Professional Development: Independent or Social Mindset?

I was recently participating in a four-hour Strategic Enrollment Management meeting reviewing our college and district goals related to recruitment, outreach, enrollment, retention and persistence efforts.  During a break, one of my colleagues asked if I was aware of our sabbatical program.  The Maricopa Community Colleges, in an effort to value lifelong learning, is very generous with its policies regarding both managerial and faculty sabbaticals.  The program is for employees who have completed a designated number of years of consecutive service to our district to explore their own professional development and learning with the expressed intent to bring that learning back to our community college system.  Each year, numerous faculty and staff engage in sabbaticals, and the following year, each returns to his/her respective jobs hopefully refreshed and changed (for the better) in some manner.

In Etienne Wenger’s “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems,” he explores the structure of social learning systems, articulating that the development of social learning systems is essential to the success of organizations.  Within this context, Wenger describes one critical element of social learning systems – boundary encounters.  Boundary encounters are “visits, discussions, sabbaticals [that] provide direct exposure to a practice” (Wenger, p. 236).  Boundary encounters can occur individually, when an employee immerses him or herself into a community of practice.  Or, an encounter can occur in a group, where a team from a given community immerses itself into another community of practice.  An individual boundary encounter may allow a person to become fully immersed in the practice; however, it may be challenging to bring the learning back to one’s organization (Wenger, p. 237).  A boundary encounter experienced as a team may not allow for one’s individual full immersion; however, it may prove more beneficial as a team may be better able to incorporate the learning within their respective practice (Wenger, p. 237).

This concept of individual versus social or team learning impacts my thinking profoundly in relation to faculty development within the developmental education community.  Teaching in higher education is primarily an autonomous experience.  Faculty, generally in isolation, develop and instruct their respective courses.  The same is true for much of the professional development and organizational learning within higher education.  Individual sabbaticals are supported.  Individual professional development is supported, but again, generally based on an individual’s needs or desires.  On occasion, teams may be sent to participate in a conference, but in my experience, that is not the norm, but the exception.

As I reflect on the most effective professional development experiences I have designed or attended, those that involved team participation have indeed had the most transformational effect for the organization.  This leads me to question what types of professional development opportunities are available for community college faculty, or even more specifically, community college faculty who primarily teach developmental education courses?  As Glendale Community College continues to focus its attention on our developmental coursework, I believe we also need to focus our attention on the professional development available to our instructors.  But, how should this professional development be designed?  Our current approach to professional development is to design and offer programs and workshops for faculty to attend individually, focusing on their individual skills and strategies within the college classroom.  Yes, they do attend as a general community of instructors.  However, much of the work is individually based.  Sharing with other participants occurs, but the focus is on individual devleopment.

But, what if this experience was designed differently? What if a team of professionals, working and learning together, supported our developmental students?  And, what if that team became its own defined community of practice, learning and growing together as described in this article?  Presently, I do not believe we have a well-defined community of practice supporting developmental education.  It is emerging at GCC, but it is not yet a defined community of practice.  I think we have an opportunity to create this community of practice, and make it one that incorporates the following elements espoused in this article: events (professional development in nature), leadership, connectivity, membership, projects, and artifacts.  If we take this approach, I believe  we can advance the learning of our faculty and staff, which will I have a positive impact on our students.   But, it is clear to me that we should not approach this in our traditional autonomous mindset; we need to design and create an environment that fosters and promotes social learning for our faculty and staff.


Wenger, Etienne. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246.