Situating professional learning

Twenty-first century professional development (PD) in education, whether directed toward a focused technology goal such as increasing capacity for online instruction, or toward a more global goal such as increasing student learning outcomes, must take into account several key factors. These include the nature of adult learning, the nature of teaching, and the fact that institutional and disciplinary paradigms and technologies are constantly changing.

Yet professional development is too often superficial, piecemeal, and itself poorly aligned with pedagogical or adult learning principles (Borko, 2008).

As I work on designing and implementing a technology-related PD needs assessment that takes into account the realities of an institution’s revenue stream and accountability mandates as well as the realities of the demands placed upon that institution’s teachers, I am also thinking about what a more effective PD program would look like, based on the knowledge I hope to generate about where, how, and with whom teachers learn about and use educational technology.

Much of the literature I have read on education reform in the relevant sector focuses on rewarding institutions that change the practices of their teachers to reflect current paradigms (Bishop, Lumpe, Henrikson, & Crane, 2016). ISTE Standard 4 for Coaches similarly calls for technology-related PD that uses the best of what we currently know when designing and evaluating PD programs. While current literature aimed at measuring the effects of PD programs constitutes an emerging research and theoretical base that, along with economic and political culture, drives college and school district administrators toward particular methods for achieving better student learning outcomes, when I reflect on the few leaders I have met who have insisted that nourishing teachers is the key to sustainable institutional health, I wonder what it would look like for teacher growth to be more central to an institution’s vision for achieving an educational mission than is often included or tested in many current reform-oriented PD models.

While much of the research base on relationships between PD programs and student outcomes remains to be built, there is an emerging body of literature suggesting that the pieces that constitute PD programs—standards, data-based assessment, differentiation, layers of support and access to technology tools, collaboration, coaching, and communities of practice, along with mindful long-term planning for which technologies associated with those learning communities are the focus of institutional development—might be effectively implemented in PD projects that allow teacher-centered (adult learner-centered) and collaborative learning about teaching practices to become central rather than peripheral to the teaching practice of its faculty (Fuller, King, Moore, Saint-Louis, & Tyner-Mullings, 2016; Jaipal-Jamani, Figg, Gallagher, Scott, & Ciampa, 2015; Hernandez, Thomas, & Schuemann, 2012).

Adult learning

Principles of adult learning emphasize greater equality and respect between teacher and learner, and greater connection with learners’ work and lives (Adult learning principles, n.d.). While originally meant to describe informal adult learning, the principles around adult learning described by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s continue to inform the basic tenets of “andragogy” or “adult learning theory” that highlight the contextualized and individualized nature of adult learning. Knowles’ five assumptions about the distinctive nature of adult learning are 1. Self-directedness; 2. Personal experience as an important source of knowledge; 3. An orientation to learning mediated by awareness of one’s social roles; 4. A focus on problem-centered rather than subject-centered learning; 5. Internal rather than external motivation (Smith, 2002). Many other theories or frameworks of adult learning have focused on one or more of the areas delineated by Knowles (Gordon & Ross, Gordon, 2019).

Situated learning

One framework that focuses on the role of experience is Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, which informs Zepeda’s concept of “job-embedded learning” (Gordon & Ross-Gordon, 2019). As its name suggests, job-embedded learning is and/or becomes part of the teacher’s daily work and thus an integral part of the classroom and school culture (Zepeda, 2012). In turn, both draw on “situated learning theory” as developed in part by Lave and Wenger (1991).

Situated learning is a constructivist approach based on insights from psychology, sociology, and anthropology that places students in authentic, real-world, social learning situations where they are actively immersed in a learning activity. A “central tenet of situated learning is that the contexts and activities in which people learn become a fundamental part of what they learn” (Borko, 2004, p. 7).

Because I have based some of my college writing assignment and lesson designs on models implementing situated learning theory (Soliday, 2011), I’m interested in how professional learning programs might also implement situated learning theory. Adler (2002) defines teacher learning from a situative perspective as “a process of increasing participation in the practice of teaching, and through this participation, a process of becoming knowledgeable in and about teaching” (qtd. in Borko, 2004). Because in my own teaching practice, I’ve found simulating real-world contexts and activities to be important factors in successfully invoking learning among college writing students, it makes intuitive sense to me to situate professional learning in the real professional contexts of teaching.

If teaching “is a professional activity with a professional knowledge base” (Gess-Newsome, Blocher, Clark, Menasco, & Willis, 2003), the broad, well-theorized, and not necessarily linear spans of adult learning development, moral development, career stages, and theories of profession literature (Daley 2003: Fetters & Duby, 2011; Fry, 2019; Gordon & Ross-Gordon, 2019) as well as the intersecting spectra of epistemological, pedagogical, content, and technological views and competencies (Bachy, 2014; Jaipal-Jamani, Figg, Gallagher, Scott, & Ciampa, 2015), indicate that fostering teacher professional growth is a complex endeavor that will not be effective through piecemeal or peripheral programs. It is in the realities of teaching practice and in the shared realities of communities of practice that these intersecting domains can be developed over a teacher’s professional life cycle.

One application of situated learning is for professional learning to be designed to take place in the form of “communities of practice” (also known as “professional learning communities” or “professional learning networks”) in which teachers (from either shared or different disciplines) network, collaborate, and reflect together over time to share and develop pedagogical, content, and/or technological knowledge as this is developed in their individual teaching practices (Teeter et al., 2011).

Situated learning also provides a framework from which to evaluate professional development programs. Borko (2004) developed a situative framework for evaluating professional development programs’ impact on teacher learning as well as comparative effectiveness of different facilitators and different programs by looking at both the individual teacher (in terms of subject matter knowledge, knowledge of student thinking, and instructional practices) and the group as two different units of analysis. One value of Borko’s research design is that it is a measurement tool that provides  evidence to help PD professionals evaluate the tradeoffs between fidelity and adaptation, which is a perennial question in program implementation. Borko also lays out an agenda for future research and for the development of research tools that will benefit small-scale professional development projects.

Because of the time and intentionality involved, reconceptualizing PD as situated, collaborative, and project-based is not an easy sell. Yet these approaches are typical of the instructional approaches called for at the postsecondary level by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) as “high-impact practices”  and at the K-12 level by the Common Core State Standards.

Kneale et al. (2016) observed that impact assessments of educator PD are still a developing field of study. Hallinger and Bridges (2016) published the first research review of the impact of problem-based learning on school leadership and development. Both groups of researchers stated that results are inconclusive, and that one reason for this is over-emphasis on teacher perception as a focus of study, an oversight that situated research perspectives such as Borko’s (2004) might address.

While situated practice-based professional learning programs may sound impractical and difficult to scale, if such tools can demonstrate that situated learning-based professional development models can impact teachers’ knowledge, learning and technology development so that student learning is impacted, the learner-centered and practice-based approaches of situated learning theory may begin to trickle in to more PD programs and studies. Such a paradigm shift may be needed if PD is to result not just in “reform,” but in organic, sustainable growth of teachers and teaching practices that can lead to proactive, organic, sustainable growth of programs.


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Fuller, K.S., King, C., Moore, R., Saint-Louis, N. & Tyner-Mullings, A.R. (Spring 2016). Implementation of an evidence-based, high-impact practice: An integrated learning community model in action. Schools: Studies in education, 13(1), 101-126.

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One Reply to “Situating professional learning”

  1. Stephanie, this was a very informative post to read. I hadn’t much knowledge of the term situated learning before now and learned so much. I enjoyed how you explained situated learning in terms of teacher PD. Nice work!

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