Mastering the Art of Professional Learning: Unlocking the Five
Critical Attributes for Success

By Carrie Hepburn, Ed.D.

Research regarding professional learning is vast, yet school districts and learning organizations struggle to get it right. Typically, school districts kick off the school year with a one-day workshop and cross their fingers, hoping for the best rather than investing in the type of learning that impacts practice and overall student learning. Many educators sit through the same beginning of the year “PD sessions,” zoned out and wondering why their time is wasted when they have more important things to focus on at the moment. The research regarding professional learning for educators continually points out the need for ongoing and job-embedded learning; however, that research continually gets ignored. Why? Because it isn’t easy.

When planning professional learning, it is important for district leaders to remember the purpose of implementing and transference new learning into the classroom. Current research still supports a report from Joyce & Showers (1980): professional learning alone results in a 10% implementation rate, at most. However, when professional learning is coupled with continued practice and coaching for a minimum of 50 hours, the implementation rate increases to 95%! In 2001, Fuller noted the greatest challenge for educators was not learning a new skill but implementing it-transferring the knowledge. Teachers must see how the new learning successfully works with their students and in their classrooms to change and internalize their beliefs. Just like their students, they need multiple opportunities to engage in new learning before moving towards mastery of implementation.

This paper will address the following:

  1. What is professional learning?
  2. What isn’t professional learning?
  3. What are the attributes of professional learning?
  4. What should district leaders do to ensure high-quality learning?
  5. What can Compass PD do to help school districts in this important work?

What is professional learning?

Professional learning should impact the practices of educators. Transference of the learning should be evident in PLCs, meetings, instruction, and data. Learning Forward, a well-known professional learning organization for educators, defines professional learning as activities that are:

  1. an integral part of the school and local educational agency strategies for
    providing educators (including teachers, principals, other school leaders,
    specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, and, as
    applicable, early childhood educators) with the knowledge and skills necessary to
    enable students to succeed in a well-rounded education and to meet the
    challenging State academic standards; and
  2. sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short-term workshops), intensive,
    collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused, and may
    include various activities (Learning Forward, 2015).

Just like with student learning, adult professional learning should build on a scope and sequence that begins with building knowledge and strategically moving to mastery levels of application. A foundation of learning is important for all stakeholders; foundational knowledge levels the playing field and ensures any potential misconceptions are cleared up. Based on our work with schools across the country, this
is often the vital step missed in professional learning; the foundation. Without foundational learning, it is difficult for educators to understand the purpose, the why, and the what behind the work, making it near impossible for them to buy into the learning and transfer it into their classrooms.

Professional learning should utilize data and feedback. As with any quality research approach, data should be triangulated and utilize various methods. It is helpful to have a progression of learning that explains the steps toward mastering the knowledge and skills. A progression of learning uses explicit language within each step. Individuals, teams, colleagues, and administrators can utilize the progression language to highlight what is currently happening and how to move to the next level. The learning progression can be used for educator self-assessment, class visits, and PLC meetings while analyzing student learning data. A comprehensive approach to data collection and feedback that includes sharing expectations up front increases transparency and builds trust. Creating expectations of what different levels of the implementation of learning look like helps leaders provide targeted feedback. Delivering targeted feedback that highlights strengths and uses those as stepping stones to the next level is more likely to be accepted as positive and acted upon because it builds on current successes.

Professional learning should be cyclical. What does that mean? It means professional learning in any given area should happen again and again. Within a school year, it should build on the previous learning. And in a professional learning cycle, it should happen approximately every five years because knowledge is improving and the world is changing. So often, our organization works with a district whose leaders are frustrated at the lack of implementation of PLCs or workshop model, or high-leverage instructional strategies, the list goes on and on. Upon further investigation, professional learning in one of those areas was last delivered many years ago and not revisited. Since then, the district has implemented twenty-five new initiatives and had significant changes in staff. Professional learning does not happen through osmosis from year to year. District leaders cannot rely on veteran teachers to effectively train new staff on “all the things”. They do not have enough time to dedicate learning to each initiative sufficiently, and often they do not have the expertise needed to support professional learning. Therefore, professional learning on all district initiatives must occur within a cyclical process.

Professional learning should be engaging. Educators are expected to be knowledgeable in areas that are deep and tough to study because of the cognitive weight it requires to learn. Topics like unpacking standards, writing three-part objectives, and analyzing data are just a few examples. Generally, these are topics sure to bring about groans from even the most excited participants. However, there are ways to make the learning process engaging. According to Aguilar and Cohen, engagement occurs when educators experience the content physically, socially, and intellectually (2022). Expert facilitators provide those experiences and help participants connect the learning with their current practices. Expert facilitators can ensure educators receive the highest-quality learning experience possible because they engage them in the content physically, socially, and intellectually, even with the most challenging of content. Engaging professional learning can take place in a whole group but is especially impactful when it is job-embedded.

Remember, in the end, the goal of professional learning is to change practice!
Professional learning is defined by its impact!

What professional learning is not?

