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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Continuous Professional Learning: a shared responsibility

Jim Cumming
Executive Director, Australian College of Educators

Few would disagree that Continuous Professional Learning (CPL) is essential for teachers, instructors, lecturers - indeed anyone involved in teaching as professional practice.

For professional educators worth their salt, this means keeping up-to-date with the latest research and development in their field (e.g. key learning area, stage of student development, vocational training area); constantly honing their skills (e.g. in teaching, learning, change management); and working to build and sustain learning communities (e.g. teams, networks, associations).

Australia's Teachers: Australia's Future (2003) - the result of a 12-month inquiry into teaching and teacher education commissioned by Dr Brendan Nelson - is the latest in a string of reports to acknowledge the critical importance of professional learning for educators in changing societies and economies.

For example, the report argues that 'changes in the knowledge base of all disciplines, and in the understanding of teaching and learning, require the continual renewal by teachers of their own knowledge and understanding' (p.38).

Drawing on this and other research (e.g. PD 2000 Australia), it is possible to identify the essence of what constitutes high quality professional learning. For example, we know that, it should be:
  • career-long - established on a continuum beginning with initial teacher education and extending until an educator ceases to practice
  • developmental - building on educators' existing knowledge and skills in ways that support good practice, while challenging and inspiring them
  • data-driven - based on research and evidence from a range of settings that will inform and build the capacity of educators to improve student learning outcomes
  • standards-based - incorporating teaching standards developed by the profession as 'tools for action' to support educators in their career-long quest for excellence
  • contextualised - set in the reality of educators' practical experience but also with the capacity to expand horizons and foster innovation and creativity
  • coherent - planned and implemented in regular, consistent and systematic ways.
However, much more informed debate is required around the responsibilities associated with CPL. For example, who should design, deliver and fund it? Should it be coordinated? If so, how and by whom? What are the roles of key stakeholders?

Traditionally, governments and employing authorities have played an important role in providing and funding professional development - usually in association with systemic priorities that involve changes to curriculum and assessment procedures. Professional organisations, statutory authorities and other groups have been very active in conducting workshops, fostering research and facilitating networks. In addition, schools, TAFE and other learning institutions have generated in-service programs and activities for staff, while many educators have undertaken to upgrade their initial qualifications.

In a mass profession like teaching, there is a risk of some educators regarding themselves more as employees than professionals. This can lead to an expectation or attitude where CPL is seen primarily as a responsibility of employing and related authorities. We need to break this culture and replace it with one that has professional educators driving CPL - individually and collectively through their organisations - with the support of as many stakeholders as possible.

A number of problems identified as a result of contemporary research remain to be overcome. For example, the PD 2000 Australia study found that 'the professional development activity most teachers engage in is still largely a patchwork quilt of topics' and that 'a whole school focus has led to many disappointments'. More recently, research conducted by ACE on what sustains teachers found that 'aspects of professional development had relatively low positive impact.'

In order to be effective, CPL must be a shared responsibility. All stakeholders need to play their part - but in new and creative ways, and with more productive outcomes. More of the same simply won't do.

There are signs that change is occurring. For example, the ACT Department of Education, Youth and Family Services has introduced a 'Fellowship' scheme whereby individual teachers are provided with financial support to undertake further education and/or research. In February 2004, the NSW Department of Education and Training announced a new professional learning policy, whereby $144 million will be provided directly to schools over the next four years. Under this policy 'each school will determine a professional learning team which will determine the allocation of funds to best meet staff needs in support of student learning'.

At the national level, the Australian government is currently in the process of establishing two new national institutes - one for quality teaching and school leadership, the other for learning and teaching in higher education. While both are likely to have professional learning as core functions, unfortunately there appears to be no interest or inclination to develop an integrated approach. Whether the work of one or both institutes will lead to a more coherent, national approach to CPL remains to be seen.

Regardless of the structures, policies and procedures that are in place, all stakeholders will need to maintain a practical commitment to CPL with a view to ensuring that students are the main beneficiaries of a more expert, dynamic and future-oriented education profession.

Originally published in the
Education Review, March 2004, Vol 7, No 2

Australia's Teachers: Australia's Future. Advancing innovation, science, technology and mathematics. Agenda for Action 2003, Department of Education, Science and Training, Canberra

Lokan, J 2003, 'I just love being in the classroom with my students': Factors that sustain today's teachers, ACE Foundation, Australian College of Educators, Canberra

PD 2000 Australia. A national mapping of school teacher professional development, 2001, Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra

Subject Headings

Education aims and objectives
Education and state
Education policy
Educational planning
Lifelong Learning
Professional development
Teacher training
Teaching and learning
Teaching profession