Pay attention to the fundamentals of professional learning

Sometimes the “bells and whistles” of new things can distract us from the fundamentals, the things that make the biggest difference and form the basis of all that follows.

In classrooms, those fundamentals include close reading, clear and compelling writing, and thoughtful conversations informed by attentive listening.

Those same fundamentals apply to professional development, as this post from February 2014 underscores.

4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind.…” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.” 

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students. 

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy. 

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words—a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by leaders deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

6 Responses to “Pay attention to the fundamentals of professional learning”


  1. 1 jcfunk January 23, 2019 at 6:00 am

    I taught paralegal studies at a technical college. My students amazed me with the belief that once they obtained their associate’s degree professional learning ceased. I continued to point out that every day that legislatures are in session and every court decision changes the law. Sadly, it fell on deaf ears.

  2. 2 Linda McFall January 23, 2019 at 10:12 am

    This is a very helpful reminder for growing even after retirement from the professional life. Thank you.

  3. 3 Rita DeLongchamp-Osborne January 28, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    I added to learn and to share. The ‘share” part informs me by letting me know I have learned or I need to know more.

  4. 4 rickrepicky January 29, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    As usual, Dennis,you have covered the basics of professional learning with your post. I would just emphasize the value of stretching these 4 sources by adding small group (4-6 members) discussion. If all members are prepped on the topic, the give-and-take of discussion can force participants to throw out ideas (giving the speaker a chance to formulate thoughts) and process different reactions.


  1. 1 From Out There Somewhere – Outtakes Trackback on January 27, 2019 at 8:57 am

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