Organizational Culture & Professional Development

I was recently invited to participate in the Working/Learning blog carnival based on the theme “work at learning; learning at work”, which has piqued my interest because that is what I do professionally. This month’s post is hosted on the Xyleme Learning Blog.

To be a bit more precise, I teach at an independent school. A quarter of the time finds me teaching Flash electives in middle and upper school, but three quarters of the time finds me collaborating with students and faculty in the process of facilitating our 1:1 program. I even have a title, Technology Training Coordinator, though the words hardly do justice to my actual practice.

My passion for adult learning and professional development is partially what led me to begin this blog. I have been teaching in independent schools since 1982, and for most of those years have pursued my own professional development while also being responsible for providing the same for my colleagues.

I have found it to be the case that the effectiveness of professional development on a teacher can be viable, but for that impact to carry over to the institution as a whole, the institution has to have its own strong culture of professional development – of wanting the organization to grow as a result of the growth of its teachers.

I have yet to come across an educational institution that does not support individual professional development for its faculty. However, almost always the focus is on expanding the faculty member’s pedagogy or level of knowledge about the subject they teach. Just about every teacher I know, some more often than others, participates in pd in this manner during their careers.


My ideal of professional development is for teachers to engage and challenge themselves in areas outside their subject area expertise. Professional development should be multidisciplinary and feed one’s creative needs. And I believe schools should champion and subsidize these endeavors. Elkhonon Goldberg, active in clinical neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience, has written and presented on brain plasticity and cognitive fitness. At last April’s Learning and the Brain conference in Cambridge, MA, he stated that as we age, we should “turn neuroplasticity to your advantage” by:

  • Welcoming novel challenges.
  • Beware of being on mental autopilot.
  • Remain cognitively active.

All teachers can and should “work to learn” by stepping outside their comfort zones to pursue new avenues of interest. The benefits to the teacher include:

  • stimulate new synapses in their brains (which means new learning)
  • (re)develop empathy for different learning styles
  • expand one’s horizons
  • promote thinking outside the box
  • derive simple satisfaction
  • feed one’s creative outlet

The benefits to the institution include:

  • model what it means to be a lifelong learner
  • reenergized faculty
  • more interesting, well-rounded faculty
  • faculty who feel supported by their institution
  • faculty who feel their institution values them beyond their basic utility

The questions then become: 

How to convince organizations (not just schools) to pursue such a program?

Are there case studies or research that support my premise?

Are any of you at organizations where such a policy exists? And if so, please would you share your organization’s approach in a comment below.

Do any of you have alternative concepts of professional development programs? And of course, if so, please do share your ideas below. Thanks!


8 thoughts on “Organizational Culture & Professional Development

  1. Pingback: Adult Learning ~ Kid Learning « Neurons Firing

  2. synapsesensations Post author

    Hi Ken,

    Many thanks for your comment on my blog! Am delighted to have found your blog via the Working/Learning blog carnival.

    Very much agree with your prior post on learning. Experience (my own and that of colleagues) has shown that self-paced learning seems to have a bigger impact when it includes collaborative opportunities, be it face-to-face or online. Exchanging ideas, adding additional context, and providing for discussion, are all necessary parts of learning.

    Thanks, also, for sharing Arthur Kudner’s poem.


  3. Ken Allan

    Kia ora Laurie!

    Nice post!

    My hunch is that it is a cultural fallout of bygone education systems that parents (in general) view learning as something done by the young. I am familiar with the 20th century working class culture, for instance, that believed (in general) that trades were learnt by apprentices to equip them to ‘serve out their time’ as tradespeople. Even the language of the working class tended to suggest this idea.

