“We want our students to become lifelong learners.”

This is a phrase that features prominently in many school vision and mission statements. We know that learning to learn will be key to our students futures as they “learn, relearn and unlearn” in a digital landscape that is exponentially accelerating the amount of knowledge at our disposal. In fact, this is not a mindset that we need students to adapt for the future, it is one they need today so that they may fully embrace the opportunities of the connected world. How do we genuinely ensure that students can become independent learners? To begin, we must ensure that all adults in the system can model modern learning themselves and, to do this, we need to shift much of our current thinking about professional learning.

Many schools and districts, my own included, schedule “PD days” each year, as if professional learning is an event that occurs only on specific days and dates. The model of attending hour-long sessions on pedagogy, technology tools or instructional strategies is alive and well, despite the fact that the research on this type of professional development has long shown it has little lasting or significant impact on teacher practice or, more precisely, on student learning. Despite intuitively knowing this, we continue to send faculty to conferences with optimistic hopes of learning infusion and school improvement.

We continue to rely on traditional, professional development “structures” and approaches: conferences, after school sessions, workshops by peers, the development of so-called professional learning communities. But such structures do not genuinely embrace the habits of lifelong learning students and teachers need. These approaches still require schools to provide the learning topics, scheduled time, and protocols for learning. They still resemble approaches used in a pre-digital world. This is not how our students learn today, though it is, ironically, how we continue to try to educate them. In the 21st century, learning is a connected endeavor.

We have long known that professional learning must be embedded and ongoing in order to have real impact. The words continuous and personal need to be added to this list. Professional learning communities provide the collaborative, supportive ecosystem colleagues need in order to grow, to truly become learners. Educational leaders: superintendents, principals, curriculum coordinators, team leaders, must first model what connected learning looks like before we can expect to develop a genuine culture of learning in our schools.

True learning leaders need to explore the learning potential of social media such as Twitter, in order to openly share their learning with colleagues and demonstrate digital learning in their communities. Leaders share learning celebrations through hashtags and blog posts. They are clear about what they are doing, and why. They demonstrate resilience by sticking at it. They model risk-taking by sharing their thoughts on learning with colleagues. They encourage and support faculty who join in. Just as we aspire for our student learners, they just don’t simply consume information and knowledge, they make a genuine effort to contribute to shared dialogue around learning.

School leaders talk about lifelong learning and 21st century skills, but until we show what is possible by contributing and collaborating using contemporary digital tools, taking the time to learn these tools for ourselves, those words will remain nothing more than empty, aspirational phrases.

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