Professional learning: developing professional learning for instructional improvement
Current literature almost universally assumes that professional learning for teachers and administrators ‘lies at the centre of instructional improvement’ (Elmore & Burney, 1997).
Guskey & Huberman, (1995) go further and assert that ‘the renewal of staff members’ professional skills is fundamental to improvement’.
Practising teachers, however, report that professional learning is most often aligned with reforms and, because reform is constant and may cover an excessive number of areas, the professional learning involved is more than likely to be desultory rather than systematic, and to include a confusing variety of presenters who seldom have time to provide opportunities for complex skill development (Goertz et al, 1996).
There is a general consensus among researchers on the principles of good practice in professional learning.
Briefly, successful learning focuses on concrete classroom applications of general ideas; it exposes teachers to actual practice rather than to descriptions of practice; it involves opportunities for observation, critique and reflection; it involves opportunities for group support and collaboration; and it involves deliberate evaluation and feedback from skilled practitioners with expertise about good teaching (Elmore & Burney, 1997).
Knowing the principles of effective professional learning does not always or, in fact, often translate into organising successful professional learning that influences practice in large numbers of schools and classrooms.
So what might effective professional learning look like? Ball and Cohen (1999), suggest it should be grounded in the tasks, questions and problems of practice by using the actual context of teachers’ ongoing work.
A 2003 evaluation of professional development programs by the Australian Council for Educational Research (Ingvarson et al) identified a number of characteristics of effective learning programs for teachers.
Content focus – Recent research (Kennedy, 1998) indicates the importance of what teachers have the opportunity to learn during professional learning programs, and indicates that the substance of what teachers learn is more important than the form or structure of the program. That is, where teachers learn (in the school setting or outside) and how they learn (collaboratively, individually, over time) is less important than what the professional learning program contains.
Research suggests that professional learning is more likely to improve student learning outcomes if it increases teachers’ understanding of the content they teach, how students learn that content and how to represent and convey that content in a meaningful way (Cohen & Hill, 2000).
Feedback – Feedback on practice has long been recognised as a vital requirement for professional learning programs (Joyce & Showers, 1995). Effective integration of new skills or development of current skills requires a clear theoretical foundation supported by research, modelling in real settings, opportunities to practise the skills, and feedback from a coach or supporting teacher.
Active learning – The research also confirms the importance of teachers being actively engaged in their own professional learning. This involves drawing them into an analysis of their current practice in relation to professional standards for good practice, and into comparing what their students are learning in relation to what students of that age and circumstance are capable of learning (Ingvarson et al, 2003).
Collaborative examination of student work – Collaborative analysis of student work opens up avenues for teachers to learn from each other, and leads to deeper understanding of student learning outcomes and greater discrimination about what counts as meeting those objectives. Hawley & Valli (1999) rate the collaborative examination of student work as a critical component of effective professional learning programs.
Follow up – Finally, follow-up support to teachers who are attempting to implement change as a result of professional learning is an important feature of the most successful programs (Fullan, 1982). A synthesis of the research on quality teaching and learning (see AISQ Research Brief 1/05) is helpful in identifying the characteristics of effective teachers, and thus the possible content of an effective professional learning program. The research concludes that:
Sergiovanni, 1992, describes the commitment of effective teachers as ‘competence plus virtue’ and describes this in practice as having:
'a commitment to practise in an exemplary way: staying abreast of the latest research in practice, researching one’s own practice, experimenting with new approaches, and sharing one’s insights. Once established, this dimension results in teachers accepting responsibility for their own professional growth ...'
Commitment as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:
Quality relationships imply that teachers have the classroom management skills to be able to build relationships with students free of the conflict that comes with ineffective classroom management skills. It also, however, implies more than this. Quality relationships as a quality of effective teaching require that the professional learning program for teachers include the explicit teaching of:
Teachers also need to observe effective teachers in this domain, working with and responding to a class, and to practise the techniques presented in a non-threatening environment. Many of the techniques that build quality relationships, also assist in effective classroom management, and it is generally true that the better the relationship between the teacher and students, the easier it is to maintain effective control of the classroom.
Effective classroom management as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:
Most teachers begin their careers fresh from university where they have had the chance to obtain solid content knowledge in their subject areas. However, many of them find that they are thrust into teaching in areas that were not central to their pre-service training, or that over time new knowledge has made their content knowledge out-dated.
Effective teaching implies that teachers not only have some knowledge of the subjects they teach, but that they have deep knowledge and understanding.
Content knowledge as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:
The major difference between experienced or novice teachers and ‘expert’ teachers is that expert teachers have high-level pedagogical skills.
Pedagogical expertise as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:
The importance of ongoing professional learning for teachers cannot be understated. Moss and White (2004) sum it up like this:
‘Savvy educators are very aware that the context for learning and teaching will not wait for us to catch up with the pace of change. New learning surrounds us every day … if we are to claim teaching as a profession that will understand and support knowledge that is being transformed through cultural influences, changing technologies and media, we need to acknowledge that the ways we learn and learn to teach are changing as well. It’s through engagement in the process of … making our own professional meaning that we’ll distinguish the professional in the twenty-first century.’
This article first appeared in AISQ Briefings Vol 9 Issue 4, May 2005.
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Hawley, W & Valli, L (1999), 'The Essentials of Effective Professional Development', in Darling-Hammond, L & Sykes, G (eds), Teaching as the Learning Profession; Handbook of Policy and Practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ingvarson, L (1998), 'A Professional Development System Fit for a Profession', IARTV Seminar Series, 72, IARTV,
Ingvarson, L, Meiers, M & Beavis, A (2003), 'Evaluating the Quality and Impact of Professional Development Programs', Teaching and Learning Research Program, AER Research Conference 2003.
Joyce, B & Showers, B (1995), Student Achievement through Staff Development: Fundamentals of School Renewal, (2nd edition),
Kennedy, M (1998), 'Form and Substance in In-service Teacher Education', Research Monogram, No 13,
Moss, J & White, J, (2004), 'Successful Succession Planning: How mentoring can make a difference', Teacher, November 2004.
Sergiovanni, T (1992,), 'Why we should Seek Substitutes for Leadership', Educational Leadership, February 1992.
Sparks, D (2002), Designing Powerful Professional Development for Teachers and Principals, National Staff Development Council, www.nsdc.org/sparksbook.html
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning