Professional Development -Translating New Ideas to New Practices

by Dr. Rick Robinson

Professional development is the practice of reflecting on our skills, and getting better at what we do. It is a common focus for educators who wish to continue to grow and progress in their expertise. Often, however, the process of reflection and change can be a lot more difficult than it sounds. It is extremely common to come away from a workshop or training with exciting ideas and goals, but then struggle to implement them effectively. Has this ever happened to you?

Professor of Psychology and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, George Loewenstein, Ph.D., coined the term “hot-cold empathy gap” that seems to offer a path forward for us in making professional development more effective.

Dr. Loewenstein’s research suggests that strong emotional feelings (hot states), like anger, fear, depression, etc., or strong physical feelings like hunger, thirst, etc., can overwhelm us. As a result, we may act impulsively, and not effectively use what we know and have learned to guide our own behavior.  That is, we may think, say or behave in ways we would otherwise not do. Furthermore, when we experience other “hot states,” like feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear, etc., we may shut down while also not efficiently being able to access our thinking and memory skills. When we are emotionally calm and physically comfortable, what Loewenstein calls “cold states”, we are able to be thoughtful and planful in our thinking, feeling and doing.

Now here are two relevant take-aways from Dr. Loewenstein’s work:

  1. First, when we are in a “cold state” we are not very good at predicting how we will behave when we are in a “hot state.”
  2. Second, when we are in a “cold state,” we may have trouble understanding and accurately recalling our own past actions, when we experienced a “hot state” where we were overwhelmed by intense physical and emotional feelings. Our memory can be faulty.

So, what are the implications for our effective use of professional development?

  1. Be mindful of the “hot-cold empathy gap.”  For example, when we receive new information about how to deal with a dysregulated student, we may not take into account how our own “hot state” can detract from our ability to use the new strategies we have learned. Consider selecting a peer who can provide you with constructive, targeted feedback which you can use to support and scaffold your performance of new skills when you find yourself in “hot states.”
  2. With new strategies, consider the context in which you will be using them and potential obstacles you could face. For example, the demands of a classroom of 30 students and the pressure to meet academic benchmarks are critical factors to think about ahead of trying out a new strategy.  This context is much different than a brief role-play during a training or conference.
  3. Think about the importance of practice, and put yourself in a position to be successful. That is, practice new skills when you are in a “warm state ”rather than “hot” or “cold” states, so you can build your new skills through repetition.  Then you can gradually, and successfully, practice managing more “heat” when using your new skills.

Framing an approach to professional development in this way can provide a path for more powerful change, and can make the work that educators put forth to grow and evolve feel more impactful. The goal is that these ideas can help educators get the most out of their time spent in professional development. 

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