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Strengthening and Enriching Your Professional Learning Community

by Geoffrey Caine and Renate N. Caine

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Foundations of Professional Development

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
—Alvin Toffler, author and futurist

Professional development is about learning.

Becoming more expert is essential in the best of times. This challenge applies to every profession, from neurosurgeons who are constantly having to be aware of new discoveries and master the latest methods, to football coaches who have to keep up with the times, to educators who are bombarded with findings from brain research as well as changes in every subject area in the curriculum. It is even more important in a turbulent world characterized by rapid social and economic changes that impinge directly on the lives of students everywhere. Educators, above all, must be—and be seen as—quintessential learners.

A key to success in any field is to capitalize on all the learning capacities with which human beings are endowed. That is why this book approaches professional development from the perspective of how people learn naturally.

How Do People Become More Expert—Really?

As you look back on your progress as an educator (or, indeed, with any other skill or in any other profession), remind yourself of what it actually took for you to become more skillful. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What state of mind were you in as you learned? And if you experienced many states of mind, which were most helpful and which were most inhibiting?
  • What combination of theory and experience was required?
  • Did you always learn exactly what you needed from the first experience you had?

These are the sorts of questions that have to be answered in a general way to gain the insight necessary to have programs that work. And research and experience are also available to show the way.

The goal of this book is to create a process that helps educators learn both for understanding and for real-world performance. For that to happen, the process needs to tap into how people learn naturally because throughout the ages, real-world performance has always been grounded in natural learning.

An overall understanding of how people learn naturally emerges out of the brain/mind learning principles that we have been developing for nearly 20 years (Appendix A has a more detailed explanation of the principles and the process). The core point is that meaningful learning that leads to real change engages every aspect of a person. It is just as important to teach the whole adult as it is to teach the whole child.

It becomes clear from the brain/mind learning principles that professional development is also a personal matter. When we realize that emotions and relationships and personal beliefs are involved, then we have to grapple with the fact that in professional development two different but parallel processes are taking place all the time: professional learning and personal learning.

Professional learning deals with mastery of new ideas and information and the development of new skills. Personal learning deals with developing new ways of seeing things, acquiring new capacities, and even adjusting some attitudes and beliefs. The point is that some professional learning can occur only if adequate personal learning also takes place. One example has to do with asking questions. An excellent example was given to us by a colleague, who told us about Myron:

Myron was a professional development junkie. He was very sincere. And he loved to hear the sound of his own voice. About three years into his career as a teacher he began to take "wait time" seriously. He quite proudly asked our colleague to observe him. And when she did, she did not know whether to laugh or cry. Myron would ask the class a question. And then he would count to seven (privately, he thought), while waiting for an answer. And as our colleague looked around she saw all the students silently counting to seven together. She knew and they knew that he was just waiting for a chance to talk! But her feedback to him made no impact at all. She saw him again about a year later, quite by accident. He said that he had been taking a personal development course, and he had been learning how impatient he used to be, and how good it was to be able to relax as things unfolded. Then he blushed and grinned. "I guess," he said, "that wait time doesn't work if you're not really waiting." (Anonymous personal communication, Oct. 10, 2008)

This example illustrates both a specific point and a general point. Two aspects of the skill of asking questions are to genuinely care about what others actually think, and to be truly patient enough for them to find their thoughts and ask their questions. And, more generally, every skill depends for its effectiveness on the right foundation of personal attributes and capacities. So successful professional learning depends upon successful personal learning. Thus the conditions and processes that are created need to be sustained and effective enough for both layers of development to occur.

The Three Critical Elements of Great Professional Development

Our experience over many years and the conclusions that emerge from the research on learning (Caine, G., & Caine, R., 2001; Caine, R., et al., 2008; summarized in Appendix A) suggest that the optimal conditions for professional development (and student learning in the classroom) require the continuous presence of three interactive elements:

  • Relaxed alertness as the optimal state of mind in individuals and the community
  • The orchestrated immersion of learners in complex experience in which the content (information, ideas, and skills) is embedded
  • The active processing of experience

Relaxed Alertness as the Optimal State of Mind

Relaxed alertness is a blend of low threat and high challenge. When you walk into a school where relaxed alertness is the norm, you can feel the difference in terms of less rushing and yelling, even though movement and activity are pervasive. Staff and faculty are smiling and listening to each other, notwithstanding the pressures found in any school. A sense of interest and excitement in the work itself is evident.

