Dawn Wilson, Learning Forward Academy coach and mentor,  reminds us of the importance of our work as a professional community committed to improving our craft. This blog is part of a series celebrating our 50th anniversary.

Please share a favorite memory of Learning Forward and why it is important to you.

Professional learning is a big door…and it swings on the hinges of relationships and engagement. My favorite memory was the first Annual Learning Forward Conference (then NSDC) I attended in Vancouver, over 15 years ago.

I participated in a session conducted by Joellen Killion, now Learning Forward’s senior advisor.  Listening to her informed voice caused me to realize how much more there was to learn.  At the conference, I had an exchange on an elevator with Dennis Sparks, former executive director, that continued into the lobby. Dennis took the time to talk and asked about my work. Connecting with conference attendees who were kindred spirits was uplifting.

After Vancouver, my proposal to present at the next conference was not accepted. I called Learning Forward for advice and soon Stephanie Hirsh, past executive director, was sharing suggestions to improve the proposal. When I was searching for a certain graphic developed by Shirley Hord, Scholar Emeritus, I contacted her.  We had an extended conversation about the standards and change theory.

These thought leaders were positive, disruptive forces that changed my perceptions and inspired my learning. Each person was genuinely interested, engaged, and accessible. I remember what I learned from them and especially how they made me feel. My learning horizons continued to expand as I grew my professional learning network and developed diverse perspectives.

After the Vancouver experience, I made a commitment to attend the conference every year, and I have. The topics and technologies have changed. However, the learning culture of engaging colleagues and building relationships has remained constant.  When people remember how you made them feel, a strong learning connection is made.  We are shaped by life experiences that define who we are as people.  When we look back at these experiences, invariably, lessons learned and how people made us feel are what define us.

Learning Forward is at the heartbeat of professional learning, sending real-life messages of hope and change that inspire us to open our hearts and minds to learn things not seen, known, or believed before.  Stepping through the Learning Forward door in Vancouver more than a decade ago opened a world of opportunities for me.  The door is open for you at the St. Louis Conference. Come join us there!


Why has the organization been important to the field?

Professional learning matters. As schools become increasingly more diverse, there are growing demands for effectiveness and equity. The challenge is equipping educators with the knowledge, skills, and tools to meet student needs in continuously changing cultures.

For students, education is the great equalizer. For educators, professional learning is the change lever. How can our students learn if educators are not learning?

Learning Forward is important to the field because it’s in the business of helping educators learn.  The organization lives its vision, mission, and beliefs, which focus on teaching and learning. Learning Forward wrote the “playbook” for improving instructional practice and student outcomes.

The Standards for Professional Learning are foundational to the organization’s work.

They provide the lens through which to view all professional learning and serve as a framework to inform areas of strength as well as improvement. Tools and strategies to support the implementation and assessment of the standards are part of the playbook.

Learning Forward helped my district of over 250 schools successfully implement and scale a coaching model across the county.  After a careful review of coaching models, we found a research-based model through a Learning Forward preconference session. This coaching model, a partnership between Harvard and a Massachusetts school district, was based on teacher collaboration within the cycle of continuous improvement. The results from formal evaluations of this Harvard model indicated significant student improvement.

Our district implemented the coaching model, customized to align with our unique needs, and assessed the impact. Learning Forward provided support throughout the learning, implementation, and evaluation phases. The program evaluation results indicated a causal link between the coaching program and student achievement, with greater increases at Title I schools.  Our coaching model was shared at Learning Forward conferences and other venues.  The model was subsequently adopted by other districts and continues to produce positive educator and student results.

Learning Forward has been important to the field of professional learning because of its ability to advance and support professional learning in a variety of ways including sparking ideas, providing expertise, making connections between research and practice, informing practitioners of best practices, sharing research and evidence-based programs,  connecting professionals, building learning capacity and measuring impact.

The organization continues to contribute to the field by positively impacting educator practice and student learning beyond boundaries. Their commitment includes providing leadership so educators apply best practices and students learn at higher levels, supporting policy and advocacy positions, emphasizing the significance of evidence on program and strategy improvement and contributing to the body of research and knowledge on the topic. Learning Forward continues to advance the field of professional learning.


Why do you think Learning Forward will continue to be important to professional learning in the future?

Learning Forward is well positioned to continue to influence professional learning in the future. The organization has been recognized for its leadership in the field because of its ability to change. Change is important for any organization to thrive and grow.

Over the past 50 years, Learning Forward has developed the capacity to be responsive to educator, school, and district professional needs and priorities. The organization has advanced and supported professional learning in a variety of areas including leadership, research, policy, advocacy, resources, and services.


Learning Forward has the strategic leadership to move its vision, mission, and beliefs forward and guide the important work of equity and excellence in teaching and learning.  The organization’s purpose is to build the capacity of leaders to establish and sustain highly effective professional learning and improve educator effectiveness and student learning.


Research is a high priority for Learning Forward.  Increasingly, there is a demand for evidence-based strategies and practices among state and district policymakers related to professional learning. The organization is positioned to respond to this need.

With a growing emphasis on results, practitioners and philanthropists are interested in best research-based practices that positively impact student achievement. Learning Forward continues to showcase relevant research about the impact of professional learning and translate findings into knowledge and skills for program improvement and policy development.


Policy matters because it informs practice.  Learning Forward’s work to develop policy is evident in the Standards for Professional Learning, which were adopted in several states to guide their professional learning.  The definition of professional learning established by Learning Forward has also become a critical component of ESSA legislation.  Learning Forward has also assisted districts to develop professional learning plans that subsequently became board-approved policy. These are just three examples of how the organization supported developing and promoting policy.


Advocacy gives voice to policy. Learning Forward can best tell the story of professional learning because it speaks for and advocates with authority about evidence-based professional learning.  Sharing the important story of the link between professional learning and student outcomes is an important message. The organization continues to advocate for the position that allocating financial resources for educators’ professional learning is an investment in students.

Resources & Services

Learning Forward provides a multitude of resources and tools to advance the field of professional learning.  These resources include the Standards for Professional Learning, Annual Conferences, the Learning Forward Academy, Summer Institutes, consulting services, publications, virtual learning, programs, best practices, research-based models, practitioner perspectives, networks, partnerships, state/provincial affiliations and a career center.

The future of professional learning will be one of purposeful collaboration, collective inquiry, action research and evidence of results to inform instructional practice.

Equity, innovation, accountability, interdependence, social emotional learning, and technology will be among the significant factors in educational systems of the future. Learning Forward is ready to support and advance professional learning in the next decade.


Dawn Wilson is a Learning Forward Academy coach and also mentors Academy coaches.  She served in a variety of roles at the school and district levels, including executive director of professional learning. Join Dawn and other colleagues as we celebrate our 50th anniversary at our Annual Conference in St. Louis, Dec. 7-11, 2019. Read more about this event and Learning Forward’s 50th anniversary celebration here.

Source: Learning Forward. (2011) Standards for Professional Learning. Oxford, OH: Author.