Teachers are Learners, too!

How understanding adult learning frameworks leads to effective professional learning

I’ve become really interested in the idea of a culture of learning in schools. Is it too idealistic to think of a school as a community of learning for all: students, parents, teachers, and even the wider community? My own definition of a school which embraces a culture of learning is an environment where learning is authentic, shared by all, ongoing, transformative and celebrated. Schools are a place where a love for learning is infectious because it is a collaborative activity in which everyone can participate.

Based on my definition, if we think about everyone being a learner, we need to consider how each learner learns best and provide the appropriate learning experiences. With good reason, educators are concerned with student learning theories, student learning styles and how students learn best, especially in their subject area. Accordingly, professional development is focussed on how to enhance student learning experiences.

In a school that values a culture of learning, it would make then sense, that when designing professional development for educators, there would be the same concern for how educators learn best. In a previous post about authentic professional development, I quoted a Learning Forward article by Arne Duncan who implied that a requirement for authentic professional development is for designers of professional development to, “acknowledge teachers as learners.” (Duncan, 2011)

The standards for coaches developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is consistent with the idea that teachers are learners too. Coaching standard 5a asserts that, as professional learning facilitators, coaches should design professional learning based on adult learning theories.

Coaches design professional learning based on needs assessments and
frameworks for working with adults
to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs.

ISTE Coaching Standard 5a

Considering both ISTE Coaching Standard 5a and my working definition of learning culture, I am interested in finding some pratical solutions to the question: How does understanding and employing adult learning frameworks when designing professional development lead to authentic and effective learning experiences for educators?

Adult Learning Frameworks


In the 1970’s and 80’s, Malcolm Knowles drew attention to the way adults learn. He proffered five characteristics of the adult learner. Adult learners: 1) are self-directed; 2) have life experiences on which to base new learning; 3) are willing to learn based on developmental tasks and social roles; 4) perceive learning as serving immediate needs; 5) have intrinsic motivations for learning. Knowles conceived four principles of adult learning based on his observations. For a lengthy, yet interesting read about Malcolm Knowles read, Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy

Malcolm Knowles: 4 Principles of Adult Learning

Transformative Learning

Karla Gutierrez calls transformative learning ‘Aha! Moments‘, in her article Adult Learning Theories Every Instructional Designer Must Know. Transformative learning is the type of learning that “changes thoughts, perspectives, attitudes, and behavioral patterns.” (Gutierrez, 2018) The theory proposed by Jack Mezirow, suggests that deep learning takes place when learners reflect on content, process and premise and allow that reflection to transform their practice. (Cranton, P., & King, K.P. ) Teachers need education and professional development that will help them to question, challenge and experience critical discussions on school improvement. (Lysaker & Furuness, 2011)


Self-directed Learning stems from work done by Knowles and developed by Canadian educator, Allan Tough. It is a process in which the learner, sometimes with the help of mentors or coaches, has control over learning decisions. The learner decides on the learning need based on learning goals, implements a learning plan, procures learning resources and reflects on their own results.

An article by Elena Aguilar, Understanding the science behind adult learning is important for professional development success, summarises what science tells us about how adults learn best.

  • The learning experience has to feel good
  • Adults want to be the origin of their own learning
  • Adults will commit to learning when they believe that the objectives are realistic and important for their personal and professional needs
  • Adults need direct, concrete experiences for applying what they have learned to their work
  • Adult learners come to the learning process with a self-direction

By the way, if you are interested in information about other learning theories, check out the Learning Theories page at InstructionalDesign.org.

How does understanding and employing adult learning frameworks when designing professional development lead to authentic and effective learning experiences for educators?

The most succinct answer to my question is a presentation by Maria Hyler, Senior Researcher, Learning Policy Institute, in which she explains the seven characteristics of effective learning. It is part of a much longer research presentation by LPI titled Empowering Teacher Learning.  The segement I refer your attention to is from 2:20 – 9:36 of the following video. (I know it’s cheesy/cheating for me to suggest that you skim to 2:20 and watch for about 7 minutes, but I’m hoping you will be as engaged as I was and watch the whole video ( it is over two hours, so maybe not all at once:))

Hyler (2019)suggests a paradigm change (a transfromation) from the type of professional development which is sit and get, drive-by, one size fits all, disconnected from teachers’ classroom and students, to professional learning which is:

  • Content-focused
  • Active
  • Collaborative
  • Using models & modeling
  • Coaching
  • Feedback and reflection
  • Sustained over time

I am sorry that I missed the ISTE conference presentation by Nancye Blair Back. The verbage in her proposal suggested that she would be explaining how to employ “ adult-learner-friendly cooperative learning structures.” I have looked through some of the resources she provided and share a relevant quote from her resource by Tom Whitby as it also helps answer my question.

If an educator controls his or her learning through self-direction, that learning becomes more meaningful. Authentic self-directed learning becomes self-motivating. That does more than translate to a better-educated educator — it also creates a teacher advocate for collaborative learning. A teacher who benefits from collaboration tends to appreciate its effect and will use it in his or her own methodology.

The Connected Educator: It Begins with Collaboration by Tom Whitby

Coaches can move toward providing authentic effective learning experiences for teachers by considering adult learning theory in their design of professional learning. Educators can inspire and motivate student learning by modelling a life-long learner mindset. Schools can embrace a culture of learning and become centers that celebrate learning.


6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them into Practice. Explore the eLearning world with us. (2020, April 29). https://www.ispringsolutions.com/blog/adult-learning-theories.

Aguilar, E. (2011, August 22). The Science Behind Adult Learning. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/adult-learning-pd-elena-aguilar.

Allen Tough, learning projects and lifelong learning. infed.org. (2013, January 7). https://infed.org/mobi/allen-tough-learning-projects-and-lifelong-learning/.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1999, May 1). Teacher Learning That Supports Student Learning: What Teachers Need to Know. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/teacher-learning-supports-student-learning.

De Jong, L., Admiraal, W., Schenke, W., Emmelot, Y., & Sligte, H. (2019, September 23). Schools as professional learning communities: what can schools do to support professional development of their teachers? Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19415257.2019.1665573.

Empowering Teacher Learning. Learning Policy Institute. (2019, October 21). https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/event/empowering-teacher-learning.

Gutierrez, K. (2018, April 24). Adult Learning Theories Every Instructional Designer Must Know. https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/adult-learning-theories-instructional-design.

Malamed, C. (2016, December 10). Self-Directed Learning: Empowerment In The Workplace. The eLearning Coach. https://theelearningcoach.com/learning/self-directed-learning/.

Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy. infed.org. (2013, April 4). https://infed.org/malcolm-knowles-informal-adult-education-self-direction-and-andragogy/.

O’Neill, E. (2019, September 3). 20 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture in the Workplace. LearnUpon. https://www.learnupon.com/blog/learning-culture/.

Pandey, A. (2018, November 15). Getting Started With Self-Directed Learning (SDL) – Featuring A Case Study. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/self-directed-learning-sdl-getting-started-case-study.

Whitby, T. (2014, October 1). The Connected Educator: It Begins with Collaboration. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/connected-educator-begins-with-collaboration-tom-whitby.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, January 8). Transformative learning. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:05, February 8, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Transformative_learning&oldid=999094925