Why Use the Term “Professional Development” and not “Training”?

Greetings readers! I am truly honored and excited about serving our global TESOL community as the new blogger on topics related to professional development! (Click here if you’d like to listen to this as a podcast!)

Since this is my first blog post for this interest area, I thought it was a great opportunity to define why we (I!) specifically use the term “professional development” rather than “training” for this blog. It may just seem like a simple word choice, but as you know, words matter!

This image by Laura Baecher is licensed under CC by 4.0 | Created in CANVA

For instance, many perceive the idea of training as repetitive practice leading to compliance and obedience (e.g., dog training). This may feel a bit extreme, and not helpful, as there are many instances in which training is needed and appropriate for educators.

The Utility of Training

Guzdial (2010) writes that training is a necessary activity, which he likens to the type of precise, guided practice nurses or computer technicians receive. He reminds us that this type of skill-based training is essential in order for professionals to feel confident in implementing new approaches and to execute their tasks with automaticity. Indeed, it is hard to imagine beginning to use, for instance, a new web conferencing platform (Zoom, anyone?) without some type of training, or to implement a testing protocol in a school without full staff training.

A potential risk with training is that educators can become outdated if they do not have a personal professional development destination. Gaining one’s training solely from what the workplace provides or requires can lead to “dinosaur” syndrome: educators whose skills have not evolved with the times or who may not be learning “how to be better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and innovators” (Raisonliving.com, n.d.).

Draw A Dinosaur Day” by 427 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Importance of Professional Development

Professional development, or professional learning as it is perhaps even better named, is not done “to” educators, but rather, accomplished “by” them. In contrast to training, which is considered to be focused, formal, and linear, professional development may be less formal and have several possible outcomes, formats, and foci (Herbert-Smith, 2019). The educator makes choices about their interests and needs, and thus is empowered in the process of learning (Calvert, 2016). The educator who pursues professional development will be continuously evolving, surveying the land, and making choices about which direction to head toward. The bird-in-flight is a great mental image for this dynamic process.

UnexpectedVisitor” by Alex Hiam is licensed under CC BY 2.0

These distinctions are further identified in the following table. As you review these, what do you see as the “hidden curriculum” of a training versus professional development stance?

Training Professional Development
The organization invests in the program or application. The organization invests in the individuals.
Fills a temporary gap or bridges a particular issue. Works toward long-term adaptability and growth.
One-directional, from trainer to trainee Multidirectional, often in collaboration with a facilitator
Time-bound learning at the behest of the organization Continuous learning for its own sake
May be best suited for novices to the field or to an activity May be best suited for the more experienced
Separate from the context of implementation Must be implemented in context
Concerned with the present Concerned with the future
Focused on the job Focused on the career
Focused on the “how” Focused on the “why”

Looking at Training and Professional Development in Action

Let’s imagine a training day and a professional development session in a school. The goal is for teachers to use more active learning strategies with their young learners. Where do you see opportunities for teacher learning? Where do you see limitations or challenges?

Scenario 1

A group of teachers who all provide ESL/EFL classes to young learners (ages 4–7) are given a day off from teaching to attend a training or “inset” day. They have no idea what the topic will be and show up to the classroom unsure of what they will be learning. Their school leaders let them know that an outside consultant has come to give them training on how to use more active learning techniques in their classroom. There is some modeling of the approaches during the training, which is enjoyable for the teachers, who rarely have time to interact with one another. During the lunch break, they begin discussing some common challenges but quickly have to return to the session.

Scenario 2

A group of teachers who all provide ESL/EFL classes to young learners (ages 4–7) are given a day off from teaching to attend a professional development day. Prior to this day, they were given three choices of focus related to active learning techniques, and when they come to the session they quickly join their chosen group. The teachers have each researched and brought in one active learning technique they have used or want to use, and model it in their small groups. Eagerly, the teachers discuss how the techniques have worked or could work in their context. At the close of the session, each teacher commits to exploring one to two of these active learning approaches. They know the group will be meeting again in 2 weeks to assess their experiences, and that their supervisor will be their audience to hear how the implementation is progressing.

I look forward to engaging with you on a monthly basis on all topics related to professional development/learning! Let’s make this a space to reflect and grow together!

In the comments, please join in the conversation about “training” and “professional development”! I promise to reply!


Calvert, L. (2016). Moving from compliance to agency: What teachers need to make professional learning work. Learning Forward and NCTAF. https://nctaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/NCTAF-Learning-Forward_Moving-from-Compliance-to-Agency_What-Teachers-Need-to-Make-Professional-Learning-Work.pdf

Guzdial, M. (2010). Teacher training v. teacher professional development. Computing Education Research Blog. https://computinged.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/teacher-training-vs-teacher-professional-development/

Herbert-Smith, K. (2020). Training vs. professional development—What’s the difference and does it matter? IRIS Connect Professional Development Blog. https://blog.irisconnect.com/us/training-vs-professional-development-whats-the-difference-and-does-it-matter#:~:text=It’s%20about%20learning%20how%20to,evolve%20your%20capability%20and%20competency

Lord Byron Quotes. (n.d.). Quotes.net. https://www.quotes.net/quote/38715

Patnoudes, E. (2015). What should come first, training or professional development? EdTech Magazine. https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2015/03/what-should-come-first-training-or-professional-development

Raisonliving.com. (n.d.) Is there a difference between training and professional development? https://raisonliving.com/2018/10/20/training-versus-professional-development/

About Laura Baecher

Laura Baecher
Dr. Laura Baecher is professor of TESOL at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her research interests and publications relate to teacher education, including educational technology in teacher learning, observation and coaching for English language teaching, and professional development in TESOL. Her recent books are Reflecting on Problems of Practice in TESOL and Video in Teacher Learning: Through their Own Eyes. She has served as TESOL International Association’s Teacher Education Interest Section chair, as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State, and as president of the New York State TESOL affiliate.
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13 Responses to
Why Use the Term “Professional Development” and not “Training”?

