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7 Steps for Effective Professional Development

Self-directed professional development (PD) is when teachers make decisions and take action to direct their own professional learning, exploration, and growth. There are as many ways that this can happen as there are teachers, and there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to self-directed PD.


To help you think about the different ways you can take control of your development, Oxford’s paper on self-directed PD proposes a seven-step framework to guide teachers’ learning. Every individual and situation is different, so the framework does not prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it works as a tool to aide reflection and provide inspiration for those wishing to engage in self-directed PD. In this blog post, I will guide you briefly through the seven steps of the framework to help you take control of your development.


Step 1:

The process may begin with you thinking about your own circumstances and what resources or obstacles you face in starting your own PD journey. Sometimes, we have multiple demands and commitments on our time, which leaves us little scope for engaging in PD on a larger scale. Understanding what we can realistically manage given our own time and resources is an important base from which to make further decisions about what to do, when, and how.


Step 2:

The second step is to consider what you want to gain from your PD. Why do you want to engage in it and what do you hope to get out of it? For example, you might have had an experience with your learners which prompts you to explore a certain teaching method, or maybe you came across a blog which has inspired you to learn more about a specific topic, or perhaps simply you feel you want to take on a new professional challenge. There are many reasons for engaging in PD, and each one opens up a whole range of different possible pathways of action.


Step 3:

Once you know how much capacity you have, what resources you can draw on for support, and what you are interested in, you can then start to explore options for working more on your chosen topic or project.  PD exists in many different forms, and it is worth broadening our notions of what we recognize as PD. For example, it can involve team teaching with a colleague, reading a book, following a blog, joining an online webinar, going to a one-day workshop, researching your own learners, becoming a committee member of a teaching association, keeping a reflective journal, or studying for an additional qualification. It can be something small or big; a one-off event or longer-term commitment ; a private undertaking or a team activity – PD comes in all shapes and sizes depending on your capacity, interests, preferences, opportunities, and whatever goal you have for your PD.


Step 4:

Once you have made your choice, it is off to enjoy it! You might work on your PD alone, or you might find a colleague to accompany you, or you may even get to know someone new in the process of taking part in a PD event. While engaging in your PD, you may make adjustments focusing more on one aspect than another depending how well you feel the approach is suiting your needs. You may even choose to change PD activity completely if you feel it does not meet your expectations. The point of self-directed PD is that you make the decisions as you are the expert in your context, and nobody knows better than you what is useful, relevant, helpful, and interesting for your professional life.


Step 5:

After the PD experience, it is good to reflect on what insights it has offered you for your setting – this could be in terms of practical ideas for your classroom practice or inspiration of how to manage your professional roles and responsibilities differently. Thinking over the PD experience and its relevance for you and your context is a key step to ensure it has impact. In particular, many find it beneficial to talk about ideas and suggestions with others as an outsider perspective can offer a new lens on the familiar and help us see things in different ways.


Step 6 & 7:

Finally, depending on the kind of PD insights gained, you may want to try out new ideas in your own context to see how things work for you in practice. When you then take stock of these experiences alone or through dialogue with others, you will see whether you need to make further adjustments or whether it perhaps even inspires you to follow-up with another new PD activity starting the cycle all over again.



As teachers, there will always be a new topic, perspective, tool, or resource to explore. I find it liberating to acknowledge that it is impossible to know it all as an educator, and it is an illusion to aim for perfection. Every single one of us has gaps in our knowledge and areas in which we have less experience. There are always other people and different perspectives to learn from including our learners. For me, it is a joy to think that my potential for lifelong learning will never end.


We hope this framework may help and support you on your own self-directed PD journey. If you want to find out more or get in-depth advice to help you empower your learning and development, download our latest position paper on Self-Directed Professional Development!



Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books in this area including, Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers (2015, with Marion Williams and Stephen Ryan), Teacher Wellbeing (2020, with Tammy Gregersen), and Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms (2020, with Zoltán Dörnyei). She has published over 150 book chapters and journal articles and has served as Principal Investigator on several funded research projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP). Sarah is the author of this paper.


How to Make Your Professional Development More Effective

Self-directed professional development has been outlined as a way for individuals to take control of their own learning, as a way for learning to be more effective by being more personal and relevant. Self-directed learning can be seen as a cure-all to the frustrating, ‘one size fits all’, top-down approach to teacher development which you may have experienced yourself. If self-directed PD can help provide individuals and organizations with such benefits then we must look at the potential barriers towards the implementation of such practice, and how organizations can help a culture of sustainable self-directed learning flourish.