Educators have been led to believe that training in a program is professional learning. Dare we say that education has been “Sold a Story from Publishers!” Purchasing and training in a program is not professional learning (Cohen, Mather, Schneider, & White, 2017). A program can be aligned with evidence-and-research-based practices. However, without the foundational knowledge the program is built upon, its impact is short-lived because educators do not have the necessary professional learning to
sustain its implementation.

Let’s return to the definition of professional learning, providing educators with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in a well-rounded education and to meet the challenging State academic standards. Why is this so important? Because a program is a resource that supports student learning. A program is not the end all be all of teaching that results in student learning. Research tells us that with 100% implementation of a resource, a maximum of 80% of our students will be successful. What happens with the other 20%? Well, knowledgeable educators draw from other viable methods or resources that are evidence-and-research-based. When making decisions regarding professional learning, district leaders must remember teachers teach students, programs do not teach students.

Professional learning is not a one-and-done. It takes a minimum of fifty focused hours on one topic of learning to notice a transference of knowledge into practice. District leaders need to ensure various opportunities and methods for colleagues to engage in the content that will accrue a minimum of fifty hours. Some options include book studies, learning embedded in staff meetings or early outs, and classroom coaching. There are endless options, but the critical point is that the learning must be ongoing. In that same vein, continuous learning of old and new topics must be cyclical. Moving on and leaving previous learning behind is not effective. Yet, highlighting how new learning compliments and supports previous learning is effective.

Professional learning is not trend based. There are numerous examples of “everyone” learning about a specific topic that is the “next best thing.” However, in many instances, it is an example of the difference between training and professional learning. Training can occur in a one and one setting. For example, educators are trained on how to navigate the online platform or the design layout of the teacher manuals for a new program. Professional learning, however, is based on evidence-and-research-based practices and topics that withstand the test of time. Big rock topics for professional learning include high-leverage instructional strategies, instructional design, Professional Learning Communities, standards, content-specific skills, data, and assessment.

Professional learning is not reactive or planned at the last minute. It takes significant long-range planning for high-quality professional learning that ensures staff receives adequate time on a topic (minimum of 50 hours), interacts with the content in various ways, and includes content-specific learning. District leaders can create professional learning cycles to ensure teachers receive learning on the “big rocks” and incorporate additional support in areas based on a significant amount of qualitative and quantitative data.

What are the attributes of impactful professional learning?

Professional learning that impacts student achievement requires intentional planning by the district professional development leader. Important attributes set professional learning up for success for all stakeholders.

  1. Professional learning is content-focused (Darling-Hammond, 2009). This is important but extremely challenging for a district leader. It can be approached in different ways.
    1. Lead whole group professional learning on a “big rock” such as instructional strategies and build up teacher leaders in the various content areas. Those teacher leaders then facilitate additional learning on the topic directly related to their content. Additionally, coaching is provided in the different content area classrooms. Teachers appreciate this approach;
      it feels doable to see the new learning in action with their content and students!
    2. Lead whole group professional learning on a “big rock” such as instructional strategies. Afterward, meet with small, content-specific groups to highlight how the instructional strategies could look in their classrooms, followed by engaging in lab sites.
  2. Professional learning is active. Educators need the opportunity to reflect and inquire on the topic collectively. Using authentic artifacts such as student work samples and videos of lessons helps develop a connection between the learning and the application (Roy, 2005; Goldberg, 2002; Rice, 2001). Educators should leave professional learning with collaborative ideas to take back and use immediately. The active experience should allow ample time for feedback and reflection.
  3. Professional learning supports collaboration. Professional learning should move beyond changing an individual classroom into promoting school or district-wide change. collaborative learning increases collective teacher efficacy, which, according to Hattie, has an effect size of 1.57 (2008)! Collaborative learning experiences should include modeling and coaching in classrooms as a team. Labsite classrooms provide that experience and are an incredibly powerful learning tool for teachers and administrators.
  4. Professional learning that uses outside experts, especially at the beginning of implementation, has a greater impact on student learning (Guskey and Yoon, 2009). Additionally, professional learning must provide long-term coaching and support. Creating lab site classrooms and coaching individuals within the classroom leads to higher rates of transference of learning, resulting in higher outcomes in student achievement (Hanover Research, 2021; Knight and Cornett, 2009).
  5. Professional learning is sustained over time (Hanover Research, 2021; Darling-Hammond, 2009; Yoon, 2007; Wenglinsky, 2000). Educators need multiple opportunities to engage in the content. Multiple researchers state a minimum of 50 hours on a specific topic is needed to see transference into practice and an impact on student achievement. Those 50 hours are cumulative and should include multiple modalities: whole group learning, lab sites, coaching cycles, book studies, modeling, small group instruction, and more!

What should we do?

According to John Hattie’s Visible Learning research (2008), high-quality professional learning for teachers has an effect size of .90! Why is this worth noticing? Consider for a moment, where is your money going? What impact do you see on the investment in resources? Do those investments have an effect size of .90? In most instances, the answer is a resounding no. Therefore, you need an alternative approach.

