Zipping as professional learning

Topics studied in a Self-study-group
January 29, 2018
The induction of teacher educators
February 14, 2018

Zipping as professional learning


Metaphors and images are playful, yet powerful tools to represent complex ideas. Professional development of teacher educators is such an idea. As a researcher, teacher educator and in-service trainer of teacher educators, I like to think of professional development in terms of “zippers” and “zipping”. Unpacking that one image, allows to demonstrate several essential elements of the concept, their interplay and interrelatedness. Furthermore it permits to draw conclusions for the design and pedagogy of situations and opportunities for this development.


It takes two sides to zip

Zipping refers to a way of connecting two separate elements in such a way that an article of clothing fits properly, protects against the weather conditions and –on top of that- makes one feel nicely dressed. Zippers actually determine whether or not a garment actually ‘works’. One element is the designed and implemented opportunity for professional development: a program, a particular curriculum content, a skills training, relevant theoretical frameworks and concepts…

The other -equally crucial- constitutive element is the participating learner: in this case the teacher educator. Like other professionals, when entering a situation seeking development, teacher educators inevitably bring “themselves” to the setting. Based on their sense-making of the myriads of experiences during their careers, they have developed what I have called their personal interpretative framework (Kelchtermans, 2009), a set of cognitions encompassing their understanding of themselves (professional self-understanding) as well as their personal system of knowledge and beliefs, constituting the professional knowhow on which they base the enactment of their professional tasks. Together with the framework and its biographical embedding in time, the teacher educators also bring their ‘spatial’ context with them: the particularities of their actual workplace and working conditions (teacher college, university, schools). In other words, literally embodied in the participating teacher educators, their interpretative framework as well as their awareness of their workplace enters with them and will determine their sense-making of the curriculum content offered, the pedagogical set up, the contributions of other participants, etc.

In other words, when creating opportunities for professional development, we don’t only need to understand and acknowledge both the participants and the professional development setting, but also have to position these two elements towards each other in such a way that the zipping becomes possible.

For teacher educators to actually learn, they need to actively engage in connecting their personal interpretative framework and their understanding of their workplace with the learning opportunity offered.

Professional learning –just like zipping- is an act, it requires that action is taken (enactment). And similar to most people preferring to zip up their own clothes, it is the professional learner who needs to close the zipper him- or herself. The closing determines what or whether at all the teacher educators will take something away from the situation. Zippers don’t close themselves.


Zipper lessons for design and pedagogy

Unpacking the zipper metaphor further reveals some essential lessons for the design and pedagogy of professional development. It demonstrates that the providers of professional development can offer, invite, stimulate the zipping, but in the end don’t control whether or not the zipper gets closed. That is for the learners to decide. Further, creating opportunities for smooth closure of the zipper will clearly increase the likeliness of actual zipping. Yet, if we think of professional learning as something that requires conscious, self-critical thinking, openness to new, maybe challenging ideas and experiences as well as careful and thoughtful attention, we might consider doing exactly the opposite. Powerful pedagogy of professional development tries to make the zipper jam, hampers the closing, ensures that both elements don’t fit immediately or even slips pieces of textile into the zipper to block it…

Everyone having experience with jamming zippers –and who doesn’t?- knows that when that happens, it instantly triggers heightened self-awareness, authentic attention, careful reflection, emotional involvement (often with that slight level of embarrassment, especially when it happens in public) as well as a postponing of whatever else one was doing… Why doesn’t this thing close?! That’s the kind of intensity, presence and attention we want to provoke in professional development settings (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006). The metaphor, thus, nicely illustrates not only the role of thinking, reflection, curiosity and attention, but also the power of unease, discomfort, conflict, problematisation and insecurity as starting points for professional learning. Actually, zipping might require first a movement of un-zipping, of disconnecting what has been worn until now self-evidently, of reconsidering one’s attire and possibly letting go of familiar layers in their clothing and start considering other, different or new ones. And zip them up.



Kelchtermans, G. (2009). Who I am in how I teach is the message. Self-understanding, vulnerability and reflection. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 15, 257-272.

Rodgers, C. & Raider-Roth, M. (2006), Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12, 265-287.

Geert Kelchtermans
Geert Kelchtermans
Geert Kelchtermans is a full professor of education at the KU Leuven in Belgium, where he chairs the Center for Innovation and the Development of Teacher and School. His research focuses on the learning of educational professionals throughout their careers, which is conceived of as an ongoing process of sense-making and negotiation between the individual professional and his/her working conditions (organizational, institutional).

Disentangling the complex relationships between agency and structure runs through his work as a red thread. As the responsible academic, Geert Kelchtermans is also actively involved in the organization of for the Flemish Program of Education for Teacher Educators, as well as a member of the InFo-TED council.

More information in Geert's ResearchGate profile

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