The problem of threat, stress, and fear. We first encountered this issue in the work of Les Hart (2002). He coined the word "downshifting" to describe what happens when people experience threat to the point of feeling helpless. He based his notion on the work of neuroscientist Paul MacLean (1978), who argued that when the survival response kicks in, functioning is driven by more primitive parts of the brain. In other words, the brain moves into automatic, often quick but unreflective responses, and higher-order thinking is compromised.

Although the term "downshifting" is ambiguous (because when a vehicle "downshifts" it is moving into a more powerful gear), the phenomenon has been confirmed. Some of the most useful research comes from LeDoux (1996), a neuroscientist who has examined the effect of fear on the brain. LeDoux suggests that the brain functions in two basic modes—a high road and a low road. The low road is the road of survival. It is triggered by stimuli that provoke fear (such as giving a talk in public, for some people). In these circumstances, the immediate responses are fight or flight. And here is the critical point: a person in that state tends to literally lose access to some parts of the brain that handle higher-order functioning. Some capacities to think and react just vanish! (This phenomenon is explained in more detail in Caine, R., & Caine, G., 2011.)

Another term that can be used to describe what happens when schools are overstressed is what Staw and colleagues call "threat rigidity." Olsen and Sexton (2009), citing Staw and colleagues, state the following:

Threat rigidity is the theory that an organization, when perceiving itself under siege (i.e., threatened or in crisis), responds in identifiable ways: Structures tighten; centralized control increases; conformity is stressed; accountability and efficiency measures are emphasized; and alternative or innovative thinking is discouraged. (p. 15)

For an extended description of how fear can affect one location (San Diego), read Chapter 4 of The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Ravitch, 2010).

The promise of challenge and intrinsic motivation. The high road is radically different from the low road. Imagine, for instance, a person who loves public speaking and finds it exhilarating. Being in front of an audience is exciting. The person's repertoire of experience and cognitive capacity can be accessed. And so the response may be one of actively entering into the event and enjoying every aspect of it. What is immensely threatening to one person is exciting and challenging to another—and the state of mind affects the capacity to function and perform.

Several fields of research are converging to support the added efficacy of learners who are relaxed and alert. This includes research into self-efficacy (Bandura, 2000); resilience (Davies, 2002; Gillham, 2000); the state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990); and positive psychology in general (see, for example, Seligman, 1991). One example of research being conducted is a study on what is called "positive affect"—a mild increase in positive feelings. Positive affect has been shown to improve higher-order functions such as the following:

  • Episodic and working memory
  • Creative problem solving
  • Social interactions (helpfulness and sociability)
  • Decision making
  • Flexibility in thinking
  • Improved verbal fluency in adolescents (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999)

One aspect of this positive mind state is intrinsic motivation, which emerges when learners have many opportunities to ask their own questions and deal with issues of personal interest. This was precisely the approach that was used in the first school we were ever asked to work in—Dry Creek Elementary, a small, K–6 school north of Sacramento, California. It was the early 1990s, and under the leadership of the principal, Cindy Tucker, the staff had spent several months examining alternatives and deciding on what to do to improve. One of them came across our book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain (Caine, R., & Caine, G., 1994). Shortly after the staff had read it, we received a call from Cindy. She said (almost verbatim), "Hello. You haven't heard of me. We've been reading your book, and we'd like you to come and work with us." Geoffrey then flew to Sacramento to discuss a possible program. Much of the process described in this book was either developed or clarified as a result of the five years that we spent working with Dry Creek.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have also frequently been called in to meet with staff who have been instructed—irrespective of what they want or think or feel—to meet and work with us. The difference in attitude on first meeting compared with our experience in Dry Creek is striking—and, for the most part, so are the results. The lesson here is that it is important to have buy-in from participants, that they be open to enjoying the process, to being interested in becoming more effective, to actually looking forward to trying out new things and learning from mistakes as well as successes, and to exploring and discussing all this with colleagues in a safe environment.

Participants in a good learning community find that it helps to have colleagues with whom to talk things through, reflect, analyze, and discuss. In fact, when the right procedures are used, the community can end up being an oasis of safety in which high-level, in-depth learning takes place. Thus, the foundation for developing relaxed alertness is an orderly (but not rigid) and caring community, with healthy relationships based on respectful and coherent procedures.

