In the late 1960s professional organizations began actively to address the growing disconnect between advances in knowledge and the practitioners who were no longer involved in institutional learning.  While this was most pronounced in the medical field—where advances were occurring at a dizzying pace—it also occurred within organizations for teachers, lawyers, business professionals, social workers, psychologists, accountants, and even clergy. It was during this time that “continuing professional education” entered our lexicon. In the past 50 years, continuing education has matured and evolved into a field in its own right. Entire University departments are now devoted to analyzing the many ways in which adult learning is distinct from child learning, and to coming up with new methods that reflect this knowledge. Thus, we now face the somewhat ironic situation in continuing professional education of a possible disconnect between advances in knowledge and the actual practitioners of the trade.

Dr. Alan Knox is uniquely qualified to address such concerns. As professor emeritus of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Knox has helped shape the field of continuing education. Equally as impressive, Knox can claim six decades of hands-on experience with planning, conducting, and assessing continuing education endeavors. In his recent book Improving Professional Learning: Twelve Strategies to Enhance Performance, Knox offers a distillation of what he has learned over the course of his long and distinguished career.

Active Learning

Improving Professional Learning by Alan B. Knox

As could probably be deduced from its subtitle, Improving Professional Learning is first and foremost an immediately practical book. That Knox practices what he preaches is evident in the very structure of his book, which is built upon the parameters of adult learning theory. He begins by clearly stating the purpose of the book, which is to help readers improve their continuing education offerings (events, courses, seminars, trainings, etc). He also encourages readers to peruse his chapter overview and read only the sections that appear useful to them. Finally, he defines the primary terms and concepts that recur throughout his book. This is especially helpful considering that he hopes the book will be useful across a variety of professional fields, each with their own distinct jargon.

Knox structures his book as a melding of theory and practice. Each chapter focuses on one of Knox’s “evidence-informed concepts,” and then provides real life examples of the concept in practice taken from Knox’s own experience. He then provides a list of guidelines to help his reader apply the concept in their own field and concludes with a series of questions to aid in reflection. The uniformity of the structure only adds to the practical feel of the book: it is very easy to pick it up at any point and quickly extract useful information.

Enough about the structure, what about the content? Knox’s “twelve strategies” can be distilled down to three basic, interrelated elements: selecting/creating good leaders (teachers), encouraging active learning, and designing/responding to assessment.

Good Leaders

Knox describes several aspects of what makes a good leader—“leader” being the teacher who will be conducting the continuing education sessions. A good leader should:

  • have a solid grasp of both the content being taught as well as how it fits into occupational performance (theory and practice).
  • understand how to combine a variety of teaching formats and methods to foster active learning
  • know how to elicit and integrate feedback from students and stakeholders (institutions, other teachers, funders)
  • be willing to learn from every teaching experience. As he states at one point, “the transaction between leader and learner should be a mutually beneficial exchange.” 

Active Learning

Since active learning involves a transaction between leader and participants, Knox emphasizes the importance, for the leader, of gathering information about participants. What type of information does Knox have in mind?

Motivation: Why are they there? Because of intrinsic desire to learn the proficiency? Institutional/organizational requirement? Curiosity?

Current Proficiency: A leader needs to know where participants stand regarding their knowledge and skills in relation to the proficiency being taught. If the goal is to bring a class to “Z,” the leader needs to know which participants are starting at “A,” and which ones are starting at “D” or perhaps even “Y.” Knox provides a series of procedures designed to aid in this assessment, including:

  • Encourage participants to engage in self-assessment and obtain assessment from an additional source
  • Provide opportunities for participants to engage in peer review
  • Arrange for participants to engage in a community of practice, which might clarify for everyone the participant’s current proficiency

The leader can then use this information in order to develop shared expectations for the course (ch.4). Such assessment, however, should not be limited to the beginning of the course. For a key element of active learning is real-time responsiveness: Effective leaders should efficiently estimate the ever-evolving relationship between current and desired proficiencies for each student. In the chapter devoted to this topic (5), Knox provides a handful of suggestions and examples for how to gather this information in order to enhance the learning transaction.

Now that leaders have an understanding of who is in front of them, why they are there and how to keep track of their learning progress, Knox digs into methods for creating active learning. He devotes three chapters to this topic, ranging from how to plan sessions (Ch.8), active methods to employ during sessions (ch.9), and guidelines for sequencing activities (Ch.10). These three chapters are full of practical advice that anyone in the midst of planning continuing education will find immediately useful. As one example, Knox provides the following guidelines for flexible sequencing of session activities:

  • Include an orientation, welcoming comments, and an introduction so participants feel comfortable interacting in a supportive and challenging activity
  • Build on positive first impressions of the learning activity to explore and agree upon relevant activity objectives
  • Provide an overview and brief rationale for the sequence of activities for all participants
  • Use brief presentations, observations, and demonstrations to enable participants to build on their current proficiency and explore directions for increased mastery.
  • Decide on the extent of preparation assistance or type of participant engagement to provide participants based on their apparent experience with technology and materials.
  • Review evaluation feedback and informal impressions regarding participant’s progress toward achievement of program objectives.


The final chapters of Improving Professional Learning consider assessment and improvement. By shifting his focus from the realm of leader-participant interaction to the broader question of program assessment, Knox displays his understanding of the entire enterprise. Specifically, he understands that what happens in the professional learning session needs to be relayed to various stakeholders—institutions, organizations, funders—outside of these sessions. With this in mind, Knox once again provides a series of examples and guidelines drawn from his decades of activity in the field. As an example, here is a list of aspects of an activity that should be evaluated according to Knox:

  • Relevance of content
  • Use of educational technology
  • Diversity of Participants
  • Orientation of session instructors
  • Interactive sessions that emphasize active learning
  • Efficient evaluations to guide program decisions, including feedback, reinforcement, and empowering participants for ongoing professional development

Improving Professional Learning provides a wealth of examples and guidelines drawn from a life devoted to the field of continuing education. Although written by a man well-versed on the theoretical underpinnings of the field, it is a book to be used more than studied: nearly every paragraph contains some nugget of practical information. Whether you are a long time teacher, someone just getting started or simply someone interested in continuing education, Improving Professional Learning will have something to offer.


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