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How Do Adults Learn Best? It Depends

As someone whose work focuses on personalized professional learning, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is, "How do adults learn best?" I always feel like a fraud when I simply reply, "It depends," but that is the truth.

Research on the best format for professional learning is admittedly mixed. Studies conflict as to whether one-time workshops, sustained learning communities, or quick bursts offer the greatest impact. Don't believe me? Check out Chapter 2 of my book Personalized Professional Learning: A Job-Embedded Pathway for Elevating Teacher Voice (pp. 32-33) for a summary. Despite this, most educators agree that learners benefit most when they have time to engage with content - not just absorb it.

As we think about the best format, length, medium, and style of our professional learning experiences, as designers and facilitators, we need to get comfortable with the notion that there is not one direct path or quick fix. Learning will continue to be learner-dependent, and because of this, we need to spend time getting to know our adult learners just as we would our students.

Professional learning design processes should include diagnostics and invite learners in as co-creators. How do participants define success? How do they prefer to apply new ideas and tools? What does the "gray space" between sessions look like for them as they get messy with the content? We need to build relationships with our adult learners - not as session participants but as social constructors.

When it comes to designing the most effective professional learning experiences, it's not a question of workshop versus PLC or one-time versus sustained. Learning, particularly adult learning, is a personal process, and it depends.

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