Sara Bubb of the Institute of Education in London discusses the implications of research into adult learning for their professional development.

Thinking about how adults learn is crucial for anyone involved in helping staff develop. If individual teachers understand how they learn, and can appreciate that others have different learning styles, they will be better able to support the learning of both pupils and colleagues.

Learning cycle

Experiential learning is particularly important for adults. Someone who wants to get better at taking assembly, for instance, might usefully go through the cycle of:

Do              observe someone that I admire take assembly
Review      think about it and discuss it with them afterwards
Learn         appreciate some key techniques for taking assembly
Apply          try them out when I take assembly
Do               get someone to observe me taking assembly and give feedback.

Learning styles

Despite the debate about children’s learning styles, there has not been a lot of research into how adults learn. Some, such as Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, who have developed an online learning styles questionnaire ( consider that adults have preferred styles.

Adult learning styles

Theorists like to learn in structured situations, where they are offered interesting ideas and concepts, such as lectures, deep discussions, reading and thinking alone. They learn less when they have to participate in situations that emphasise emotions.

Pragmatists learn best when the topic is of obvious relevance and when shown something they can put into practice. They learn less well when there are no practical guidelines as to how something is done.

Activists learn best when involved in new experiences, problem-solving, team tasks and role-play. They learn less well when listening to lectures or long explanations; reading, writing, or thinking on their own; absorbing data; or following instructions to the letter.

Reflectors like time to think about the subject such as through lectures with plenty of reflection time; observation; and keeping a learning log/journal to review what has happened. They learn less well when role-playing, being thrown in at the deep end or worried by deadlines.

Dr Peter Honey and Alan Mumford

Any school will have a range of people working within it. They will have different levels of experience and needs, as well as varying in how effective and motivated they are; so a one size fits all approach to professional development is unlikely to have much impact.

It follows from this that the next time you see people being stroppy, self-centred and argumentative during training, you should ask them whether their learning style might be incompatible with the training! Few people fall neatly into one category. They are, though, likely to have a leaning towards one or two.

The professional development cycle

If you are involved in staff development, it’s useful to have a thorough view of the professional development cycle. This has six stages:

  • identifying needs
  • analysing needs
  • designing professional development
  • implementing professional development
  • monitoring
  • evaluating impact.

The first two stages involve finding out what staff already know and can do. Identifying learning needs is important because it really isn’t that easy. It can be done superficially, with people saying what they want rather than what they need – or why. Most people benefit from a real analysis in order to get the help they need. For instance, does someone with control problems need a behaviour management course? Maybe, but perhaps the root cause has to do with planning, relationships, attitude, pace or resources.

The next challenge is to find the best way to meet needs: the range of professional development activities is huge. It’s all too easy to restrict opportunities to formal training. However, coaching, observing, being observed, reading and finding time to reflect are just some of the ways that some people find not only better, but quicker, easier and cheaper.

The final stages in the staff development cycle are neglected areas. Monitoring activities are concerned with ensuring that things are going according to plan and meeting needs, and taking appropriate action if they are not. Gauging the impact of professional development, or evaluating its effectiveness on teacher behaviour, or pupils’ learning, is much more difficult.


Learning takes place in a variety of ways and in different settings. It can be formal or informal, within the workplace or off-site. One can also think of learning in vertical (knowing more, new learning and experiences) and horizontal dimensions (the same knowledge applied in different contexts, deeper understanding). What matters, of course, is that people really do develop.

Sara Bubb’s book Helping Teachers Develop is published by Sage/PCP at £15.99.