How to Make Professional Development Awesome Again

When was the last time you went to a workshop or conference and felt blown away? Maybe a year ago, maybe never. Professional development is decent, but rarely excellent. Companies spend millions each year sending their employees to every event possible, never to see lasting change in their own organizations. Every event seems the same, rarely making an impression on their audience. Apparently, what happens at conferences stays at conferences.

Researcher Steven Katz defines learning as "the process through which experience causes permanent change in knowledge or behaviour." He emphasizes the trait permanence to remind us that learning is not actually learning if you remember it for a day and then forget. Learning involves consolidating and storing what you have learned into long-term memory, and demonstrating that you can retrieve that data at a later time. His definition gives us a clear and practical standard with which to decide if our teaching is effective or ineffective. Excellent teaching has been fulfilled when there is excellent learning.

Given this definition, what implications does it have for learning, especially as an adult? For most adults, our learning journey goes something like this: a generic, jack-of-all-trades education from toddler to age 18, followed by a specialized, career-oriented education from age 19 until the time you leave university. Then you are thrown into the workplace, and suddenly, the only learning you get is the learning on the job. Mind you, job-related learning can be incredibly valuable, especially when you are in a new company or a new position. However, in the long scheme of things, job-related learning can be unsustainable. After all, who can afford or would want to quit their jobs every few years, just to find a new one? Additionally, what if your job is boring and repetitive? The learning you get might be mediocre anyway. Our society is desperate for alternatives.

With platforms like Meetup and Eventbrite, how does one select the right experience? Think like a teacher and create your own course, your own syllabus. What does that even mean? Let's say that your goal is to learn how to open your own business. Using that endpoint, plan out the knowledge and skills you need to achieve it, then find the resources (e.g. books, workshops) that teach those topics. Teachers do this in their own classrooms; the process is called backwards design.

Not only do excellent teachers have to be intentional, they have to be critical. Not all experiences are created equal, and you need to seek and/or create events that lead to sustainable, transformational growth. You need to act like a food critic, setting clear expectations for excellence and accepting nothing less. (Think the movie Ratatouille.) To have learning experiences that are transformational, they should have four traits: Tribes, Mentors, Immersion, and Accountability. Let's see what that's about.

(1) Tribes: The name of one of the most famous books in business, author Seth Godin urges people to seek out their tribe, the group with which you share synergy with. When you are with your tribe, you are surrounded by individuals who share your passion and purpose. These individuals think as deeply as you do about shared topics (such as education), and because they are committed to that field, they are experts who see the problems that need to be fixed. They think deeply and debate fiercely about the small things and the big ideas; they challenge you to question assumptions and to build understandings. Your tribe is where the magic of innovation happens.

(2) Mentors: Psychologist Carol Dweck is the authority on change research, and states that change results not just from the belief or will that you can change (growth mindset), but that effective change comes through deliberate effort. She uses the example of professional athletes, who can only improve so much in their performance through talent or effort before they hit a plateau. As a result, professional athletes hire coaches (aka. trainers) who help them gain more nuanced awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, while providing specific feedback and courses of action. What does it mean for you? For adults to engage in transformative learning, they must actively seek out mentors. Just like in university when the institution assigns you professors as mentors, you must engage in this process again to create long-term change.

(3) Immersion: For change to stick, the experience must be immersive. If you attend a half-day workshop on business modeling, it is unlikely that you will be an expert right away. It might take several workshops for even the basics to stay. The best experiences are the ones that are sustainable for a considerable period of time (e.g. months), that allow you to achieve depth rather than breadth with ideas. The learning focuses on understanding but also application, providing real-world opportunities to use and refine what you have learned. It is why year-long internships and co-op work programs have become so popular in Canada; there is real, challenging learning to be done, in the exact context in which these skills need to be applied in the future. Change craves immersion.

(4) Accountability: When all of the learning is said and done, how do we make sure it has permanence? We make people accountable for their learning. Accountability can take many forms, such as the creation and implementation of an action plan. My favourite method is what I call accountability buddies, partnering with a like-minded person and keeping each other on track. I have also found value in implementing a structure or protocol with my partner, such as bi-weekly video meetings and shared contracts. Accountability gives you the motivation to stick with the learning after it becomes inconvenient.

I hope this blog post has given you some guidance as you embark on your learning journey. Learning is beautiful and provocative, and I hope through transformational experiences, you can make the change you want to see. If you have any tips or tricks that have worked for you, please suggest below. Learn away!