How understanding the “knowing-doing continuum” can improve the quality of professional learning

IMG_1365I have divided professional learning outcomes into these five levels of the “knowing-doing continuum”:

1. Learning about: This is the adult version of “covering the content.” It is often expressed by the phrase “I had…” [During the 1980s I so often heard “I had Madeline Hunter” that I almost (but not quite) felt honor bound to tell Mr. Hunter about the rumors regarding his wife.]

2. Shallow understanding: The best example I can think of was a participant in a cooperative learning workshop who wrote on an evaluation: “I think this is a good idea, but you made us work in groups too much.”

3. Deep understanding: Learners can explain the idea or practice in some detail. They can also explain its benefits and limitations.

4. Experimenting with new behaviors/practices: The learner tries it out in the classroom or other setting to determine its effectiveness, sometimes with the guidance of an instructional coach or more experienced peer.

5. Developing new habits: Repetition over many weeks and perhaps months make the new practice routine and under teachers executive control, enabling them to determine when and how to use it.

I am sad to say…

…that based on my observations the vast majority of professional learning for teachers and administrators remains at levels 1 and 2. There are exceptions, of course, but they remain exceptions rather than the rule. (Please see my previous post to better understand the distinction between professional development and professional learning.)

The reason is fairly simple: Those who plan and finance professional learning continue to vastly underestimate the amount of time, energy, and resources that are required for a substantial number of educators to acquire the new habits of mind and behavior necessary to meaningfully improve teaching and learning for all students.

The solution requires planners of professional learning to take their responsibilities seriously:

  • They study professional literature, particularly Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning.
  • They vow to do it right.
  • They have hard conversations about current reality.
  • They have hard conversations about what will be required to get to deep understanding and the development of new professional habits of mind and practice.
  • They assess their progress in changing instructional practice and improving student learning.

Our students—particularly those in our most challenged communities and schools—deserve no less.

Do you agree with my observation and with the solution I propose to the perennial problem of low-quality professional learning?

8 Responses to “How understanding the “knowing-doing continuum” can improve the quality of professional learning”


  1. 1 Jamie Neibling @jamieneibling May 8, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Thank you for your ongoing conversation about learning and the most effective ways to reach teachers (adult learners). Each morning, I open your blog post and find helpful and timely thoughts, ideas, and reminders to help me in my work as an instructional coach. Thanks for the role you play in providing me with ongoing professional learning that is helping to shape the work I do with teachers.

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks May 8, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Thank you, Jamie, for your very kind words. I am pleased that my writing is so helpful to you and through you to those with whom you work.

  3. 3 Jane Kise (@JaneKise) May 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    When leaders partner with me to plan for the ongoing support and practice needed for implementation of the strategies/tools provided AND follow through, they see change. But even though I am clear from the contracting stage on re what is involved, and get internal teams involved in ongoing efforts, and even when they see results, leaders seem to move on too soon. Either they were only paying lip service when agreeing to plans or they are kept from follow through by add-on initiatives that were unknown when they planned with me. I’m writing an article on what successful partnerships for professional development and learning really look like…

    • 4 Dennis Sparks May 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks for providing an excellent example, Jane, of how leaders affect the planning and implementation of professional development. Like in the classroom, too much, too fast ensures failure rather than enables success.

  4. 5 cm9384 May 8, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Insightful continuum, Dennis!
    Sadly, I fear that the financial budget crisis in public education, will profoundly affect district professional learning opportunities!

    • 6 Dennis Sparks May 9, 2013 at 5:54 am

      I agree… Lack of resources is a perennial problem in professional development that has been exacerbated by the Great Recession. And, I am convinced that we can use existing resources more wisely and effectively.

  5. 7 Joellen Killion May 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    I agree completely. Understanding what elevates professional learning to level four and five is so critical. Few leaders of professional learning have experienced level four and five learning themselves. We have too few models of this type of learning to follow. There are some excellent ones to study, including Learning Forward’s Academy and the National Writing Project.


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