered settings. While it specifically addresses for-credit courses, the essential elements apply to other professional development efforts. Intellectually-stimulating activities that build meaningful knowledge (cognitive presence), an instructor/coach who facilitates experiences that engage and inform (teaching presence) and a safe environment for peer interactions that stretch minds and boundaries (social presence) set the stage for deep, significant learning. Not only can online professional development experiences equal face-to-face opportunities, they often can be better.

3. Social media networks have no real learning value.

The quality of our networks is as strong as those we let in. Nowhere is that more true than in social media-based networks. Environments such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ open the doors to information, expertise and peer groups that create perpetual, global learning opportunities. The key lies in whom we follow. If we follow authoritative voices, organizations, scholars and practitioners in our fields, we not only have endless access to news and cutting-edge research, we have opportunities to engage in international peer groups in the personal learning networks we cultivate. It is in that next step — engaging as full-fledged members of a broader learning community — that the ultimate value of these platforms unfolds.

4. Learning needs can be predicted and scheduled ahead of time.

This myth is more incomplete than it is totally false. Obviously, some learning needs are constant and can be anticipated based on goals set by employees and organizations. Some professional development needs can indeed be addressed in regularly scheduled events (e.g. orientations, conferences, product and skills training). But, far more often, our learning needs arise in the moment; when we’re gathering information to try something for the first time, when we’re trying to remember how we did it the last time or when something breaks down. Our most critical learning moments typically do not occur during neat, easily-scheduled pockets of time. They occur when we’re on the job, when we’re curious, when things need to get done and when they must be fixed. Workplace learners need relatively quick access to resources when we need them. To the extent that we can develop tools that are available on demand — when and where they are needed — we support that in-the-moment learning.

5. Organizational needs define learning goals.

This is another incomplete myth. Most workplace learning needs are directly related to organizational objectives. But “because we say so” or “because you must” are incomplete motivations for most adults. Learning increases when we pay attention to foundational adult learning principles. Is the need to learn it clear? Does it recognize and build on adults’ existing knowledge? Does it address a pressing need they currently have? Does it help them to be more effective, and in ways that matter to them? If so, its potential application value increases significantly. Adult learners will not only retain more, they will apply their new knowledge in meaningful and even creative ways — which should be the ultimate goal of any professional development effort.

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4 Responses to Five Damaging Myths of Professional Development

  1. Lauri Nieminen Reply

    2013/10/22 at 12:51 pm

    Having been involved in the development of some adult education at my institution, I can say adult students respond better to experiential learning opportunities. Most has been out of the traditional school system for a long time, meaning they are no longer accustomed to the rote memory and knowledge testing practiced in these schools. The 70:20:10 model is a good way to think about how to tailor education to adult students.

  2. Belinda Chang Reply

    2013/10/22 at 4:04 pm

    I work in HR in the private sector and was involved in implementing our first diversity training, which was done face to face. The response from staff was underwhelming. Although everyone showed up (it was mandatory), there was little participation in the room.

    The next time we tried it, we used computer-based delivery and found it to be more effective. People were free to explore sensitive issues on their own. At the end of each module, there was a quiz to test what they had learned, and there was a comment form where they could give anonymous feedback on the training.

    We had much better staff response this time around, in addition to receiving some valuable feedback. All that to say that some training lends itself better to an online/computer-based format than to a face-to-face session.

  3. Debra Beck, EdD Reply

    2013/10/29 at 10:13 am

    I’m fascinated by your experiences taking diversity training online vs. face to face, Belinda. It certainly sounds like a powerful illustration of the potential of online learning environments and/or the capacity to explore independently (and in personally meaningful ways?).

    What types of feedback did you receive, and how did it help you prepare for succeeding rounds?

  4. Debra Beck, EdD Reply

    2013/10/29 at 10:22 am

    Lauri, I tend to find myself in settings much like the one you describe: with people who often have less-than-fond memories of “education” that tend to impact their attitude toward “training” going into the experience.

    The value of the 70:20:10 framework truly is its capacity to help us think more holistically about how, where, when, and why adults learn.

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