    Society also believed that age severely limited the middle-aged and older people’s learning. We now have clear evidence to show that this limitation is more of an attitude that makes it become a reality. I think that Einstein did a lot to make the 20th century sit up and think about this. Steven Hawkins served to reinforce the theme, by wowing the world with his (ever increased) learning despite his advancing years.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  4. synapsesensations Post author

    Hi Dave,

    Yes, I completely agree with your comments. It can definitely be difficult to change, to learn something new that is out of our comfort zones and makes us have to put out more effort than that to which we may be accustomed within our areas of expertise.

    I’ve taken a number of drawing classes over the past four years, and have seen myself progress through the anticipation of starting something new to furrowing my brow and wondering “can I do this?” to seeing a glimmer of success to wondering if I can do it without a class to realizing “I can do this!” and being able to do it on my own, accompanied by all the emotions in between. (And if you thought that was a run-on sentence, just equate it to the roller coaster of learning something new!)

    For precisely the reasons you mention in your last line, I’ve always felt teachers should engage in multifaceted professional development. By “going through the hoops” of learning, they would (hopefully and presumably) be more empathetic to their students. And on top of that, they would have benefitted themselves in the process 🙂

    My fascination with adult learning is in figuring out how to engage adults (not just teachers) with growing their synapses and enjoying the process.

    Thanks, again, for the blog carnival invite. I’d be happy to host a month. And thanks for the conversation here and other places.


  5. synapsesensations Post author

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your post. I think an interesting aspect of the popularization of neuroplasticity is it’s impact on getting the biology of learning into the hands (heads 😉 of more non-scientists. With teachers, this means a better understanding of how to effect change in their students, as well as for themselves. For me, it also makes my task of garnering support for professional development a tad easier.

    I do not have actual experience with any of the brain fitness/training programs that are available, although I have read about several of them. It strikes me that older adults would benefit from their use, particularly those whose mobility is limited and therefore do not have as much access to social interactions and the accompanying opportunities for discussion, which would keep their brains active.

    I also like to think that those folks in early stages of dementia would benefit from continued, focused brain workouts, very much in line with the analogy you mention. Certainly, all the research and commentary I’ve read support that analogy, and it makes much common sense. On a practical, personal level, be it psychological or otherwise, the combination of healthy eating, exercise, and writing causes me to feel like my brain and body are enjoying fireworks of synapses 🙂


  6. Martin Walker (of Brain Fitness Pro)

    Hello, there.

    One of the fascinating things to me about the accummulating research that the brain remains plastic into later life is that we ever doubted this. Anyone who strives to engage and be engaged does so because they feel it is worthwhile.

    On the other hand, I applaud the scientific pioneers and practioners who quiet the naysayers.

    I’b be interested to know what you think about brain training. I’ve become a big advocate of carefully designed brain training as an effective and efficient way of maintaining cognitive health. I believe that the analogy to maintaining physical fitness holds water in this regard.

    I’m in the brain fitness business so my opinion of course must be taken with a grain of salt, but the science stands.

    Martin Walker

  7. Pingback: Working/Learning Carnival, 6th Ed. | Xyleme Learning Blog

  8. Dave Ferguson

    I’ve read an interview or two with Elkhonon Goldberg, and agree with him about neuroplasticity. One thing to keep in mind (pun intended) is that learning seems to involve (or maybe require) effort.

    And that’s where the difficulty lies. Once we’re past the beginning of our careers, we’ve accumulated experience and skills with which we produce valuable results. Turning to something new and attempting to master it means that we’re not as skillful any more.

    I’ve felt genuine (and strong) frustration in the past year in areas as divergent as conversing in French and trying to learn tennis.

    I knew French at a basic level, but the increased use I’m trying to make of it means I confront again and again the limits of my vocabulary, my facility in speaking, my ability to understand speech.

    Maybe the comparison is with the muscular aches you feel after starting a new or different exercise program. I don’t mean total exhaustion (necessarily) — just the unmistakable after-effect of doing something new with enough effort to matter.

    So it could be that one way for people to continue actively learning is to acknowledge and accept the frustration and effort — not just as a side effect, but maybe as an indicator that learning is happening.

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