Personalized Professional Learning: Literature Review

I recently graduated from Western Governors University with a Masters of Science in Educational Leadership. My research, and a HUGE personal interest of mine, was centered on Personalized Professional Learning. While my big research question and the action research I conducted focused on small changes with a group of teachers that I’ve blogged about before, the literature review I completed as part of my capstone really led me to conclusions that I’ve been wrestling with for the last few years.

I’ve recently been talking with other folks planning professional learning for teachers in their building and shared these resources with them. Seeing the hunger for resources to build our own understanding as we make decisions that impact the adult learners in our building, and the desire to learn from what others have already experienced encouraged me to share the work I’ve done. This is part of a capstone research writing, so the style is much different than what I usually write here. I’ve also included my references in the end of this post, so if you want to really dig in and learn more, you have the access! I hope this is helpful as you begin to rethink professional learning opportunities for adult learners you work with!

Finally, I’ve included the summary presentation of my research at the bottom of the page. Please contact me if you’d like to read the whole paper. I’d love to share if it would be of help to you.

Professional Learning Literature Review

Recent publications have increasingly addressed the need for professional development (or professional learning, the two terms are used interchangeably throughout current literature) opportunities for teachers.  There was no shortage of articles and studies addressing the topic. Through this review, areas where improvement is needed and those in which schools were seeing positive gains in both teacher and student learning were identified.  Five clear themes emerged from the text: the need for clear vision and leadership, the power of teacher led learning opportunities, the benefits and need for peer interaction and social learning, a shortage of time and a creative use of time and structure to ensure learning can take place during the contract day, and a connection to student learning.  

A Need for Clear Vision and Leadership

The need for clear vision and leadership, both in the school and district priorities was clearly expressed in the research.  Teachers reported a negative impression of professional development that is separated and not connected to their daily work (Admiraal, 2016).  A defined vision, connectedness to an overarching goal, such as “ensuring excellent learning for each student” (Tomlinson, 2018) is most important, as opposed to professional development being topic or application based.  This clearly defined vision ensures teachers “understand how they need to improve–or even that they need to improve at all” (Weisburg, 2015) as well as defining the roles of coaches and administrators who will regularly support teacher learners (Lockwood, 2018).  Often this vision and leadership creates conditions for the other systemic needs identified by teachers (Stewart, 2018). A smaller trend emerged from the research that a vision must also include expectations or plan for implementing and measuring the learning of teachers for it to be most effective (Cieminski, 2018).  Teachers and administrators both noted, in multiple articles, the importance of a growth mindset and willingness to try something new (Cieminski, 2018). This mindset is modeled and reinforced by both formal and informal school leaders and critical to the successful transition from knowledge to practice.

Teacher Led Learning Opportunities

Teachers and administrators identify teacher leadership as an element necessary for successfully rethinking professional learning opportunities.  Not only do teachers need choice and agency over their learning, but they must be involved in both the planning and the work of these professional learning opportunities.  Teacher led inquiry is one model that is highlighted in the research. It’s important for teachers to determine the topic or idea for this inquiry themselves, while it should also be related to school vision and goals (Learning Cycles, 2018).  Thacker points out that teachers prefer to learn from and with their peers in their own school, not division specialists or experts from outside the district who are removed from the classroom (Thacker, 2017). Both Lockwood and Admiraal identified that teacher autonomy works hand in hand with leadership support and resource availability to ensure learning happens for all educators (Admiraal, 2016; Lockwood, 2018).  Educators have reported that professional development often is perceived as a threat to their autonomy and independence; including teacher choice and leadership opportunities can help to combat these feelings and invite teachers to participate more fully in the learning (Jones, 2018). Around the world, teachers are stepping into leadership roles that include mentoring novice teachers, leading learning for their school staff and developing processes to improve learning for all teachers and students (Stewart, 2018).  These opportunities provide a chance for career growth and development that many teachers have sought by leaving the classroom.

Peer Interaction and Social Learning

Peer interaction and opportunities for conversations are often overlooked when professional learning is planned.  Teachers reported a strong dislike for sit-and-get presentations and often felt little urgency to put what was learned in these one-time only trainings into practice in the classroom.  In direct opposition is the perspective of teachers who experienced collaborative learning with peers. The teacher led learning cycle is one example of the power of learning and reflecting with peers.  Teachers lead peers in a cycle of learning a new strategy, trying it in their own classrooms and returning to reflect together and identify the next steps (“Learning Cycles” 2018). Time to collaborate and talk with colleagues, both in like and different content areas is identified as a critical element needed to move learning into practice in teachers’ own classrooms (Thacker, 2017).  More recently, teachers are connecting via social media with educators in other schools and continuing their learning (Cieminski, 2018). This self directed and ultimately personalized learning through social media provides a chance for teachers to be both a learner and an expert (Tour, 2017). An important note is that teachers must feel safe and have trust for others in their learning groups in order for it to be most effective (Admiraal, 2016).  The impact of this is high as administrators must provide time for teams to create norms and engage in team-building and trust establishing activities in addition to the content. Repeatedly throughout the research the need for professional connection as an antidote for isolation was noted (Stewart, 2018). Teachers are interested in learning from each other and reflecting on what they are learning. Both are identified as strategies that improve teacher practice (Stewart, 2018).

