What does educational development even mean?

I’m a member of a professional community whose members call themselves “educational developers.” Graduate students I mentor ask what educational developers even do, since the title is mystifying to them. On the website for our professional organization, The Professional and Organizational Development Network (“North America’s largest educational development community”), the Who We Are page says: “We view ourselves as change agents, providing leadership for the improvement of teaching and learning.” 

Vertical oil brushstrokes of mostly blue and some yellow paint.
A close-up of a projection of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Our organization places effective, accessible, equitable teaching and learning as the focus, with our interaction points as instructors at all levels and academic leaders. Our educational developer community is critical to supporting the equitable educational mission and activities of our institutions. Educational developers have worked tremendously hard during the pandemic to help instructors “pivot,” teach hyflex/hybrid/online, and draw upon effective, context-appropriate instructional practices.

I notice a shift in language use from when I first joined the organization in 2000. We used to talk about ourselves as developers of people (not contexts): TA developers, graduate student developers, and faculty developers. There’s been a switch in the subject-object relationship of who or what is undergoing development from people to thing. I feel like I’m at the edge of my professional community looking in. To be clear, I don’t feel unwelcome. And I am highly supportive of my colleagues and the value of the work they do in educational development and instructional design. But it does bring me to think about the words we use to describe our work and where I believe I fit relation to those characterizations.

What do we mean by development?

I want us to use the word “development” to convey descriptive information. I think we can make our function, knowledge, and value legible to others – newcomers who are interested in the profession; educators who want to work with us; administrators who make decisions with or without us – when we use clearer language about what we mean by development and who or what is undergoing development.  

With professional development or educational development, I wonder if we’re typically thinking about outcomes such as:

  • knowledge and skill acquisition; 
  • improvement in effectiveness; 
  • job training and advancement; 
  • some degree of quality assurance; and 
  • collective commitment to basic principles, norms, policies. 

As an example, the field of Teaching Assistant (TA) development had its foundations in preparing graduate students for the job of teaching. These outcomes are important and necessary for people who work with us in higher education. At the same time, I think there are additional meanings to “development” for our work.

Development as expanded sense of self

A photograph of a block print. A white cat is in front of a black cat, they are facing the same direction with both their heads looking up.
Kiyoshi Saito’s Steady Gaze: Two Cats

When I think of development, I also think in psycho-social and relational ways (see object relations in psychology). I support graduate students’ developmentally expanded sense of self. In my post about supporting graduate students’ meaning-making, I wrote the list below of specific outcomes I wanted to support them in. When I put my old instructional consultant hat on, I think these outcomes can apply in an educational development/teaching center context. 

  • Have a core self-concept (values, interests, preferences, commitments) they can always return to and that helps them act with integrity. This internal compass will guide their decisions and self-talk.
  • Know why they are here and what they hope the degree will do for them and their communities. 
  • Know how they want to be in service to others with their certification, connections, wisdom, skills, and strengths.
  • Have a positive mental model about how they want to be an expert, be an academic, be successful, be fulfilled and living with purpose, and be a person of marginalized identities in higher education. 
  • Develop mastery, build confidence, take risks, and facilitate their own change and growth.
  • Know how to protect and nurture their creative energy and process.
  • Engage in multiple sources of identity authority and affirmation.
  • Be able to support their own positive developmental transition, both internally and with mentors and allies, that is kind, responsive, patient, affirming, and appropriately challenging.
  • Be an agent and authority of their wellbeing in community with others.

I choose to describe myself as a graduate student developer. I am people focused and I bring an expanded concept of development. I support graduate students as they develop. I see graduate students as the subject; the challenge they are working through is the object we examine together, whether that’s coursework, research, mentoring relationships, teaching, family, etc. As an instructional consultant, I supported the whole-person, integrated development of client-graduate students using consultations about instruction, students, and the classroom as productive in-roads. I’m currently planning programming about how to help graduate students protect and nurture their scholarly work as creative activity, again another on-ramp to supporting their whole-person development. When I’m supporting a graduate student’s development, I bring a mixture of tools including consulting, coaching, counseling, social work, occupational therapy, visualization and mindfulness practices, sacred witnessing, and community organizing. 

Being Unnamable

I’ve come across a few blog posts recently that really resonated with me about soul-wandering (Martha Crawford’s “Unnameable” and “Let it Yearn” and Michelle Bohls’ “Our Ancestors: The Wanderers”). I feel somewhat like that right now. A theme I heard across all three posts was that the wandering phase is necessary for learning about one’s own capacity, for developing new skills, for finding the right protective, nurturing community for that moment, and for undergoing an adult developmental milestone. Accept the wandering, rather than fix it. 

I am in a professional and community transition as I think about how to characterize my work and who is in my group of engaged peers and mentors. I do feel a bit unnamable at the moment; institutional titles and job descriptions don’t quite accurately describe what I do. I don’t encounter many people approaching this work similarly. Sometimes it feels lonely. Sometimes it fills me with self-doubt that I’m doing it wrong. Most times, it feels like a deep thrum in the universe when a graduate student has both a major insight and a sense of serenity during our work together. These experiences are clues that I am moving out of an institutional self concept and into an interindividual self-concept (Kegan, The Evolving Self). This line from Pamela Slim’s book, Body of Work, feels right about the work I do: “It had great meaning and significance to him but also created considerable change and value in his community…it fit with his vision of what he wanted to create for himself and for the world.”

What did I hope would happen with this post? 

Well, good question. 

  1. I hope colleagues in educational development take some time to think about what “development” means to them and the work they do. 
  2. I hope they will think about how the term “educational developer” fits or doesn’t, especially as many of my colleagues’ roles have expanded into mentoring and diverse career exploration. 
  3. Maybe I’ve provided some insight into the work I do to make it legible to others. 

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