Establishing a professional, comprehensive learning plan is the first step. Determining the “big rocks” for professional learning is key. Creating a culture that moves away from thinking that professional development is “done to us” and towards the belief that we are a community of practice (meaning we are always learning, reflecting, and collectively refining our practice) changes the mindset around professional learning. With various stakeholders, district leaders create a plan that lays out those big ideas over a period of time (years). Then, determine where your internal expertise lies, where external experts are needed, and how to offer a variety of experiences for the staff. Vow to move from year-by-year planning and professional learning to a proactive approach. This work is best done with many minds at the table because it takes outside-the-box thinking! As you begin to develop a comprehensive plan, consider the following ideas:

  • What does the data say?
  • Adopt standards for professional learning and use those to develop curricula and assessments (Consider Learning Forward’s Professional Learning Standards as an example.)
  • Evaluate and redesign the use of time in school
    • Incorporate lab sites
    • Utilize PLC time
    • PD days and early outs for learning
    • A hybrid option that incorporates in-person and online learning (i.e., a book study)
  • Identify and develop teachers as leaders, mentors, and coaches to support the professional learning in content-specific spaces
    • Train-the-trainer mode
    • Lab site classrooms for learning
    • Big idea experts within each content that support a single district focus
  • Streamline district initiatives, evidence-and-research based practices, and accountability to decrease the feeling of “one more thing”
  • Provide flexible funding for colleagues to attend professional learning that is within specific guidelines and aligns with the overall goal
  • Evaluate the structure of professional learning sessions
    • Model the instructional practices expected of classroom teachers
    • Utilize transformational professional learning, not transactional (checking off the list) (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022)

What can Compass PD do to help?

At Compass PD, we align all of our professional learning with evidence-and-research-based practices. We ensure that our professional learning aligns with the information from multiple sources, not a single source. Compass PD is resource agnostic. Our team comprises experienced practitioners who are experts in their field! Each team member has a minimum of 15 years of experience in public school education and a master’s degree; however, most have doctorates in education.

Compass PD takes a unique approach. Our professional learning is not “canned” it is based on each district’s unique needs and can be tailored at the moment depending on the expertise levels within a group. The core of our work is relationship-focused. We strive to become part of a district’s community. We invest significant time learning about a district’s history, initiatives, and beliefs, then build new learning upon that knowledge.

Compass PD has a three-phase approach to professional learning. This approach has proven to be successful for our school districts.

  1. The first phase is the consulting phase. This is when our team studies data and gathers qualitative information from various stakeholders and quantitative data from various assessments to determine a current reality. Determining a current reality is critical when helping a district develop a professional learning plan. The current reality helps all stakeholders understand the importance of the work and increases commitment.
  2. In the second phase, Compass PD, alongside district leadership, collaboratively builds a professional learning plan that aligns with evidence-and-research-based practices. This comprehensive approach increases the success rate of professional learning because it is not reactive or dependent on the latest educational trends.
  3. The third phase is the implementation of the professional learning plan phase. This allows stakeholders to actively participate in gaining knowledge, then applying it within their context. Ideally, this is supported through lab site work and PLCs.

Compass PD has a successful track record in applying this three-step approach and seeing increased results in student achievement! Districts who partner with us to develop comprehensive plans have seen an average increase of 10% on high-stakes assessments! Over 90% of the district’s Compass PD serves sign multi-year contracts for professional learning support!

What is stopping you?

When district leaders take the necessary steps to ensure professional learning is proactive and aligned with best practices, an impact on student achievement is inevitable. Overall, high-quality professional learning empowers all participants, and its effectiveness is highlighted in multiple studies. This work is not easy, but it is worth every effort for all stakeholders!

Partnering with Compass PD increases the potential for professional learning in school districts. Our comprehensive approach incorporates all the necessary components for successful learning, including content-focused learning that meets the needs of diverse learners, active learning, collaboration, coaching, feedback, and sustained support over time. By using models of effective practice and providing opportunities for reflection and inquiry, teachers will increase their knowledge and efficacy, leading to positive changes in the classroom and beyond. With a minimum of 50 hours of professional learning on a specific topic and multiple learning modalities, teachers will engage in content that best suits their needs and interests. Choose Compass PD and join us in creating a positive and effective learning environment for all stakeholders while improving student learning outcomes!


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Cohen, Mather Schneider, & White, 2017: A Comparison of Schools: Teacher Knowledge of Explicit Code-Based Reading Instruction

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Fuller, J. (2001). Effective strategies for creating change within the educational system: A three-cycle action research study. Retrieved March 2016 from

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Hanover Research (2021). District Leader’s Guide for Developing a Professional Learning Plan

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Rice, J.K. (2001). Fiscal Implications of New Directions in Teacher Professional Development. School Business Affairs, 67 (4), 19-24.

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Yoon, Kwang Suk, Teresa Duncan, Silvia Wen-Yu Lee, Beth Scarloss, and Kathy L. Shapley. Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Issues and Answers Report, REL 2007 – No. 033. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest, 2007