The Orchestrated Immersion of Learners in Complex Experience

Science is now explaining what everyday life has confirmed over centuries and what is almost certainly true in your personal experience: natural learning is not just an intellectual process. If a person is learning how to read situations in new ways (a shift in perceptual capacities), such as seeing the order and collaboration in some types of "messy" classrooms, and is acquiring new skills for real-world performance, then body, brain, and mind must all be engaged in the learning. (See Appendix A for a brief comment on the relationship between brain and mind.) The whole person learns, which requires a constant combination of academic content and practical experience. That is the essence of orchestrated immersion.

More specifically, participants need opportunities to do the following activities:

  • Analyze, and sometimes research, the material in question
  • Have opportunities to link new material to what they already know
  • Take action and physically engage with material to be mastered or understood
  • Receive coaching, guidance, and explanations
  • Observe competent performances by others
  • Use the material as the basis for action in the real world

This range of activities should not be surprising. Young children mastering their native language or culture are exposed to all of these aspects of experience, as is anyone who becomes an expert in any field, ranging from scientific research to sports.

Similarly, a professional development program must include a range of experiences that extend beyond study, intellectual analysis, and conversation to actually trying things out in the classroom and the laboratory. It is only through experience that people get a feel for what they are trying to do or become, and that they see how things actually happen. Test this assertion in your own experience, returning to the questions we asked earlier. Have you ever mastered a complex new skill without actually trying it out several times, in various ways, in the real world? The key is to make the process manageable, systematic, and sustained over time.

The Active Processing of Experience

It is all well and good to try things out, but the exercise bears fruit only when people intentionally and systematically learn from their experience. Experience needs to be digested, or processed, which is why Schön's books (1990, 1995) on what he calls "the reflective practitioner" are still useful, and why it is important to combine reflection on action (which occurs afterward) and reflection in action (which occurs in the moment). Many others have written about reflective practice, describing recent developments (e.g., Larrivee & Cooper, 2005; Osterman & Kottkamp, 2004), proposing a greater focus on metacognition (e.g., Perfect & Schwartz, 2002), and providing guidance on reflective practice for learning communities (Collay, Dunlap, Enloe, & Gagnon, 1998).

Constant, ongoing active processing is thus the third indispensable element for optimal professional development. The key for those who are conducting programs of professional development is to go beyond providing information to ensuring that participants have many opportunities to receive feedback, digest, think about, question, examine, and process what they are experiencing—guided by process leaders. Active processing includes, where appropriate, activities such as these:

  • Detailed observation of actions and responses
  • Deliberate (selective and mindful) practice and rehearsal
  • Multiple modes of questioning
  • Analysis of data and sources
  • Ongoing responses to and reflection on feedback
  • Expansion of capacities for self-discipline and self-regulation

Active processing is doubly useful because it simultaneously provides feedback for process leaders and also can be used to expand and deepen participants' thinking. In this way, active processing resembles some aspects of formative assessment in the classroom, providing useful information for both leader (teacher) and participants (students) as instruction and learning proceed.

As a practical matter, the questioning aspect of active processing is complex, because there are so many ways to ask questions that the whole experience can be overwhelming. After this became apparent to us in our work with Dry Creek, we found that a good approach is to begin with just four questions (all asked in the spirit of inquiry and not of criticism):

  • Can you tell me what you are doing?
  • Why did you decide to do it this way?
  • Can you explain it?
  • What would happen if you changed one element (such as …)?

Professional Development Revisited

The three elements described here ensure that any learner—student or staff member—is being guided to make sense of things on an individual level. The three-part approach makes certain that theory translates into practice and that intellectual understanding becomes real-world competence. Many programs fall flat if participants are not in the appropriate state of mind, if the programs are characterized by too much talk and not enough walk, or if the activities are not adequately processed or "mined" for all the learning and possible meanings they may contain.

The three elements and their components do not need to occur in a linear or sequential fashion. Rather, they should be seen as a triple helix, with each element supporting and being a part of the other two. In this way professional development becomes dynamic and continuous. The primary indicator of success is the fact that educators have spontaneous conversations about theory and practice outside session hours and begin to try things out on their own initiative. Their learning then takes on a life of its own.


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