Skip to main content

How teachers learn: the roles of formal, informal, and independent learning


A qualitative study of math and science teachers at two middle schools identifies how their system for learning to integrate technology into their teaching goes beyond what school leaders typically consider when planning for teachers’ learning. In addition to (a) the district-initiated, or formal, system of professional development (PD) and professional learning communities (PLCs), it includes (b) teacher-initiated, or informal, learning with colleagues as well as (c) teachers’ independent learning activities. Analysis of why and how they form their system highlights how by only supporting the formal PD activities and PLCs, the district not only loses the valuable collective knowledge of the districts’ teachers derived from their informal and independent learning activities, but also diminishes the learning teachers derive from the formal PD activities since informal collaborations and independent work after formal PD activities often helps to bring the learning from the training room to the classroom. We present teachers’ insights and then discuss implications for the design of a holistic approach to facilitate teachers’ formal, informal, and independent learning that is tied together and supported by technology. While research on formal, informal and independent teacher learning exists, with technology frequently mentioned as a potential support for each of these three modes, these approaches have not been considered together as interdependent parts of the same holistic system for teacher learning nor has the way technology might knit these modes of teacher learning together been imagined as a part of that system.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Alderton, E., Brunsell, E., & Bariexca, D. (2011). The end of isolation. The Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(3), 1–16.

    Google Scholar 

  • Barab, S. A., Makinster, J. G., & Scheckler, R. (2003). Designing system dualities: Characterizing a web-supported professional development community. Information Society, 19(3), 237–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Birman, B. F., Desimone, L., Porter, A. C., & Garet, M. S. (2000). Designing professional development that works. Educational Leadership, 57(8), 28–33.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, and experience & school. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • DuFour, R. (2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6–11. Retrieved from

  • Duran, M., Brunvard, S., & Fossum, P. R. (2009). Preparing science teachers to teach with technology: Exploring a K-16 networked learning community approach. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 8(4), 21–43.

    Google Scholar 

  • Easton, L. B. (2008). From professional development to professional learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(10), 755–761.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Flanigan, R. L. (2011). Professional learning networks taking off. Education Week, 31(9), 10–12. Retrieved from RNUP7oI3Dyieu/9gskTJyoOc/.

  • Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, S. Y. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915–945.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gerard, Libby F., Bowyer, J. B., & Linn, M. C. (2010). How does a community of principals develop leadership for technology-enhanced science? Journal of School Leadership, 20(2), 145–183.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, L., Thomas, N., & Lewis, L. (2010). Educational technology in US public schools: Fall 2008 (NCES 2010-034). US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

  • Hamos, J. E., Bergin, K. B., Maki, D. P., Perez, L. C., Prival, J. T., Rainey, D. Y., et al. (2009). Opening the classroom door: Professional learning communities in the math and science partnership program. Science Educator, 18(2), 14–24.

    Google Scholar 

  • Higgins, T. E., & Spitulnik, M. W. (2008). Supporting teachers’ use of technology in science instruction through professional development: A literature review. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17(5), 511–521. doi:10.1007/s10956-008-9118-2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hill, H. C. (2009). Fixing teacher professional development. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(7), 470–476.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hur, J. W., & Brush, T. A. (2009). Teacher participation in online communities: Why do teachers want to participate in self-generated online communities of K-12 teachers? Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(3), 279–304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lai, K. W., Pratt, K., Anderson, M., & Stigter, J. (2006). Literature Review and Synthesis: Online Communities of Practice. Retrieved from

  • Lawless, K. A., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2007). Professional development in integrating technology into teaching and learning: Knowns, unknowns, and ways to pursue better questions and answers. Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 575–614.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Loving, C. C., Schroeder, C., Kang, R., Shimek, C., & Herbert, B. (2007). Blogs: Enhancing links in a professional learning community of science and mathematics teachers. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 7(3), 178–198.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mackey, J., & Evans, T. (2011). Interconnecting networks of practice for professional learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 1–18.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London: Rutledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin, W., Strother, S., Beglau, M., Bates, L., Reitzes, T., & Culp, K. M. (2010). Connecting instructional technology professional development to teacher and student outcomes. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 43(1), 53–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ming, T. S., Wah, L. K., Azman, H., Yean, T. L., & Sim, L. Y. (2010). Grappling with technology: A case of supporting Malaysian Smart School teachers’ professional development. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(3), 400–416.

    Google Scholar 

  • Plair, S. (2008). Revamping professional development for technology integration and fluency. The Clearing House, 82(2), 70–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Riverin, S., & Stacey, E. (2008). Sustaining an online community of practice: A case study. Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 43–58.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rodrigues, S., Marks, A., & Steel, P. (2003). Developing science and ICT pedagogical content knowledge: A model of continuing professional development. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 40(4), 386–394. doi:10.1080/1470329032000128413.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 2(1), 3–10. Retrieved from

  • Stevenson, H. J. (2004). Teachers’ informal collaboration regarding technology. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 37(2), 129–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tytler, R., Symington, D., Malcolm, C., & Kirkwood, V. (2009). Assuming responsibility: Teachers taking charge of their professional development. Teaching Science—The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association, 55(2), 9–15.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vavasseur, C. B., & Macgregor, S. K. (2008). Extending content-focused professional development through online communities of practice. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(4), 517–536. Retrieved from

  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity (18th ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to W. Monty Jones.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jones, W.M., Dexter, S. How teachers learn: the roles of formal, informal, and independent learning. Education Tech Research Dev 62, 367–384 (2014).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Technology related teacher professional development
  • Formal and informal teacher learning
  • Technology integration