Creative Structures and Use of Time

Providing time within the school day for teachers to engage in professional learning is both a great challenge for school leaders and a highly valued demand by teachers.  The literature provided examples of how schools and teams were creatively structuring professional learning to provide the time for teacher learning. Learning cycles provide both time during the day and extended time to master a concept.  Teachers lead each other in learning, schedule time to try the practice in their own classroom and come back together to reflect and exchange ideas (Learning Cycles, 2018). Time to collaborate and talk with colleagues is critical to successful professional learning (Thacker, 2017).  A sustained and intensive effort that fits into the daily schedule showed promising results in secondary schools when paired with strong vision and a collaborative culture (Admiraal, 2016). The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle is often cited as a solution, but teachers often do not have the time to complete this cycle within their work (Lockwood, 2018).  Blended professional learning, where some learning is in person and other learning is online through learning menus, choice of readings or online modules provide a unique opportunity for teachers to engage in learning both in and out of school. (Cieminski, 2018). Creating learning opportunities that occur over time rather than a single event is another critical change identified as impacting the effectiveness of professional learning.  Designing a structure and a path for learning, while providing choice and self direction is another way administrators can rethink the time spent in professional learning (Rebora, 2018).

Strong Connection to Student Learning

Surprisingly, a strong connection to student learning outcomes was mentioned, but not with the frequency of the other themes noted.  Teachers would like to determine their own topic or idea, but the connection to student learning makes the topic relevant for every day work (“Learning Cycles”, 2018).  The connection is often understood but needs to be named and referred to often. Defining what good learning is for students is an activity that a team can complete together to ensure all team members have a strong understanding of how their learning connects to student learning (Tomlinson, 2018).  Many of the creative structures identified as successful models include observation of teacher and student practice as an opportunity to connect to learning (Stewart, 2018). Throughout the research, whether named or not, many of the suggestions and conclusions from authors include strong connections to student learning.


The research is clear.  Traditional professional learning opportunities with topics determined by administrators and district leaders, where teachers sit and receive information from presenters is not meeting the needs of teachers.  Teachers are seeking opportunities to learn together, to learn about topics they are interested and to improve student learning. They want to experience professional development that is learner centered and includes time to interact with peers.  They want opportunities to try something with their students along with dedicated time to reflect and refine the practice with their peers. “Learning is our lifeblood, and we live better when we learn more” (Knight, 2018). Schools are finding ways to meet this need for their teachers and seeing results.  Teachers are more engaged and classroom practices are shifting.


Admiraal, W., Kruiter, J., Lockhorst, D., Schenke, W., Sligte, H., Smit, B., … de Wit, W. (2016). Affordances of teacher professional learning in secondary schools. Studies in Continuing Education, 38(3), 281–298.

Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd. (2018). Learning Cycles: A Powerful Tool for Teacher-to-Teacher Professional Learning. CenterView. Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd. Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd. Retrieved from

Cieminski, A., & Andrews, D. (2018). The Perfect Mix: With Blended Professional Learning, Learners Choose Time, Place, Path, and Pace. Learning Professional, 39(1), 50–55. Retrieved from

Corwin, Learning Forward, & National Education Association. (2017, June 28). THE STATE OF TEACHER PROFESSIONAL LEARNING Results from a Nationwide Survey. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M., & Espinoza, D. (2017, June). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from

Darling-Hammond, L., Chung Wei, R., Andree, A., Richardson, N., Ophanos, S., & School Redesign Network at Stanford University. (2009, February). Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from

Jones, B. K. 1. brian. jones@knoxschools. or. (2018). An Insider’s Perspective on Transforming PD. Educational Leadership, 76(3), 36–42. Retrieved from

Knight, J. (2018). Escape from the Zero-Learning Zone: Why educators frequently turn away from opportunities to learn, and what we can do about it. Educational Leadership, 76(3), 20–26. Retrieved from

Konen, J. (2016, August 23). 5 Trends in Professional Development We Must Think About. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from

Learning Walks: Better Together. (2018). Educational Leadership, 76(3), 11. Retrieved from

Thacker, E. S. (2017). “PD is where teachers are learning!” high school social studies teachers׳ formal and informal professional learning. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 41, 37–52.

Lockwood, M. meghan. lockwood@learningfirst. co. (2018). Making Teacher Teams WORK: To make an impact on learning, teacher data-inquiry teams need the right kinds of support. Educational Leadership, 76(3), 64–70. Retrieved from

Rebora, A. (2018). Redefining Teacher Learning for a New Era. Educational Leadership, 76(3), 7. Retrieved from

Research Alert: Instructional Coaches Got Game. (2018). Educational Leadership, 76(3), 8. Retrieved from

Rodman, A. (2018). Learning Together, Learning On Their Own: What if schools could offer teachers both shared professional learning experiences and personalized learning opportunities? Educational Leadership, 76(3), 12–18. Retrieved from

Stewart, V. (2018, November). How Teachers Around The World Learn. Educational Leadership, 76(3), 28-35.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann (2018). Help Teachers Become Master Learners: Professional development needs greater vision and clarity. Educational Leadership, 76(3), 88–89. Retrieved from

Tour, E. (2017). Teachers’ personal learning networks (PLNs): exploring the nature of self-initiated professional learning online. Literacy, 51(1), 11–18.

Weisberg, D. (2015, August 04). Do We Know How to Help Teachers Get Better? Retrieved October 22, 2018, from

To view the entire capstone presentation multimedia, please click here.

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