The Basics:

In order to achieve these goals, schools and institutions should look to the fundamentals of self-directed PD and help to support the components which make it successful. Let’s begin with the following areas:


  1. Control: How do we empower ownership and control over learning?
  2. Flexibility: How do we organise learning content to ensure flexible access and use?
  3. Motivation: How do we try to ensure that this is sustained and self-perpetuating?


From the perspective of the organization, these three areas can be harnessed as our drivers of culture change towards one of independent learning. However, in order to offer comprehensive answers to these questions, we must have a clear understanding of the potential challenges, including:


  1. Lack of structure and organization, and how that can affect motivation and direction.
  2. Issues around resources and how to use, access, and exploit certain resources.
  3. The potential for isolation and the need to scaffold social learning in certain circumstances.


From a personal perspective, from my experience engaging in self-directed PD I can say that the biggest difficulties were the lack of feedback and the need for a second pair of eyes, or to have a colleague as a sounding board to help me make sense of certain elements of my own development.


What makes our development motivating, beneficial, and sustainable?

Deci and Ryan Self-Determination Theory (2017) looks at self-directed learning and how to provide the best conditions for engagement, based mainly on motivating participation. This theory suggests that we need to focus on meeting three basic needs in order to promote participation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. While autonomy goes back to our mention of control in a previous section, the sense of competence is an area which may be neglected in discussions on development, so we should address it here. This theory suggests that learners are motivated by knowing something about the topic at hand, by having a degree of competence in the skill or knowledge area. In terms of self-directed PD this would suggest to us that learning material should be engaged with in order to add a deeper understanding of an already existing knowledge/skill base. A venture into an entirely unknown area of knowledge, unsupported by expert guidance, may be demotivating. ‘Relatedness’ in this case can best be defined as how relevant the information or activity is to the teachers’ context. This guides us again towards utilising social learning as a scaffold for supporting self-directed learning, and encouraging peer-to-peer relationships as a valid avenue for learning.


Relevant to us here as well is Davachi and the AGES Model of Learning (2010) which outline four principles that can help guide our learning in this case:


  • Attention: Learning should involve minimal distractions and cognitive overload
  • Generation: Forming memorable learning moments and positive engagement
  • Emotion: Enhancing positive learning experiences, reducing negative ones
  • Spacing: This involves delivery and content overload


Failure to follow these principles may make our learning less beneficial or sustainable. In an area like self-directed PD, where learning is not always visible, this can mean a lot of wasted time and energy and the growth of frustration and dissatisfaction.


3 Top Tips for Effective Professional Development:

So with all of these considerations, we must consider what we can do both as organisations hoping to support self-directed PD, and also as teachers engaging in such development:


  1. Organise content and resources

If there is one thing that the internet is not short on, it is content. This can be incredibly exciting but also overwhelming and there is a growing need for content curation/organisation and delivery as a core role for educators. Curation in this case can be defined as the selection, organisation, and presentation of relevant material. This does not only involved gate-keeping best practice, according to Rohit Bhargava’s 5 Models of Content Curation (2011) it also involves simplifying or reordering, among other things. Effective content curation allows for a degree of ‘controlled autonomy’ for the learner, as well as ensuring flexible access to appropriate resources.


  1. Promote Social Learning

While self-directed learning should be exactly that ‘self-directed’, there is nothing to suggest that using colleagues and peers as a resource makes the learning less effective. I would suggest that someone who is seeking to engage in self-directed learning should keep an open mind towards the use of online or offline social forums for idea generation and sharing, and to seek to share the burden of learning while generating positive and non-isolating learning experiences.


  1. Be realistic

I am in favour of using a relevant competency framework (such as the Equals TD Framework) in order to provide a degree of structure to the development process. The competencies are designed to encourage progress at an appropriate pace and to seek to challenge the learner at a level most beneficial for their development. A framework like this not only helps to provide structure to development, it also helps to narrow down the scope of success by giving the learner achievable ‘next stages’ to aim for.


In conclusion, I think that self-directed learning is incredibly beneficial to both the learner and the organisation and should be encouraged at all stages of the teachers’ journey. While there are still a number of challenges to face before this becomes a common and ‘normal’ avenue for development, the potential long-term benefits certainly outweigh the short-term difficulties.


If you want to learn more about professional development and how you can take control of your own learning journey, try reading our position paper on Self-Directed Professional Development.


Chris Farrell is Head of Training and Development with the Centre of English Studies. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of EAQUALS and he chairs the English UK Teacher Development Advisory Group. He is a guest lecturer at University College Dublin, and has written and delivered online courses for NILE and Trinity College London. Chris is a consultant on this paper.

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