  1. Cecilia Herrera says:

    Dear Laura,

    I am a graduate student at the Arizona State University and am currently taking a class on conducting research. I came across your work “Differentiated Instruction for English language learners as “variations on a theme”: Teachers can differentiate instruction to support English language learners,” which I found very interesting and I learned a lot from. I especially enjoyed and agreed with the section about making differentiated instruction manageable for teachers and i thought this correlated well with professional development. I often see experienced teachers feeling anxious about trying a new strategy or teaching a new skill in their classroom even if it would benefit the students. I can see how professional development rather than a training would ease their anxieties and they would feel more prepared than if they had a training only. Teachers would be able to come with questions and ideas prepared in advance as you mentioned in your blog. Thank you very much for your post and for your article.


  2. jani Reddy says:

    Thank you Laura for sharing your thoughts on training and professional development. I go with professional development instead of training. The Professional Development is not one activity its a continuous as long as you are in teaching profession. Its more personal action than of an organizational activity. Every individual teacher has different needs to perform in the context they are working. As we are thinking the differentiated learning strategies the teachers also need differentiated PD opportunities to meet their needs.
    Happy to learn more ideas from you.

    • Hello Jani and thanks for your comments!
      I rarely see PD actually differentiated…actually I never see it! In this workplace especially, it makes so much sense that PD should match the needs and contexts of individual teachers. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Anamaria Lemos says:

    Really enjoyed reading your blog. I am usually quite bothered by the fact that “teacher training” has become a kind of umbrella term (btw, I also much prefer “professional learning”!). The thing is: how transparent are organisations/schools about the difference between the training and development? I feel teachers would benefit from more clarity, and would love to hear your opinion on this.

    • Anamaria!! So great to see your comments! I think awareness by those who offer/provide professional learning is needed–being clear about training (and who needs it, what its purpose is) vs. development (how can it be choice-based, how will it be sustained). Just like we need to know our own objectives as teachers with language learners, we need to be clear with our adult learners and what our goals are when designing PD.

  4. VSJ says:

    Thank you Laura for devoting your first opportunity to this most important (and relevant) of topics. From the time I began working with colleagues and students in teacher education I have attempted to eschew the term “trainer” or “training” because what always comes to mind is a circus scene with a lion tamer standing in the ring with a whip in his hand. We do NOT want to be perceived as working on “controlling behaviour” to that extent!
    Let’s stick with working with language teachers to develop professionally. We can leave the automaticity exercises to technical programs, please.

    • That’s a great image–yes, I have that feeling and want to resist when I feel I am being “trained”. However, there is a place for it and if we are clear and honest about when and where training makes sense, we can perhaps create more space for genuine learning.

  5. Denise Krebs says:

    Laura, I would have guessed you would reply even before you promised! I had the great joy of recently spending 8 weeks with you in the Bahrain professional learning opportunity through the U.S. Department of State. You modeled in that class exactly what you say in this article. You empowered us and expected us to come prepared and bring our own ideas to share. Some of the active learning techniques we practiced are now firmly in my toolbox as I teach small groups of English language learners in our school who need more support.

    Regarding training and professional learning, I believe you have really done a beautiful job of designating the differences. I also like that you have mentioned there is some need for training. That is good to identify those areas that need training–for instance in my situation, with teachers from so many different countries I have pushed for training in some commitment to a shared academic vocabulary for phonics instruction, for instance. There have been a few areas over the years where training and practice are needed. Mostly, though I choose the column on the right of the table–continuous learning, in context, looking to the future, the “why”, etc.

    Thank you, thank you for the great course and this thought-provoking post. I look forward to this blog series.

    • Denise!! So great to connect with you again and here! Yes I agree, sometimes I think “training” gets too much of a negative spin. In a lot of cases when we are novices, we really just want some well-done training! In other cases, though, really experienced educators’ knowledge and expertise is overlooked as they “suffer through” training they could most likely lead. In the long run, adult learning is always about choice and motivation-Keep in touch Denise!

  6. Connotative power at covert levels always create a type of impact. The arbitrary linguistic change does not, however, affect intrinsic values. Train, develop, learn, acquire, teach, et cetera: Vocables until value is added.

    • There is power in word choice, however–as we choose our words/terms, we clarify our purposes. We also can become aware as participants about that hidden curriculum. Thanks for commenting!

  7. David Ross says:

    I think the distinction you have made between training and professional development is pretty widely accepted one that corresponds to most people’s understanding of the terms.

    • Thanks David! Yes, I agree–it’s interesting to see how much the term “training” is used though outside of the United States–much, much more widely. What is your experience?

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