Melissa Emler

Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Modern Learners, LLC., Potosi, Wisconsin

Professional Learning: Path to Agency and Impact

I often ask people about the impact of their most recent professional learning experience. Then I ask them to describe the most impactful learning experience they have ever had. The dialogue that ensues is lively and filled with smiles and often laughter. However, when asked how often people experience impactful learning, the smiles fade and the grumbling begins.

Professional learning is not often synonymous with impactful.

We can change that.

My last post focused on the future of learning. I emphasized the necessity of community, content, and events becoming interdependent. All of that is true, and the designers of learning experiences should definitely design experiences with those interdependencies at the base of the design.

Consideration for the learner must also be at the base of the design.

When designing learning experiences, learners must have the opportunity to determine a personally meaningful goal for the learning experience. Absent of the personally meaningful goal, professional learning experiences are in danger of becoming a list of activities to do and a list of boxes to be checked. But if learning designers do not anticipate the learning path of the human, the design becomes focused on a list of activities for people to do.

People calling truth to bullshit quickly point out how ridiculous the checklist approach to learning is. Just because you’ve checked the box doesn’t mean, the lesson has been learned. Often the purpose is lost in one’s desire to check the boxes.

People want to have agency over their learning. What does that mean exactly?

When asked that question, I typically turn to Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory. In Social Cognitive Theory, Bandura claims that the four core features of human agency are:

  • Intentionality
  • Forethought
  • Self-reactiveness
  • Self-reflectiveness

He also recognizes three separate types of agency:

  • Personal — exercised individually, and the learner has direct control
  • Proxy– the learner acts through others
  • Collective– learners sharing common beliefs act as a group to produce effects by collective action

We’ll examine the core features of agency as we explore professional learning’s path to agency and impact. As we deepen our understanding of the core features of agency, we’ll also be able to recognize how a learner flows in and out of the types of agency. Being personally directed, then allowing others to act for us as we seek the clarity needed to act on our own, and then finally sharing a set of common beliefs and moving towards collective action.


Those who have worked closely with me or have been on one of my coaching calls have undoubtedly heard me say, “I’m not asking you to change; I’m asking you to learn.” Change is born through learning.

As I describe the path to impact, the text and numeration will lead readers to believe that there is an order or a linear passage through the phases. That’s not my intention. The phases and numeration are simply used to support the reader’s ability to conceptualize the learner’s journey and the path to agency and impact.

Passing through each phase is not a prerequisite for the next phase. Learners can find themselves in any phase at any time. The time needed to move from one phase to the next varies based on the learner’s goals. The degree to which the learning experiences have an impact depends on the number of learners being on the same path to impact together.

It is when learners within our organizations and larger societal systems find their way to the collective agency that they begin the collaborative process of learning that leads to meaningful systems change.

Phase 1 Intentionality: Social Consumption

Social media networks are built by connecting with people who have shared interests. Paying attention and building our social networks with care and intention leads to a wealth of knowledge and insight that undoubtedly shapes the people we are. The quality of our social network matters.

Harold Jarche, a leader in organizational learning, has this to say about the power of social networks, “…they help create networks of multi-way trust to share ideas, advice and feelings between people who care. Social networks have been shown to be the principal way that learning spreads in organizations.”

Actions to take in this phase:

1. Curate and filter your network based on what you want to know or learn. Please don’t leave the filtering up to the algorithms of the social network. Use your human discretion to filter in a way that more accurately meets your needs and reduces the noise. Create a network being mindful of diversity in perspective too.

2. Read, listen, or watch content shared or discussed in your network. This action requires actually clicking from the feed into the content and spending time taking the content in. Reacting or responding to images and titles without actually consuming the content adds nothing useful to the discussion.

Phase 2 Forethought: Commitment to learning more

When social networks have human filters applied, people find lots of learning opportunities. Consuming content in the feed often leads to finding new people or communities to add to the social network. In this phase, people often feel the need to engage with the content or the content creator. At the moment someone leaves a comment or takes a step to join a group or community discussing the topic, a commitment to learning more has been made. Once one commits to learning more and sets a personally meaningful goal, learning has begun.

Actions to take in this phase:
Leave a comment on the content. This will get the attention of the creator and others consuming the content, and that attention could lead to further conversation.
Set a personally meaningful goal about what you want to learn and why it is important.
Join a group or community of practice where conversations happen and trust is strong. Communities of practice are safe, trusting environments where ideas will grow, evolve, and prosper.

Phase 3 Sense-Making: Listen and Respond in Community of Practice Conversations

Joining a community of practice will provide a learner with several opportunities to engage in conversation. Listening, questioning, and responding to people as they share their experience with a specific problem or concern will lead to sense-making, and that sense-making may very well impact the way you think about a problem in your own practice. Clarity is found in conversations. The importance of clarity cannot be over-emphasized. It is the clarity that one finds in a community of practice that will be the impetus for changing one’s practice.

Actions to take in this phase:

1. Listen with the intent to understand not to respond.

2.  Ask clarifying questions tied to a cognitive practice to move the thinking forward. Cognitive practices include description, compare and contrast, categorize, sequence, cause and effect, part to whole, and creating an analogy.

3. Summarize the clarity related to one person’s specific experience into something generalizable for the community.

Phase 4 Self-Reactiveness: Practice With Your Work Teams

Harold Jarche writes about communities of practices often, and he claims that “it’s a community of practice if it changes peoples’ practices.” The only way to know if it changes practices is to take the clarity gained in the community of practice and put it into action with your work teams from your own organization. Do something with what you have learned. If you don’t do something, you won’t have anything to reflect on and refine.

Actions to take in this phase:

1. Create a plan of action for your work team or organization

2. Do the action you intended to do in the timeline you intended to do it.

Phase 5 Self-Reflectiveness: Share your experience in Conversations

Conversations in communities of practice are powered by the experiences of the community. It is important that people share their experiences with the community in order to support others on their journey to finding clarity in their practice. There will never be a one size fits all solution, but a lot can be learned from the experiences that have been shaped by the community. This is the phase that continues to make the community of practice valuable to the members of the community. Peoples’ experiences are inherently different, so the clarity and the learning are forever ongoing.

Actions to take in this phase:

1. Reflect on the actions taken.
2. Share the experiences from your local context with the community of practice
3. Answer questions from the community.
4. Listen for feedback.
5. Refine the action.
6. Share with your social network when you are ready.


Yes, that’s right the learner decides if the learning is impactful or not. The biggest issue organizations face in designing professional learning is believing the organization has control over what is learned by the people. This is a challenge for the organization because the organization has a predetermined idea of what needs to be learned. In my experience, the impact of professional learning is determined by the reaction and response of the people.

Instead of creating slides aimed to deliver information, spend time figuring out what questions need to be asked.

Instead of making a list of activities or a list of boxes to be checked, schedule some time for conversations around the questions.

Here’s the bottom line. If the learners check out, the organization loses, and the people don’t notice or care. If the learners check-in, everyone wins. Organizations that figure out how to invite the learners to the learning and create the conditions for the people to have agency in the learning process have a better chance of having an impact on learning.

What will you do to create the conditions for learning?