Professional learning is a lifelong, dynamic, and continuous process influenced by emerging research, society’s changing needs and interests, and changes in personal interests or opportunities. This Framework can help an individual or institution be strategic in this learning based on unique circumstances, preferences, and opportunities.

Creating a Learning Path: The Fundamentals

  • Professional learning is the process of developing competencies necessary to achieve goals and aspirations in a chosen area of work. Professional learning is most successful when it is strategic, deliberate, and motivated by personal goals and interests alongside an informed understanding of the field.
  • Professional development is the process of providing or pursuing learning experiences that advance individual or group competencies. Professional development is most successful when it is designed collaboratively with learners, evidence-based, embedded in jobs, and aligns with the field’s values, priorities, and needs.
  • Learning pathway refers to the models and approaches for learning the skills, knowledge, and competencies necessary to enter and succeed in an occupation. A pathway may include any combination of academic work, internships, professional organization participation, workshops, online platforms, or peer learning. This framework can help individuals create professional learning paths based on specific circumstances, goals, learning style, personal preferences, and career aspirations. It can also help organizations and institutions create professional development strategies for staff and volunteers based on institutional goals, resources, priorities, opportunities, and other factors.  

Identifying a Competency Level

It isn’t necessary for everyone to aspire to the highest level of all competencies. Most professionals find a balance between a competency level that is appropriate for a current position and a level that aligns with their career goals. For example, a finance director might need to be competent at the second or third level in the finance category. However, a zoo director or education lead might only need to understand budgets at the first level to be effective, but they might need a higher level of competencies in general expertise to be able to effectively manage staff.

While the framework describes competencies research identified as associated with successful informal STEM learning work, it does not prescribe or recommend what level any professional should obtain. Individual and institutional priorities and goals should guide the development of any learning path. The level of proficiency or expertise in each area will be influenced by individual circumstances, preferences, and opportunities.

Moving Across Competency Levels

Learning paths differ in many ways and can also contribute to one’s career trajectory differently. Some professionals describe their learning path as one with a clearly defined career goal in mind. Others describe their path as more irregular, resembling steps, as they navigate and try various positions as goals define and redefine themselves. In either case, the research behind the framework found that competencies often fell across three levels, which often overlap, but are generally distinguished by the scope, scale, and sphere of engagement. These factors are described below.

Sphere of Engagement

The sphere of people and resources professionals learn from or influence often expands across a career. As competencies develop or job positions change, individuals may learn from or influence others across and outside their institutions. A professional may even eventually become an expert in a particular competency with influence across the field. For example, a floor interpreter might excel in program delivery in their early career, working mostly with other floor interpreters. They might later become an experience manager, managing a volunteer program and working with other departments. They then might move into a Director of Education and Visitor Experiences position, eventually becoming a leader in the field on a particular topic or strategy for engaging audiences. This expansion of a sphere of engagement is one factor that characterizes different levels of competencies.

Sphere of Engagment
As a person progresses to a higher competency level, they often expand their sphere of engagement, meaning they might impact and learn from people and resources outside of their immediate area of work. 
Scope & Scale

As professionals deepen and expand competencies, or expand their sphere of engagement, the work’s scope and scale may also evolve, requiring more complex competencies. At one point, tasks and challenges may be clear with only a few variables to consider, such as planning a Saturday family event or writing labels for an interactive exhibit. As a career develops, the tasks may become more complex and broader in scope, involving a greater number of factors and uncertainties, like planning a conference on STEM learning or developing a traveling exhibit. This expansion of the work’s scale or scope is another factor of moving across levels.

Scope & Scale
As a person progresses to a higher level on a particular competency, they often tackle more complex tasks across a broader scope of work. 

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants 2215274 (active), 1514815, 1514884, 1514890, and 1515315. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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