By Alex Pomson & Miriam Raider Roth
By definition, activities characterized as professional development are concerned with enabling individuals to fulfill their professional responsibilities, more effectively and more efficiently. If such activities did not aspire to produce such outcomes, they would have to be called something else less precise: education, coaching, therapy, or perhaps recreation.
By the same token, for evaluators of professional development, the most rigorous measure of a program’s impact is whether participants apply or employ the learning gained in a program to their work. Of course, it’s not a bad thing if participants report learning something new, or – better – are found to have done so. If what they learned has no discernable, practical consequence for how they conduct their work, we might say that their learning was academic, in the least positive sense of that word, or simply shallow. They have not developed professionally. Their work or workplace has not been materially impacted.
Working together as program provider and evaluator over the last four years, we have begun to think differently about these commonplaces. One of us has been serving as program director, and one of us as a member of the team evaluating the program, the Mandel Teacher Educator Initiative (MTEI), a two-year program that aims to develop individuals as educational leaders and professional developers in Jewish schools. We started to think anew about appropriate measures of program impact when we began noticing participants in the program talking about the program’s outcomes in surprising ways.
Asked at the end of the program about what she had gained from the program, one graduate offered an elaborate analogy. She recounted how she suffered a back injury that led to chronic back pain for 30 years. About five years previously, a health professional explained to her that there are ligaments that connect the front of the spine to the sacroiliac joint and gave her exercises to strengthen this part of her body, one she previously didn’t know existed. This new awareness shifted the way she carried herself in all contexts and she is now pain-free. So too, she explained, MTEI introduced her to a language and a stance to professional development that was totally different. “It was a world I didn’t know existed [but now], it’s like breathing. It’s so present in my life.”
Other graduates explained repeatedly, although less elaborately, how different skills they have gained in the program – strategies for facilitating difficult conversations; growing as a listener who is able to separate judgment from what one sees; employing active listening to engage in deeper conversations – have seeped into their personal lives. They have employed these skills in schools in their interactions with colleagues and supervisees, precisely as program leaders had hoped, and they have also employed them at home in their interactions with partners, children and parents.
To be clear: we didn’t set out to test whether such outcomes had occurred beyond the workplace. That’s far beyond the scope of the program’s mission. We certainly did not include in post-program surveys and interviews questions that explore the application of learning from the program to interactions with family and friends. But now that program participants and alumni have volunteered stories about these outcomes, we’re beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t be investigating more systematically the extent to which they do occur. We wonder whether, if we find that ripple effects from the program can be discerned extending into people’s personal lives, this constitutes evidence of the program’s transformative reach.
We offer these thoughts in the spirit of provoking conversation, recognizing that this is an unusual, even challenging, way to conceive of the outcomes of professional development. We know we’re setting the bar high. And yet we know that one of the challenges in professional development (all learning, really) is portability or transference; ensuring that new insights, understandings or skills are transferred to contexts beyond the specific one in which they’re acquired. It’s one thing to employ a skill in the workshop or seminar context in which it was learned; it’s another thing to do so in the messy, often ambiguous circumstances of a workplace. We contend, the more diverse the contexts in which a newly learned skill is employed, even and perhaps especially contexts that lie beyond those for which they were originally intended, the more powerful the learning.
We suspect that when people say they applied learning from a program not only to the workplace but also in their homes, they indicate that what they learned has changed not only what they can do (in particular settings) it has changed who they are (everywhere). Isn’t that what professional development programs should seek?
Alex Pomson is Principal and Managing Director of Rosov Consulting, Israel.
Miriam Raider Roth is Director MTEI and Professor of Educational Studies, University of Cincinnati.