June 14, 2022 8:00 am

How to Create Meaningful Professional Development for Adult Learners

Give teachers what they really want: the opportunity to be active participants in their own learning.

It’s Thursday afternoon, and my students are having trouble concentrating. Their excitement for a 3-day weekend is palpable, but I’m… not off the hook just yet. Tomorrow is one of those dotted-line days on the academic calendar — a student-free, professional development Friday. Now, while a day of no classroom management is nice, I can’t quite share in my students’ excitement for a true day off. 

That is because I know what’s coming: a full day of prescribed professional development. I’m already planning the snacks I will eat and the grading I will sneakily get done.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

It isn’t that teachers don’t want professional development, in fact I’d venture to say most educators would describe themselves as lifelong learners. This isn’t what administrators seek out, either, when they carefully plan PD days. Their intentions are good. For any career, continued education should be involved — especially for something as dynamic and important as education.  

So what DOES get teachers excited for professional development? 

In my attempt to answer this question, I had an ah-ha moment. I learned that ped, the root meaning “child,” combined with gogy, the root meaning “to lead” (or teach), is where we get the word pedagogy, or “teaching children.” 

Andra is the root meaning adult, so (I’m sure you’ve arrived here already), andragogy is the concept of teaching adults. So, if administrators are trying to apply good “pedagogy” in professional development, that in itself is the misstep. American educator, Malcolm Knowles, coined the term “andragogy” in 1968. His four principles of adult learning give us some insight into how to tailor professional development to educators. 

a group of educators sitting around a table

1. Adults want to be part of the planning process — and the evaluation.  

Administrators were teachers once (and some still are actively involved in the classroom), so it is likely that they know what professional development would be beneficial to their teachers — especially because they have a bigger picture of their entire faculty. However, giving them exactly what they need does not always result in teacher buy-in. This is because, as adults, we value and expect independence. Telling an adult what they need to learn is a surefire way to close them off to any new information. 

Pre-training surveys are one way to solicit teacher input, but depending on school size, it might be too difficult to try to please everyone. A more realistic strategy might be to enlist department chairs or team leaders to meet with their teams and agree upon one training opportunity they would like. This takes care of the planning piece, but what about evaluation? For that agreed-upon training idea, administrators might also ask for departments to decide how they expect to implement or “show” the knowledge from their professional development day. Though this will still result in a number of different ideas (read on for thoughts about whole-staff vs. grouped PD), getting the teachers involved with the planning process will ensure that they know you have their interest at heart.  

2. Tapping into learner experience is essential. 

For our students, activating prior knowledge is usually part of the introduction to a lesson. For adults, it’s often overlooked in the interest of getting rid of the fluff and jumping right into the topic. But where our students may only have a handful of years of experience to look back on, adult learners have a lifetime’s worth of valuable, experiential knowledge.  

Utilizing this doesn’t mean asking a question and calling on everyone who raises their hand — we all know you may never get to the content. But something as simple as asking tables to discuss topical experiences for 10 minutes, or even just thinking about it individually, can help increase investment. Not to mention when you want their participation later, they will have already activated their knowledge on the topic.  

3. Adults are drawn to learning things directly relevant to them, both personally and professionally. 

In this day and age, if you’re looking for insight into what you are interested in learning about, take a look at your Google searches. Here’s my last search: “can a baby eat too many bananas?” This is directly relevant to my personal life as a mom of a voracious 10-month-old. (For those curious, Google wasn’t helpful here, but my pediatrician friend was — let them eat bananas!)  

Now, this isn’t to say that PD should be on “Pinterest classroom library ideas.” What I’m here to tell you is that if you already incorporated the previous tips by involving teachers in the planning process and tapping into their experience, you can feel safe that the topic is relevant to at least a subset of teachers. That is where the tip for this principle comes in — no PD day is going to be relevant to all teachers. For that reason, consider forgoing the full day of togetherness and utilizing breakout groups instead. These can change throughout the day or stay the same, but meaningful groupings could be by department, grade level, or whatever unique way your teachers work together. That way, rather than knowing the kindergarten teachers are tuning out while discussing upper elementary student engagement strategies, you can ensure that everyone is getting what they need. 

4. Problems, rather than subjects, take center stage.  

Continuing with the idea that Google searches reveal what we want to learn, I didn’t search my banana question in the hopes that I would learn registered-dietician-level information about the nutritional makeup of bananas and how they interact with an infant’s digestive system. I had a problem that I wanted to solve — did I need to tone down my son’s banana intake?  

The same applies to professional development. Lead with the problem you are seeking to solve, and ensure teachers leave with something they can use to solve it. So rather than starting the day speaking generally about student engagement in the upper elementary classroom, start with the challenge teachers are facing — they are struggling to maintain student attention during direct instruction. While you may not promise a solution, you can promise that teachers will leave with strategies they can implement the next day.  


As educators and administrators in the K–12 world, we are experts in teaching students, but that doesn’t necessarily transfer to teaching teachers. By including them in the process, drawing on their expertise, and giving them the information they want and need, administrators can feel more confident that their idea of the mentally stimulating day of PD matches up with teacher expectations.  

About the Author — Ally Jones

Ally Jones is a California credentialed educator who specialized in teaching English language learners at the secondary level. Outside of education, she is passionate about fitness, literature, and taking care of the planet for her son’s generation.