Designing an effective experimental PLD approach

Image: Derek Wenmoth

Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a number of educational leaders who are looking at how they can best implement some of the changes they believe should be happening in their schools as a result of COVID-19 and the introduction of hybrid learning approaches.

The start point for such efforts must be on working with staff to include them fully in the process and to ensure they have the appropriate level of support and access to professional learning and development to enable them to participate.

Building, sustaining and leveraging the capability of staff should be high priority for any organisation. Research shows that within any group there will be a range of learning needs that exist, each requiring a different response. The CBAM[1] research identifies three key areas of need:

  • Personal – “What are the new skills, knowledge and capabilities I need?”
  • Task – “What do I need to do/know to be make this work in my context?”
  • Impact – “How do I know it’s working? What new things could I try? Who can I work with to make this happen?”

While the first two phases are important in terms of ensuring staff develop the capability and capacity to contribute effectively to the work of the organisation, the focus in the third phase is where an organisation builds the capacity to grow, to innovate and to remain future focused in their practice.

While the needs of staff in the first phase can be addressed by providing access to and passing on existing knowledge and skills, the need for more adaptive, inquiry-led and exploratory approaches increases through the next two phases.

Experimentation: the key to achieving transformation through PLD

Ultimately, PLD should be seen as the key strategy in achieving any form of change or transformation within the organisation as a whole. This is where a culture of experimentation is required.

A culture of experimentation involves:

  • Permission-giving leadership – means letting go and empowering staff to perform their own experiments, not telling them what to do or presenting pre-determined actions to follow.
  • Organisational commitment to an agreed vision or purpose– provides the focus for testing any hypothesis and for understanding where the impact must be seen.
  • Appetite for risk – many education organisations are too conservative in their approach to transformation. Need to ‘think big’ and regard failures as ‘first attempts in learning’.
  • On-demand resource and support – available to support experiments as required. Must allow for variability here and the emergent needs/demands/opportunities that occur.
  • Collaborative effort – staff working in teams to provide support, feedback, critical oversight etc. Requires commitment to mutually agreed ways of working and accountabilities.
  • Short accounts – pursuing short cycles of experimentation, pursuing well-defined hypotheses and reflecting on results on regular basis.
  • Focus on impact – a commitment to data-informed decision-making – use of data must trump opinions. Be prepared to stop things that don’t work.

Conditions required

Creating the conditions for an effective, experimental PLD process requires thinking differently about the way programmes and support are established. The table below illustrates what some of the most effective strategies are:

FocusMost effectiveLeast effective
ParticipationCollaborative teams Democratised participationIndividual focus Selected participation
MotivationPursuing communally-agreed goals and purposePursuing individually identified goals or purpose
LeadershipPermission givingDirective
ResourcesAllocated to meet identified needs/opportunities Able to provide for time, purchase of specific resources Rapid access on the basis of application based on agreed purposeAllocated to individuals in the form of release or salary increment Centrally decided provision of resources and/or support  
SupportAllows for use of internal and external expertise – building collective efficacy Personal and team mentoring support included Ability to access support with specific expertise as requiredRelying exclusively on internal expertise/support Relying exclusively on external expertise/support  
Timing and accountabilityOngoing, short cycles of experimentation with regular review and sharingPre-set timeframes determined by project schedules or deadlines. End-of project reporting/celebration only


Experimentation is a powerful strategy for achieving transformational change in an organisation. When the intent is to explore new ways of working or to pursue innovative ideas, traditional forms of PLD won’t be sufficient when it comes to balancing the need for building capability alongside releasing the creative energy and ideas of staff.

To achieve this requires thinking differently about the traditional structures, systems and processes used to support professional learning and development. The key here is agility, providing the ability for teams to achieve their goals with the provision of support (time, resources, expertise) that is ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’.

Participation in a culture of experimentation should involve everyone, with the allocation of resources being available based on needs that are identified and which align with the agreed purpose and shared vision of the organisation.


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