Reflecting on learning and seeing the world in exciting new ways.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Red rose animationOr so the saying goes. However, I am a strong believer in the power of words and see that names, titles and labels can be incredibly important. A single word or phrase can bring up connotations that are either completely appropriate, 100% inaccurate, or somewhere in between. Sometimes words are synonymous with another; other times, words are used interchangeably when one is actually a subset of another or in reality bears little correlation whatsoever. It’s like calling a rose a dandelion just because they are both flowers. That’s close enough, right?

Professional learning

I work in the field of professional learning for tertiary educators. Not training, not professional development, but professional learning. In fact, although I am passionate about learning, training or being trained holds little appeal to me. I love working with professionals to facilitate and co-construct learning. It’s an exciting area to be working in.

To me, the role of training is to provide specific knowledge, skills and competencies in a specialised field. There is little variance in content and the learning outcomes are very tightly defined. Training is likely to be both pre-service and ongoing; a substantial amount of training of this type also occurs on the job.

Training is extremely important in, for example, technically-based professions. After all, we’d want to know that the person fixing the aeroplane we fly in is highly trained in their specialist subject: aircraft repair. More specifically, I’d want them to know great amounts of detail about the exact aircraft they were repairing, while having the practical skills  and competencies required for the job as well as a general understanding of the principles relating to aircraft repair, mechanics and so on. Here, training is vital.

So what about professional learning in the workplace, then? Isn’t it important that everyone in a similar role knows how to do their job within the scope of an organisation’s way of working. Of course it is, to a certain extent, but there is so much more to it. This is where professional learning comes in.

This diagram is how I see the relationship between professional learning, professional development and training in its simplest form:

Professional learning diagramThere are times when it may be appropriate to skew the size of each circle in relation to the purpose for learning and outcomes desired. Sometimes learning needs to be highly focused on a particular area or involve specialised skill development; that’s really important. However, for the most part, I prefer to see training as a subset of professional development which, in turn, is a subset of the wider concept of professional learning.


Jay Cross states in Informal Learning: “It should come as no surprise that workers don’t like training. Most training is built on the pessimistic assumption that trainees are deficient. Training is the cure for what’s broken. Consequences include:

  • negative reinforcement (correct what’s wrong, take the test, do this or else) instead of positive (great job!)
  • unmotivated learners (who wants to accept that they are inadequate?)
  • learner disengagement, unrewarded curiosity, spurned creativity (because the faculty implies, “my way or the highway”)
  • training (we do it to you) instead of learning (co-creation of knowledge)
  • focus on fixing the individual rather than optimizing the team (because the individual trainee will submit to being fixed but the organization is reluctant to join in group therapy).” (Cross, 2007, p. 96)

Some of these are statements are very heavy handed, although I do agree with most of them. The two that ring most true for me are the first and fourth points. By its very association of ‘jugs to mugs’ (fill ’em up!), training is often based on a deficit model consisting of an assumption that there is something wrong or missing (a needs analysis will often show this) and needs to be fixed. Input training and output the solution? Not so simple. The fourth points suggests a very top-down approach: “we do it to you” leaves the learner little control of their learning, resulting in low levels of empowerment and even less autonomy in their overall and ongoing professional development.

Learner autonomy

So what is the distinction between professional development and professional learning, then? For me, it’s about learner autonomy; professional development usually involves decisions made by others on an employee’s behalf (management, a curriculum or syllabus, industry standards etc). It has a valid place in the wider scheme of professional learning and might include some aspects of training, but is not the be all and end all of a professional’s ongoing development. Quality professional learning should offer opportunities and synergies in all three areas depending on the needs of the learners and the goals of organisation or industry they work in.

Cross, J. (2007). Informal learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.


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