Professional Development: Modeling Adult Learning Principles

This quarter, as part of my journey through Seattle Pacific University’s Digital Education Leadership program, we are investigating ISTE coaching standards. For this blog post I will be focusing my research on the following ISTE coaching standard:

ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional Development and Program Evaluation 

Indicator: b. Design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment. 


In my last blog post I learned about different platforms and digital tools to use within a Professional Learning Community (PLC). In this blog post I want to expand on Professional Development Opportunities and investigate ways I can model Adult Learning Principles within PD experiences to encourage more effective modern professional development within my campus and school’s community. Throughout this blog post, my goal is to answer the following focus question:

What are the best practices to modeling Knowles six Principles of Adult Learning in digital age professional development?

For this investigation I will be referring to Knowles Six Principles of Adult Learning as a guideline and finding ways I can model these principles within my school community and create effective PD experiences.

Principle 1: Adults are internally motivated and self-directed 

Unlike children, adults are more independent and can usually handle more responsibility and freedom within their learning. (iSpring, 2016) Most educators I know are very self motivated and can display a need to show others that they are capable of being the captain of their own ship. (Cobb, 2020) Adult learners tend to be motivated by internal rewards such as job satisfaction, self esteem, and quality of life rather than external rewards such as promotions and higher salaries. (Cobb, 2020)

Effective PD Strategies:

  • Instead of telling the participates what to do, provide them flexibility to work on projects they are interested in. (Center ELP, 2014)
  • Take the role of the facilitator and allow them to be self-motivated and self-direct their learning.
  • Encourage participates to understand their own motivations to the greatest extent possible and actively seek out resources that align with those motivations while not settling for experiences that do not. (Cobb, 2020)

Digital Connection:

  • Provide anonymous surveys using programs like survey monkey or poll everywhere prior to the PD experience to get a better understanding of where your audience needs support or areas they are interested in. They might be more likely to tell you the areas they would like to learn more about in a private setting and this helps you tailor your PD to be more specific to their needs.

Principle 2: Adults bring life experience and knowledge to learning 

Growing up each individual has had an array of experiences that impact who they are, what motivates them, and how they learn best. Adults are able to take the knowledge they have accumulated over their life (school, work, relationships) and apply it to their own learning and the learning of those around them. (Center ELP, 2014) Many times educators feel that the best professional development they experience is when they are able to learn from other experienced educators. Collaboration is key in this principle for Knowles emphasizes that the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves. (Cobb, 2020)

Effective PD Strategies:

  • Create an environment where educators have an opportunity to connect and learn from other educators.
  • Encourage collaboration among educators and provide different activities or sessions that ask educators to work as a team.
  • Encourage discussions among educators and ways to solve problems they all might be facing in their classrooms.

Digital Connection:

  • Create a PLN (professional learning network) in which educators can communicate and learn from one another. This could even be a digital forum in which teachers can ask each other questions and provide guidance and answers to one another. By finding a way to stay connected and support each other, we are building a better future for our ourselves and our students.

Principle 3: Adults are goal oriented 

When adults attend processional development opportunities they usually do so with either a personal and/or professional goal in mind. Whether the goal is to gather more knowledge on a certain concept or simply to make sure they are completing the necessary training hours needed required by the state. The aim for PD creators is to figure out what types of goals educators have when attending PD events. What are they wanting to gain and/or accomplish by attending this PD experience and how can we provide them with resources and guidance to get there.

Effective PD Strategies:

  • When signing up for PD opportunities, ask participants to share one goal they are wanting to accomplish by attending.
  • Read through the goals of the participants and create sessions that will help meet these goals.
  • Provide additional resources if needed for goals that may be beyond what your PD experience will offer.

Digital Connection:

  • Provide participants with a digital document that summarizes each sessions discussions and/or activities that they can refer back upon after the PD. This document can be editable by anyone attending the PD and participants can add additional resources or connections to the documents for those looking to dive deeper into the concepts discussed.

Principle 4: Adults are relevancy oriented 

Time is precious to many adults and if they do not feel their time is being used constructively they may have a more pessimistic view on professional development. Adults may question how they can connect what they are learning in the PD to key aspects of their life. (Cobb, 2020) Making sure that you include sessions that are relevant to your audience will help keep them engaged and prompt more participation from the participants. It is also an important time to emphasize the why part of the PD. Why is it important for the participants to learn this skill/concept. How does it effect their life? (Cobb, 2020)

Effective PD Strategies:

  • Be transparent with your audience on the importance behind the PD you are offering.
  • Provide real-life examples of how the skills/concepts they are learning can be used within their lives.
  • Bring in community specialists/experts to reach a new level of relevancy within the PD experience.

Digital Connection:

  • Use video conferencing programs such as Skype or Google Hangouts to connect with experts around the world. There are many people in the world who aim to support teachers and can provide guidance/advice for them. Figure out what it is your participants are wanting to learn more about and find a professional to assist in answering their questions or concerns.

Principle 5: Adults are practical

Many times adults seek professional development experiences that will help them to solve problems they may be having in their lives. (Center ELP, 2014) Personally, I look for professional development opportunities that I can see myself using in my classroom or PD that can help me improve on a skill/concept I am struggling with. When creating effective PD remember to keep it practical. What do you think would be information your participants can actually use in an everyday situation? This also refers to providing resources that are within their ability levels. If you know your participants are struggling with computer skills, then providing digital resources may not be the most practical choice.

Effective PD Strategies:

  • Schedule PD events during the evenings or weekends when most professionals are available to attend.
  • Make sure you are prepared for every skill level and have a way to adapt the information to reach all learners.
  • Resources provided should be relevant to the participants whether they are teachers, principals, librarians, etc.

Digital Connection:

  • There are devices that can be used to make sure those who cannot attend the PD can still be present and active. In my program we use robotic communication for those out of state or out of the country to still be involved in our PD experiences. We have also used Meeting Owl before where those who can attend the conference can see and hear those who cannot and vice versa.

Principle 6: Adult learners desire respect 

Respect is essential for productive and meaningful professional development experiences. When you show others respect you encourage a more nurturing environment where the ideas and inputs of others are encouraged and looked highly upon. Treating others respectfully allows them to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences while feeling like an equal within the conversation. (Center ELP, 2014)

Effective PD Strategies:

  • Have a conversation about being respectful to one another before beginning the PD. Make it aware that others may have different opinions or views than you, but that doesn’t mean you get to treat them poorly.
  • Make sure that you are modeling respectful behavior. Many times your behavior will help set the mood and show participants what is expected of them.

Digital Connection:

  • If you are participating in or creating a digital PD experience, you may want to look into digital citizenship standards and ensure that you are showing respect both online as well as offline. Encouraging other participants to do the same will create a very respectful climate for your PD.


Center for Early Learning Professionals. (2014). Using Consultants to Improve Program Quality Module 3: How to Use a Consultant. Retrieved from 

Cobb, Jeff. (2020). Applying the 6 Key Adult Learning Principles to Yourself. Retrieved from 

iSpring. (January 29, 2016). What Does Malcolm Knowles Know About Adult Learning Theory?. Retrieved from 

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